In one of the largest single donations made yet to the fight against climate change, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced he will donate $50 million of his own money to help the Sierra Club shut down America’s coal-fired power plants and replace them with green energy.
As a brutal heat wave broke hundreds of temperature records across the United States, Bloomberg stood in 100-degree heat on Thursday morning outside the GenOn power plant in Alexandria, Virginia. Joined by Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Bloomberg said he hoped his philanthropic contribution would improve public health both at the local level—by reducing emissions of the mercury, dioxin and other pollutants that are released when coal is burned—and at the global level, by limiting the severity of climate change.
“If we are going to get serious about reducing our carbon footprint in the United States, we have to get serious about coal,” said Bloomberg, according to his prepared remarks. “Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to our water, and [is] the leading cause of climate disruption.”
Bloomberg’s gift will help the Sierra Club build on the biggest victory against climate change scored to date in the United States: the de facto moratorium on new coal plants achieved in recent years by local activists working under the banner of the club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. “Since we began targeting coal in 2003, we have blocked 153 planned coal plants from being built,” Brune told The Nation. “Since January 2010, we’ve shut down ninety-one existing plants. Closing those ninety-one existing plants alone will prevent 114 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from entering the atmosphere, which is about the same as taking 20 million cars off the road.”
With Bloomberg’s help, the Beyond Coal campaign now hopes to “revoke the social license for burning coal in this country, just like the social license for smoking cigarettes was revoked,” said Brune. Although many progressives have criticisms of Bloomberg—in fact, Brune notes, the local Sierra Club chapter did not endorse him when he ran for a third term as mayor two years ago—Bloomberg makes a logical partner for such an effort. As mayor, he has championed high-profile initiatives to ban cigarette smoking and slash greenhouse gas emissions. “Some things a modern society can move beyond,” Brune argued. “We don’t cut down old-growth redwood trees anymore to make decking material, and we don’t need to burn coal to keep our iPhones charged.”
The only fossil fuel more dangerous than coal to public health and climate stability is tar sands, and they too are being newly targeted by renewed grassroots opposition. Author and activist Bill McKibben said he has signed up some 1,100 volunteers, including actor Danny Glover, writer Naomi Klein and labor leader Joe Uehlein, to join him in committing civil disobedience in front of the White House beginning on August 20. Their goal is to pressure President Obama to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, designed to transport tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The Canadian province of Alberta has the world’s largest deposits of tar sands, a thick, sticky form of crude oil that requires vast amounts of energy to dislodge from the earth and leaves behind extensive land and water pollution. Even more environmentally destructive is the burning of tar sands, which have a carbon footprint 82 percent larger than conventional oil, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.