Bloomberg on Climate Change: “Most People Unfortunately Don’t Care”

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New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was the belle of the ball this morning at a international climate change conference here in Hong Kong. He was here as the new chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a group of 40 cities worldwide committed to tackling climate change. (Here’s a map of participating cities.)

Bloomberg shared the stage at the Hong Kong Convention Center in a brief roundtable with (freshly ousted) Toronto mayor David Miller, Johannesburg major Amos Masondo, and Edward Yau, Hong Kong’s Secretary for the Environment, to talk about how their respective cities have stepped up to the challenge of greening themselves. In his remarks, Bloomberg talked about how cities that got built up several decades ago — like New York and Hong Kong — share a unique dilemma that newer cities don’t. In most places,  the bulk of carbon emissions comes from transportation, and a lesser percentage comes from buildings. In New York and Hong Kong, it’s just the opposite, so both cities are faced with challenge how retrofitting old buildings.

Figuring out how to get people involved, he said, was the task at hand. Bloomberg, who has made environmental issues a central theme of his office, has made slow but steady progress on his green initiative PlaNYC. When you talk about what emissions are going to do to the earth in 50 years, “most people unfortunately don’t care,” he said. He went on to say that it’s more effective to frame the argument for improving policy in terms of how people’s lives are affected today — and that goes as much for the air they’re breathing as for the money in their pockets.” Capitalism works,” Bloomberg said. “When you build parks, they enhance property values. When you plant trees, they enhance property values.”

Maybe in New York. It was a bit of an odd roundtable, frankly: three of the richest cities in the world, and Johannesberg, where some 20% of the city lives in informal settlements that lack roads or electricity, and another 40% live in housing defined as inadequate with inadequate city services. When the moderator asked Masondo what more Johannesburg could be doing to commit to a low-carbon future, he said, in a somewhat discouraged manner, that the humanitarian needs of the city were so great, that whatever the city does manage to do, “It is never enough.” Pass mike.

It would be hard to come up with a better illustration than that of the importance of a report that the UN is releasing on Friday from its High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing (AGF). In Copenhagen, countries promised to raise $100 per year by 2020 to help developing nations mitigate the effects of climate change, among other things. Since March, AGF has been tasked with figuring out how that can be done, and the final report will be made public today.

ClimateWire got of a draft of the report, and reported that the the key path to raising that money was by putting a price on carbon either by taxes or cap-and-trade, along with other taxes. But this week’s elections in the U.S., which may have been the nail in the coffin of cap-and-trade in the U.S., underscore just how difficult the whole proposition is; as governments come and go, the political feasibility of climate aid will come and go with them. As a result, the report draft emphasizes that governments should not rely exclusively on public funding streams for their contributions, but a healthy mix of both pubic and private money. Will capitalism work? We’ll see.