Environmental groups are used to operating at a tactical disadvantage when they go up against wealthy energy industries. That’s why New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to donate $50 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program in July 2011 made so much noise. In the year since, the Sierra Club has made progress on its goal to close one-third of the nation’s 500 or so coal-fired power plants by 2020, with high-profile closures in Chicago and the Washington area. I spoke to Bloomberg and Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune about Beyond Coal, the role of local governments in environmental action and using the National Rife Association (NRA) as a model for green advocacy.
TIME: It’s been a year since your donation to the Beyond Coal program. How would you evaluate the project’s success?
Bloomberg: Number one, I think the credit should go to the Sierra Club and to the public that has pushed their local legislators to end pollution. They understand it’s their air they breathe and their water they drink. That’s easier than focusing on global warming that will happen 50 years down the road. We should focus on global warming, but I’ve always believed that people naturally focus on short-term things and themselves. I think it’s 160 some plants that Sierra has gotten involved in stopping from being opened, and 114 that they have closed or where the agreement has been made to close. That’s reduced the entire carbon emissions of the U.S. by something like 7.7% since 2006. I would point out that none of this has been done at the federal level. It’s only been the state and the city level. That is because state and city officials are held to a much higher standard on a day-to-day basis.
I know it’s hard to get people excited about this. They don’t think the health effects will hit them, but the truth is they will. One of the things I’m proudest about here in New York is that we’ve managed to raise the life expectancy by three years over the past 10 years. Today you live three years longer in New York than you do in the average place in America. That’s an amazing stat. The cancer rate has come down in New York, and the obesity rate in children fell as well. The coal thing is one of the most important things you can do for health. You have the climate change but coal also puts a lot of mercury in the fish you eat and the water you drink and the air you breathe. That ain’t good for you.
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TIME: Is this something other cities should be paying more attention to you? And can they—as you point out, it’s hard for the average person to make the connection between what is coming out of the plant and what they’re breathing.
Bloomberg: The average person doesn’t connect these two at the micro level. But the public has a general understanding that as long as it’s not hurting their pocketbook that much, we should improve the environment and give them the knowledge that they can live a better life. If it’s not improving the life expectancy and quality of life of its citizens, I’m not sure what government’s purpose is, if it’s not protecting you, whether from crime or terrorism, or some other country’s army, or whether it’s figuring out a cure for cancer.
A lot people say “Nannygate,” but in New York City we have been in office for 10 and a half years, and I think the polls rate us pretty high. This administration is popular because people like the fact that they’re healthier and live longer here. Talk to businesses and it is clearly a good economic thing for our city. Young kids out of college want to work for environmentally friendly companies in a place where there is generally a pro environmental bent. The whole sugary drink thing is the first time we’ve really gone after obesity. It’s complex, but these are the things I think government should be dong.
TIME: When the news of your donation to Sierra broke last year, you were criticized by a number of legislators in coal country who argued that coal was still the biggest source of electricity in the U.S., and that cities like New York depended on it. Is that fair?
Bloomberg: There are more people today employed in natural gas than in coal, more people employed in wind and solar than in coal. Coal used to be a big jobs generator, but this is no longer true. New York City doesn’t use any coal, and the days of coal being a major employer in this country is long gone. It is automated, and the fact of the matter is that these other sources are growing by leaps and bounds.
Brune: The other thing about jobs is that we have negotiated with utilities to make sure that workers employed in coal plants are transitioned to other clean energy sources. Because these coal plants are being retired not all at once but over a number of years, it gives us time to transition to other work forces at the same time.
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TIME: How far can cities alone get in tackling these problems? We haven’t seen air pollution or climate change talked about much in the Presidential election, for instance.
Bloomberg: In the Presidential election, nothing seems to matter. Neither candidate—and I have been as critical towards tem as anyone has been—seems willing to attack on any issue. But you can’t get away with that if you’re running on a more local level. The senators and Congress for sure is somewhat affected by the public interest, and then you get down to state and local legislatures and they are strongly affected. Democracy works. It doesn’t work every time, but it works in fits and starts. The Presidential candidates don’t embrace immigration, or answer what they’ll do about the 34 gun murders every single day. But you don’t get away with that at the very local level.
Even in places where you think people are very conservative, where maybe people don’t believe that a bug causes polio or cancer, I don’t believe they don’t care about their health. [Former New York Mayor] John Lindsay supposedly once said that he wouldn’t breathe any air he couldn’t see. That was cute but number one, I’d like to point out that he’s dead. Most people don’t believe that. They’re just not that stupid. We at the local level, not just in New York, we have achieved just about everything that’s been achieved on this issue. The country is now leading the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions because of the local effort. The NRA doesn’t spend that much on lobbying, but they have paralyzed the federal government on guns. That says a small group can get together to target what they want. The NRA makes democracy work by influencing elections. Grover Norquist influences elections. You may not like what these guys are doing, but it shows that democracy works. If perhaps not the democracy our founding fathers thought of.
Brune: Another good example of this is the wind production tax credit. Romney has gotten himself in a very difficult position. He comes out against wind tax credits, but goes to Iowa and Colorado and hears from Republicans who are making inroads to replace dirty fuels with wind, but also creating jobs. So that myth may work at the national level, but I don’t think it works for either party at the local level.
TIME: Where is Beyond Coal going?
Brune: Our first goal is to keep doing our job. Our aim to close a third of U.S. coal plants and replace it with clean energy. We aim to protect public health and make significant progress toward the increasingly urgent threat of climate change. We’re seeing another wave of investment in clean energy has more coal goes offline, and this time next year we think we’ll be over 60% of our way towards our goal.
Bloomberg: Not just in the U.S. but around the world, it is the mayors who are driving the environmental agenda. At the federal level they can’t even decide if the science on climate change is good. They’re focusing on creationism while we try to create a better life for people.
You can’t get the two candidates to focus on guns. It’s such a disgrace. Meanwhile mayors take on illegal guns, and fight things like trans-fats, and deal with all the problems in the air we breathe and the water we drink. It’s the local leaders who are worried about the economies in the cities. The federal government is doing everything it can to damage the country’s economy. They aren’t talking about immigration reform. You can’t have a government policy for the economy that’s worse than the paralysis in Washington, where everyone wants to take us to the brink. This is insanity. Who on Earth is going to build a plant when they have this kind of uncertainty?
This coal thing is a good example [of successful action]. If you had written a story three years ago that a small group of people without much money could reduce carbon emissions throughout the whole country, you’d say they were crazy. And yet they did. It’s a good lesson.