The New York mayor is using a $50m gift to the Sierra Club to make the case against coal on public health grounds.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 22 july 2011

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This article titled “Michael Bloomberg got New Yorkers to quit smoking. Can he shut down coal?” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, for on Friday 22nd July 2011 09.35 UTC

He got New Yorkers to stop smoking and give up trans fats. Now maybe he can convince Americans to see coal as a danger to public health – at least Michael Bloomberg says that is the idea behind his m (£31m) gift to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

What it’s not about is making an argument based on climate change.

“If you don’t survive today, you are not going to be around for tomorrow,” he told me on Thursday, soon after announcing the gift from his philanthropic foundation.

“I don’t think there is any question that we are doing damage to the global environment but that gets you into an argument that is not necessary, and that the public has trouble thinking about,” he said.

Bloomberg has proven his commitment to environmental causes. As mayor, he has championed bike lanes and green retrofits of office towers. As a philanthropist, he pledged m (£12.5m) earlier this year to help the C40 global mayors group which is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 40 cities around the world.

But like other leaders on the environment since the rise of the Tea Party he is strategically avoiding mention of climate change. In Bloomberg’s case, he argues distant threats are not great motivators.

The effects of air pollution from coal burning plants are evident now, and they are simpler to explain. Soot particles trigger asthma attacks and cause breathing problems; mercury can cause neurological defects, the mayor said.

“This is not science saying what is going to happen years from now as the oceans rise and the planet warms,” he said. “This is: this year we are going to kill another 13,000 Americans.”

So what are the chances of actually meeting the Bloomberg and Sierra Club goal of shutting down about 30% of America’s coal plants?

Pretty good, actually.

It’s worth remembering, nine years on, that Bloomberg’s push to ban smoking in bars was controversial at the time.

“When we passed the smoking ban in New York City I was told that nobody from England or Ireland was ever going to come to be a tourist in New York again, and that everybody would leave New York to eat and drink, and that it would be a disaster for the food and drink industry,” Bloomberg said. “But the truth of the matter is, every country in Western Europe followed our lead.”

His anti-smoking effort also proved effective, bringing down smoking rates in New York even as they stayed stubbornly steady in the rest of the country.

About one in five (21.6%) of New Yorkers were smokers when the ban went into effect in 2002. The figure fell to 15.8% in 2009 and the city is hoping its combination of smoking laws, high cigarette taxes, nicotine patch giveaways will bring that number down to 12% or about one in eight New Yorkers by 2012.

Now here is the base line for coal.

Coal still supplies nearly half of America’s electricity. The latest forecast from the Energy Information Administration suggest it will continue to supply 43% of electricity even in 2035.

But – new construction of coal plants is at a standstill. More than 150 planned coal power plants have been abandoned or blocked in the last decade, according to the Sierra Club.

About 10% of the 600 or so existing coal plants are scheduled to be retired, and the Environmental Protection Agency is finally rolling out new regulations that will force coal plants to install new, cleaner burning technologies, or shut down.

Which is where Bloomberg and the Sierra Club come in. Bloomberg hopes the scale of his gift, and the high-visibility launch of the campaign on a boat in the Potomac, will set the same example as New York did in changing minds on coal.

He is not trying to get the White House or Congress to act. In choosing the Sierra Club, the largest membership-based environmental group in the US, Bloomberg put his money on grassroots organising.

The campaign will use the courts to enforce existing environmental regulations, and hopefully shut down the oldest and dirtiest plants.

They will also push state governments to adopt renewable energy standards that require power companies to generate a portion of their electricity from wind or solar.

And they will try to further mobilise public opinion against the destructive practice of mountaintop mining removal. Opposition to coal is growing.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has been arguing for a number of years now that opposition to coal has reached critical mass.

“What began as a few local ripples of resistance quickly evolved into a national tidal wave of grassroots opposition from environmental, health, farm, and community organizations,” Brown writes. “Closing coal plants in the United States may be much easier than it appears.”

Maybe, it just needs a mayor on a mission to push coal over the edge. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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