- Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was key in marshaling city and state governments across the U.S. to ramp up their climate action after the Trump administration pulled the country out of the Paris Agreement.
- With the climate-focused Biden administration now in office, Bloomberg Philanthropies is going “all-in toward climate solutions,” says Antha N. Williams, head of the foundation’s environment program.
- Among its main initiatives is the Beyond Coal campaign, which seeks to get OECD countries to transition away from coal by 2030 and the rest of the world by 2040.
- In this post-Trump follow-up interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler, Williams discusses a just energy transition, the role of finance in driving change, and the importance of ocean protection.
Shortly ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Mongabay spoke with Antha N. Williams, the head of the environment program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation launched by businessman and former New York city mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. During the interview, Williams discussed how Bloomberg puts data at the center of its programs, which on the environmental front include combating climate change by accelerating the transition to clean energy, improving the sustainability of the world’s cities, and protecting the health and productivity of oceans.
A lot has changed in the six months since that conversation, so Williams granted Mongabay another opportunity to talk about some of the recent developments on the policy front, as well as go deeper into a few of Bloomberg’s program areas, including the Beyond Coal campaign, which has expanded well beyond the borders of the United States; efforts to persuade the finance sector to better incorporate climate risk into decision-making; and work to build a broader base of support for the transition to greener sources of energy.
For readers who missed the first interview, Williams got her start as an environmental campaigner and organizer before taking up leadership roles in the world of philanthropy. She’s been at Bloomberg Philanthropies since 2013.
An interview with Antha N. Williams
Mongabay: Since we last spoke, we’ve had an election and now have a new administration. What’s your take on the impact of the political change on the foundation’s work? Also, what are some of the top priorities on the climate front moving forward?
Antha N. Williams: Since we last talked, the United States has elected a new president. It is a different world, and now it’s important to go all-in toward climate solutions.
As you think about the urgent timeline that we’re all on — what the science requires in terms of climate action, the fact that we’re feeling the impacts of climate change now across the country in myriad ways — it’s a critical time for the U.S. government to reengage in a meaningful way.
The Biden-Harris administration is planning an Earth Day Climate Summit and they’re in the process of developing their updated Paris pledge. From our point of view, having the deep experience in the work that we support around non-federal actors — meaning cities, states, and businesses — it’s a critical opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to encompass that work in the new pledge that they bring forward to the international community.
Over the last four years, Bloomberg Philanthropies was deeply involved in supporting those sub-national actors in their continued climate action. We know from our work with partners across the globe that bottom-up action really had an impact in communicating how much was still happening in the real economy outside the Trump administration, in terms of reducing emissions while growing the economy at the same time.
Before those efforts, it was not well understood just how many of the decisions about how we generate our power and how we move around are decided by localities or by the private sector. We shouldn’t take that work for granted. It was important in continuing to move us forward on climate change and to make sure that the U.S. could not be used by other countries as an excuse for their inaction on climate change.
Today, we are continuing our work with those players from cities, states, and the private sector through a coalition called America Is All In, which grew out of the work over the last four years to continue climate action. That coalition is calling for a national climate commitment that’s at least 50% emissions reductions in the next 10 years as a floor for what’s possible. The good news is we know that’s possible. Our America’s Pledge research shows how local and private sector programs and policies to reduce emissions have helped keep us on track and now are key to achieving that goal.
Mongabay: One of the key components of reducing emissions is fixing the power sector, and Bloomberg has been supporting the Beyond Coal campaign for about a decade now. Energy economics has provided a tailwind of late, but from a communication standpoint, what message do you find works well to engage audiences that may not be particularly concerned about climate change itself?
Antha N. Williams: What we have found through the Beyond Coal campaign, first in the U.S. and now in Europe and elsewhere, is that there is incredible public demand for clean sources of energy. The people who live around coal plants don’t want their air and their water polluted. They don’t want to see themselves and their kids getting sick from coal pollution.
Over the past year of this global pandemic, it’s just become more and more clear how important clean air is to people. There were studies out that show that exposure to air pollution was leading to increased COVID-19 infections and increased severity of COVID illness.
So, it’s a matter of public demand and environmental justice to do away with power that’s more expensive, dirtier, and more polluting than clean alternatives. It’s just so clear now that there are clean sources of power like wind and solar, with battery storage, which are cheaper and don’t kill people.
Mike Bloomberg’s experience as a climate leader during his three terms as mayor of New York city made it clear to him that decision-makers need to provide for the health of communities. Those efforts that can solve climate change, improve public health, and support the livelihoods of communities are important. He saw the necessity of getting off coal 10 years ago at a time where not a lot of people were putting a target mark on the coal industry, even though it’s the most polluting form of fuel on Earth. Mike had the vision to say, along with partners, of course, that we cannot continue to burn coal and avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The two things are just totally incompatible.
So, when a lot of people thought it was impossible to get off coal, I think Mike just really saw the necessity: “We don’t have an option and it’s the right thing to do.” Because of the climate impacts, as well as the clean air and public health impacts, Mike saw it as critical.
Now, thanks to the efforts of the Beyond Coal campaign, we’re at a tipping point. Sixty-five percent of U.S. coal plants are retired or announced to retire. We just hit a major milestone in Europe where we have reached 50% of coal plants now retired or announced to retire since the campaign launched in 2016. These include some of the most polluting plants, both in terms of air and water pollution and emissions. At the same time, cities are demanding climate action, programs, and policies that provide power for citizens that is clean, affordable, and meets our climate imperative while at the same time protecting public health.
The other thing about the Beyond Coal campaign that’s been exciting has been the effective mix of interventions: The campaign relied on building public demand, local organizing, and litigation strategies. It then spread, not only to Europe, but now Beyond Coal sister campaigns have launched in places as varied as Australia, Japan and South Korea.
We see that the growing movement of activists, lawyers, organizers, and policy experts were all united behind this vision of moving the world beyond coal which still comprises about 30% of global emissions, which makes it still the single leading source of global climate pollution, despite having passed a tipping point in the U.S. So it’s still important to continue to offer concrete ways that people can get involved in the movement to protect public health and solve climate change.
Mongabay: I just want to build off that last point. You mentioned the expansion of the campaign into other markets in East Asia, but is Bloomberg looking at major potential growth markets like Indonesia and India as well?
Antha N. Williams: For sure. Countries like India and Indonesia are at different stages of development but there’s already a ton of clean energy potential. Solar is poised to take off and is taking off. The Indian government dramatically increased its goal to increase renewable energy to 450 gigawatts, much of which will come from solar. Indonesia is partnering with the Asian Development Bank to establish solar energy pilot projects at airports across Indonesia. So while we’re not expanding the Beyond Coal campaigns to those countries, we are working with them on cleaner energy and cleaner air for sustainable development.
India, Indonesia, and other emerging economies are at a critically important point, which is, how to provide energy for their populations to alleviate poverty and grow the economy in a way that’s not polluting, harming people, and cooking the climate. We see a ton of opportunity and potential for progress in those places.
In India, we’ve partnered with the national government on their National Clean Air Program. That’s an important partnership because, of course, coal is a leading source of air pollution around the world. You’ve probably seen the recent health studies showing up to 8 million premature deaths around the world from burning fossil fuels, and coal is chief among them. We’ve partnered similarly with the government of Jakarta around pinpointing sources of air pollution and working on policies to reduce it.
The opportunity with clean energy is to leapfrog past the mistakes of a lot of countries — countries whose first step was transitioning from coal to gas, which is still polluting and cooking the climate, and then to renewables. We can skip that step and go straight to renewables, which are now cost-competitive, and also bring benefits for jobs and growth.
Mike’s role as the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for climate ambition and solutions provides an important opportunity to work with a lot of these governments. We at Bloomberg Philanthropies strongly support the secretary-general’s call for OECD countries to move off coal no later than 2030 and the rest of the world by 2040, which is a big shift, but one that increasingly is being shown to be doable and provide a lot of benefits for people around the planet.
Mongabay: Over the past year, social justice has been front and center along with the pandemic in the U.S. Given that the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is going to disproportionately affect historically disadvantaged communities, is Bloomberg supporting work around the concept of a Just Transition, so people aren’t left behind?
Antha N. Williams: I think the pandemic has reinforced for all of us how much low-income and communities of color are impacted by this confluence of crises. The real-life impacts of climate change are happening right now, and low-income and communities of color are on the front lines. Certainly, we see this in coastal cities where we work often — flooding, air pollution, wildfires, but also the converging crises around economic recovery and the fight for racial justice.
As the world recovers from the pandemic, we see cities on the front lines of building back better and developing innovative solutions for climate change that also address inequity and racial justice. Our American Cities Climate Challenge has offered cities a set of resources for developing climate policies that both cut emissions and improve peoples’ lives, particularly marginalized populations, by improving air quality, increasing access to public transit, and reducing the energy burden. A lot of communities of color and low-income communities are paying a hugely disproportionate portion of their income just to meet their basic energy needs. How you design policies in a way that both cut emissions and improve outcomes for those communities is critical.
I think the other part of your question is really about the communities that have been on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction in places like Appalachia and the Powder River Basin. There is some convergence with our cities work. Just to take one example, we work with mayors of places in the Ohio River Valley, like Dayton and Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Those cities sit in places where the fossil fuel industry is very much making a play to say, “We’re going to be your economic future. We’re going to build new fossil fuel facilities, in a lot of cases plants to utilize oil and gas to make chemicals, plastics, and fertilizers.”
Those mayors are standing up to say, “We have seen this movie before.” There may be fossil fuel jobs in the short term, but 20 years from now, what we’re going to be left with is no jobs and dramatic increases in pollution in our air and water. That is not economic development for the 21st century. So, they came together to create a Marshall Plan for Middle America, which is a vision around how smart investment in infrastructure can provide a future beyond fossil fuels.
Similarly, there are efforts like Coalfield Development, which is an innovative social enterprise in Appalachia that we’ve supported and partnered with that provides skills, training, and employment for out-of-work fossil fuel workers and the young people that are coming up in these communities that might not see an economic future beyond fossil fuels. How do we train those people in deep building energy efficiency retrofits, in sustainable construction, in sustainable manufacturing and agriculture?
I think those are interesting efforts in terms of models. Frankly, now that we have the Biden-Harris administration with strong commitments on not just climate change, but also environmental justice and front-line communities, there are some effective models of public-private partnerships. Coalfield Development is one of them that’s shown to be effective and can now be scaled up with increased federal investment.
Mongabay: More companies are joining the climate fight, but there is still isn’t great transparency or a common set of standards for measuring progress. I know in our last interview, you talked about how Bloomberg is putting data at the heart of its decision-making. How is Bloomberg transferring what it’s learned to strengthen climate disclosure more broadly across the sector?
Antha N. Williams: Mike Bloomberg is an important private sector voice, and data is at the heart of his company and of everything we do. As we got deeper into efforts to combat climate change globally, it just became clear that companies and investors needed a lot better decision-useful data on the impact of climate change on companies and financial markets.
A cornerstone of those efforts for us has been Mike’s leadership of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). That task force has developed a voluntary framework to help companies disclose how climate change impacts their business, which is critical to investor decision-making.
Today, 11 national governments, more than 100 regulators, and over 1,900 organizations support the TCFD. Notably, in the last year, some jurisdictions including Switzerland and the U.K. have announced that they will make climate risk reporting mandatory using the TCFD framework. So that’s very significant and now’s the chance for the Biden-Harris administration to make that kind of climate risk reporting mandatory as well.
There are good signs and momentum in that direction. Broadly across the government there is renewed interest in climate risk, primarily at the CFTC, the Federal Reserve Board, the SEC, and other federal agencies. Public sector leadership is an important complement to all our work, because you’re not going to invest in this fossil fuel infrastructure if you can see the reality of where the world is moving, both in terms of climate impacts now and risk into the future.
Mongabay: My last question is on the 30 by 30 target. Biden has indicated support for it. How does this align with the Vibrant Oceans Initiative?
Antha N. Williams: The 30 by 30 commitment is, in short, an effort to get governments to ensure that they will protect 30% of their national waters by 2030. That’s just the kind of sharp and clear commitment that is super actionable and has a real material impact on protecting oceans.
It fits squarely in with the kind of work that we’re trying to do as part of our investment in the Vibrant Oceans Initiative. Our Vibrant Oceans Initiative has focused on protecting oceans from the most pressing threats, including overfishing, and extractive activities. As part of that work, we’ve focused on 10 critical countries that together comprise a lot of the overfishing activities that are happening across the world’s oceans. It also encompasses a lot of the most important coral reefs — reefs that have been shown by both climate and ocean scientists to best be able to withstand the impacts of climate change into the future. In particular, our work with the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of our Vibrant Oceans partners, is focused specifically on advocating for strong protections for coral reefs within the 30 by 30 framework.
The 30 by 30 commitment is super important in protecting these reefs and regions from activities like overfishing, and destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling and dynamite fishing. I think 30 by 30 has been a real mobilizer in terms of building public demand and actions at the national government level, which will only accelerate our work at the local level.
Header image: Layang Layang Atoll, Spratly Islands, South China Sea. Image by Greg Asner/DivePhoto.org