Michael Bloomberg, Global Climate Action Summit Co-Chair (Photo: Ralph Alswang/Flickr)
Michael Bloomberg is often sold to people as a climate hero. Headlines that tout him as a green visionary adorn the pages of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He skips across the globe as the UN’s special envoy for climate action. He co-authored a book – Climate of Hope, it’s called – with the former longtime head of the Sierra Club. Along with California Governor Jerry Brown, Bloomberg co-chairs America’s Pledge, dedicated to “helping America reach its Paris climate goals.” He even offered to cut a check to cover the U.S.’s $4.5 million commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement after Trump pulled out.
Now Bloomberg is adding a new line to his resume: co-chair of Jerry Brown’s upcoming climate summit. Bloomberg is a key figure driving the event, which is happening next week in San Francisco. The summit was first announced at the 2017 Bloomberg Global Business Forum, and Bloomberg Philanthropies is a sponsor. Bloomberg chairs the board of C40, a summit advisory committee member, and a host of other players tied to the summit partner with or accept funds from Bloomberg’s philanthropic and business empires.
Bloomberg is worth $53.2 billion, which makes him the world’s 11th richest person. He built his fortune through Bloomberg LP, a financial information and media corporation he founded in 1981, and in which he maintains an 88% stake. In a nation that celebrates Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark as wealthy superheroes who can swoop in to save the day, many hold similar hopes for Bloomberg and the climate – that, through his sheer genius and massive fortune, he can knit together the right policy fixes and enough global influencers to save the planet without disrupting – maybe even helping – global capitalism.
But celebration and praise of Bloomberg as a climate leader should be met with due caution, if not outright scorn. Bloomberg is an unapologetic advocate of drilling and fracking who almost certainly has large chunks of his billions invested in oil and gas. If we’re looking for big climate leaders, he falls woefully short. While Bloomberg may not be a Trump-supporting coal baron, he pushes a vision that keeps us locked into fossil fuels and celebrates the very market forces that drive the climate crisis.
“It makes sense to frack”
Bloomberg is a big advocate of fracking and the expansion of natural gas infrastructure. At the beginning of Climate of Hope, he writes: “I don’t want to ban fracking (just do it safely) or stop the Keystone pipeline (the oil is coming here one way or another), and I support nuclear power.” He later goes into write: “Natural gas, when safely and responsibly extracted, has been a godsend for the environment and public health,” and that “fracking allows for the most efficient extraction of natural gas” and that “it makes sense to frack.”
One trick that Bloomberg uses to promote fracking is to frame natural gas as the “good” fossil fuel versus coal, the “bad” fossil fuel. Bloomberg has given tens of millions of dollars to groups to fight the coal industry – for example, he’s donated $80 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. But in 2015, he criticized New York State’s fracking ban, calling it “misguided,” and, as is usual with him, counterposed fracked gas as the alternative to coal.
While coal is a dirty fossil fuel that needs to be stopped, Bloomberg presents a false binary where we must choose natural gas or coal. By using his power and influence to frame this as “the choice” within mainstream discussion, he sidelines another option: rejecting new fossil fuel use and choosing renewable energy sources. Bloomberg’s framing of fracking as the practical, common sense option is an big obstacle to more far-reaching measures needed to curb carbon emissions now.
Moreover, by promoting natural gas as the “good” fossil fuel alternative to coal, Bloomberg contributes to a politics that is enabling the build out of added infrastructure, such as pipelines and compressor stations, that will generate huge carbon emissions for decades to come. Rather than curb new fossil fuel production, Bloomberg is promoting it – and he’s doing all this under the supposed banner of the environmental movement.
Even more, fracking has dire effects for public health and global warming. Its destructive impacts – from heat-trapping methane leaks to groundwater contamination to a rise in earthquakes – are well-documented, not to mention that it’s gobbling up dwindling water supplies.
“We are natural gas bulls”
Bloomberg invests his billions through a firm called Willett Advisors. Indeed, Willett exists solely to manage and invest Bloomberg’s assets. Its chairman and CEO is Steven Rattner, a private equity executive and former head of Obama’s Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry in 2009, which created the agreement to bail out GM and Chrysler.
Willett is an extremely secretive firm – think of it as a black box – so the public doesn’t know what it specifically invests in. We do know, however, that it has major investments in the energy industry, and almost certainly in oil and gas.
For example, a May 2013 article quotes Brad Briner, Willett’s former director of real assets, saying the firm could potentially boost its investments in real assets like oil and gas from 3% to 15%, and that it was “seeking out investments opportunistically.” Here’s an excerpt that quotes Briner:
Natural gas will be an area of focus. “We are natural gas bulls. We think oil is well priced. If we can generate new supplies at a discount to the spot price, we will do it,” he said in an interview with FEI, citing potential opportunities in projects such as drilling. He added that the office is open to speaking to emerging managers and willing to consider being an anchor limited partner for young firms.
(The article, “Willett Advisors Eyes Real Assets For Bloomberg’s Philanthropic Portfolio,” was published by Foundation & Endowment Intelligence and is available through LexisNexis).
Willett CEO Steven Rattner has also been upfront about his enthusiasm for fossil fuel investments. During a 2015 Bloomberg TV interview, for example, Rattner echoed Briner’s “bullish” attitude toward oil and gas:
Well, we invest a lot in the energy sector, so we have a dog in this fight, and we have been – we’ve certainly been on the more bullish side of the argument on oil and continue to be for all the reasons you said, that essentially sooner – the lower prices stay for longer, the bigger the increase will be later because of the number of capital projects that will be canceled as prices stay at these low levels.
Speaking on a panel in December 2014, Rattner also said. “[F]or the foreseeable future,” Rattner said, “we are going to be dependent on oil and natural gas as primary sources of fuel” and “that unless we want to substantially alter in a downward way, our economic growth trajectory, we need to embrace that, accept it and nurture it.”
Rattner went on to assert his strong support for more fracking and increased oil and gas exports, and for the removal of regulatory barriers to these. It’s worth quoting him at length:
So that means expediting LNG Exports. Not necessarily just a ribbon cutting, but actually changing the permitting process in a way where we do more of it, that is probably our single biggest way of having influence over the rest of the world, would be to become a supplier of large amounts of natural gas to the rest of the world. It means eliminating the ban on exporting crude, which I think would have zero effect on gasoline prices and would essentially just make the markets more efficient, it’s not going to change the worldwide price of crude, it’s not going to change the price of gasoline, it’s going to take some money away from the refiners who don’t deserve it and have it go into developing production in the U.S., which is what we want to see have happen and I would certainly continue to think about renewables and nuclear, not so much about coal, but I would have an energy policy that is oriented toward the fact that our demand for the use of energy is going to continue to grow…
Bloomberg’s hypocrisy when it comes to his own investments has been pointed out by others. Author Naomi Klein wrote that “while talking a good game about carbon bubbles and stranded assets, Bloomberg has made no discernible attempt to manage his own vast wealth in a manner that reflects these concerns.”
Klein even hints at a possible connection between Bloomberg’s promotion of natural gas and his personal financial interests. “In fact, he helped set up Willett Advisors, a firm specialising in oil and gas assets, for both his personal and philanthropic holdings,” Klein writes. ”Those gas assets may well have risen in value as a result of his environmental giving – what with, for example, EDF championing natural gas as a replacement for coal. Perhaps there is no connection between his philanthropic priorities and his decision to entrust his fortune to the oil and gas sector. But these investment choices raise uncomfortable questions about his status as a climate hero, as well as his 2014 appointment as a UN special envoy for cities and climate change.”
Big green cover
There are a range of self-professed environmental organizations that provide Bloomberg with cover to pose as a climate hero even as he remains dedicated to investing in and promoting fossil fuels. These groups – sometimes referred to as “Big Green,” who “greenwash” for the oil and gas industry – are funded and closely tied to the very same corporate interests that drive the fossil fuel sector. (See our coverage of the New York League of Conservation Voters for an example of this).
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is one such organization that vouches for Bloomberg. Last year, for example, EDF executive director Diane Regas wrote a fawning review of Climate of Hope for Forbes magazine. It reads like a Bloomberg press release. The review is entirely uncritical, celebrating “Bloomberg’s eloquent call to action” while not even mentioning his enthusiasm for fracking and new oil and gas infrastructure, let alone his fossil fuel investments. This is probably not coincidental, since Regas discloses that Bloomberg Philanthropies supports the EDF (this is putting it lightly – he has given millions to the group).
The EDF has raked in tens of millions in donations from conservative billionaire families like the Waltons and Wall Street interests like Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg. Its board of trustees includes multi-billionaire Julian Robertson, a housing crisis profiteer and senior advisor to energy investment firm Tiger Infrastructure Partners (which is currently proposing a new fracked-gas plant in New York State), Stanley Druckenmiller, also a multi-billionaire who invests in fossil fuels; and Katherine Lorenz, president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, which rests upon George Mitchell’s fracking fortune.
The EDF has a history of using its environmental mask to provide cover for oil and gas interests. For example, as we showed a few years ago, it helped legitimize the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a pro-fracking body dominated by the fossil fuel industry that issues certifications to fracking companies identifying them as “responsible” gas drillers.
Bloomberg has also given $80 million to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign, which aims to retire the nation’s coal-fired power plants. Coal plants produce the highest levels of carbon emissions, and everyone should contribute to shutting them down. But it’s unfortunate that Bloomberg can use gestures like this to appear as a climate hero even as he continues to invest in and support fracking and pipeline expansion – also major drivers of climate change.
Bloomberg is, in his own words, an “unrepentant capitalist” who envisions market forces and private corporations as driving the response to climate change. His well-funded supporters put a positive spin on Bloomberg’s market approach – he is merely being “practical.” The EDF director writes that Bloomberg is “talking about common sense solutions to climate change that spring from the American mainstream.” For Bloomberg, capitalism and building corporate wealth go hand in hand with fighting climate change.
But there is a fundamental problems with Bloomberg’s vision of a market-driven path towards a carbon-free world. Ultimately, the fight against climate change, and making big progress quickly enough to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, is incompatible with capitalism as it now stands – a point strongly made by Naomi Klein in her 2015 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. As long as private fossil fuel corporations hold immense economic and political power, and as long supposed climate advocates like Bloomberg promote new oil and gas infrastructure and production at the expense of renewable energy sources, we will fall short in confronting the climate crisis.
Perhaps, though, Bloomberg has good reason to avoid linking capitalism and the climate crisis, since he’s benefited as much as anyone in the world from the kinds of wealth accumulation that the system offers to its winners.
Bloomberg lives an incredibly lush life. He owns a slew of luxury properties across the globe: homes in Florida, New York City, Armonk, London, and Colorado, as well estates in Bermuda, North Salem, and the Hamptons. His Bermuda waterfront estate cost $10 million to build – and that was back in 1998. The Hamptons estate stretches over 40 acres and is worth over $20 million. His London mansion, which cost over $20 million, sits on one of London’s wealthiest streets. Simply put, as a single individual, Bloomberg gobbles up levels of wealth that are incompatible with the attainment of a more just, equal, and sustainable world.
Billionaires like Bloomberg won’t save us. If we want to get off of fossil fuels and address the global crisis that climate change represents, we’re going to have to look to mass movements that challenge unbridled capitalism and mobilize government power to implement new policies – such as vastly curbing fossil fuel emissions at the point of production – that put people and the planet ahead of profits.