Mike Bloomberg’s decision to commit $500 million to launch his Beyond Carbon campaign is, in one sense, exactly the kind of escalation in funding that climate change demands. At the same time, it has the potential to reverberate throughout climate action, influencing the kind of work being done in a way we’ve rarely seen from a donor.
Should such an infusion of wealth be celebrated? Feared? Probably some of both. And the answer depends largely on the execution—whether Beyond Carbon will be a new kind of climate funding effort, out to shift power and follow the lead of groups on the ground, or whether it will be another top-down, technocratic initiative.
While specifics are mostly unclear (Bloomberg’s team passed on an interview until more details are ironed out), there’s reason to suspect either outcome. Beyond Carbon’s rough plan sends some encouraging signals about funding movement building. At the same time, Bloomberg’s track record suggests the possibility of a more data- and elite-driven approach common in past climate philanthropy. That would be a shame—for Beyond Carbon to have its intended effect in a somewhat democratic way, it will need to surpass what we’ve seen from the donor and other big funders in this space.
Bloomberg’s move is a landmark for climate philanthropy. The former New York mayor is committing a half-billion dollars from his $54 billion fortune over the next three years or so. To put that in perspective, the Hewlett Foundation, historically one of the largest climate and energy funders, awarded $104 million to the cause in 2018. So at a very basic level, Bloomberg’s announcement is an impressive response to the complaint that the wealthy are not devoting larger sums to address our most urgent and pervasive threat.
It also signals some big shifts for Bloomberg. For one, Beyond Carbon seeks to prevent construction of new gas plants—Bloomberg has previously targeted coal while actively promoting natural gas as a substitute. In addition to the movement-building component, Beyond Carbon includes state and local policy, and electoral work. These are important elements, especially the nod to funding grassroots organizations and frontline communities, where large philanthropies have fallen short.
“I can't overstate how big this is—big dollars, yes, but how those dollars are invested could change the game,” says Sarah Shanley Hope, executive director of The Solutions Project, a funding intermediary that supports the transition to 100 percent clean energy. “The announcement demonstrates a willingness to shift political power explicitly and their team is prioritizing investments in frontline leaders, especially those of color, which is everything.”
At the same time, Bloomberg himself has bashed climate justice activists and scoffed at the Green New Deal. So what exactly will Beyond Carbon be? Here are some hopes and fears.
Power to the People?
If Beyond Carbon is starting a new chapter in climate philanthropy, much of the story to date has been about the mainstream sector’s fixation on technical, legal and policy advising, while overlooking people and power-building. Whether through collaboratives like the Energy Foundation and Climate Works, or their role in climate diplomacy and legislation, funders have leaned heavily on the first approach with spotty results.
One example that still looms large is the 2010 collapse of the foundation-backed push for cap and trade in the United States. There were many factors leading to its failure, but two reports analyzing what went wrong underscored an overreliance on insider bargaining rather than broad-based support through democratic mobilization. “Americans who want a new, sustainable economy cannot leave any part of the effort, including the drive for new emissions legislation, entirely in the hands of honchos striking bargains in back rooms,” Harvard’s Theda Skocpol writes.
There’s a place for both approaches (and many more, for that matter), but movement-building is uniquely requisite and underfunded. The sector has responded to some extent, but a 2018 report found that between 2011 and 2015, top U.S. climate funders still only devoted some 3 percent to climate justice and 8 percent toward public mobilization. That study and others have found a persistent reliance on funding a small number of large NGOs.
At the same time, a growing chorus of activist groups and mostly smaller, progressive funders have been calling for more backing of grassroots work and movement building. That includes calls for funders to resist setting the agenda, and instead follow the lead of communities dealing with climate change on the ground.
“The most important lesson to share from our experience is that we learn from our frontline partners, we don't tell or give to them,” Shanley Hope says, regarding what Beyond Carbon might learn from past initiatives. “They identify the most powerful use of our dollars and they have proven to be right time and again, so listen and follow their lead. That's how you'll get real results.”
A major factor in how well Beyond Carbon plays out is the extent to which it follows the lead, and to what extent it calls the shots. To date, the donor’s preferred grantee has been the Sierra Club, where Bloomberg has been deeply involved and influential on the Beyond Coal initiative. Beyond Coal has a major organizing component, and Bloomberg has shown some support for just transition work, but the anti-coal campaign’s success has largely come from legal strategies and economic factors.
Bloomberg is also a big believer in local climate leadership, but typically at the honcho level, backing and celebrating action from mayors and business leaders through initiatives like C40, or his involvement in GCAS. Important players, for sure, but commitments from mayors and other elites hit hard limits without broad popular demand that can unlock the change needed at the national level.
"If it is really about empowering the grassroots army of activists and environmental groups, as he says, I think that that would be clearly a positive step in the right direction,” says Edouard Morena, lecturer in politics at the University of London Institute in Paris, referencing Bloomberg’s speech announcing Beyond Carbon. Morena is the author of the excellent book The Price of Climate Action, about philanthropy’s role in climate diplomacy, and he’s currently interested in Bloomberg’s involvement in the international climate debate.
“At the same time, I can't help but being slightly wary of his words, because so far, if you look at what he's been up to over the past two or three years, it's been very centered on big business and also very elitist, in a way,” he says, noting Bloomberg’s tendency to center powerful individuals as climate leaders—himself included.
One initiative Bloomberg’s team might look to as a model is the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, which funds and connects community groups to build power around climate action in key states. Roger Kim, executive director of the fund, applauded Bloomberg’s focus on state and local policy and the grassroots organizing, pointing out recent victories fought and won by frontline communities in Minnesota, New Mexico, and other states.
“With deeper investment we can build a movement to win an equitable clean energy future,” Kim says.
Bloomberg is a proud moderate, and a number of times in his run as a billionaire environmentalist, he’s bristled at climate agendas more idealistic or progressive than his own. I’m reminded of an analogy presented by Mark Dowie in his book American Foundations, depicting philanthropy as a “drag anchor,” a nautical device that steadies a ship in rough waters, but notably slows forward progress.
For one example, just as Bloomberg was becoming coal’s worst enemy, he was simultaneously pushing for an embrace of natural gas. Bloomberg co-wrote an op-ed in 2012 championing the economic and environmental benefits of gas and calling well-regulated fracking the “sensible center.” He also gave $6 million to the EDF to secure such rules. The ongoing gas production boom he supported in the name of pragmatism sunk billions into new fossil fuel infrastructure that is still leaking methane and locking us into carbon emissions we can’t afford.
Then there was the Global Climate Action Summit, during which businesses and government officials were celebrated as climate leaders, while climate justice protestors filled the streets calling for stronger action and a seat at the table. Bloomberg, who played a large role in the summit, found it crazy that there would be “environmentalists protesting an environmental conference,” and strangely compared the activists to those supporting Trump’s border wall.
Finally, we can’t forget that Beyond Carbon is Bloomberg’s direct response to the Green New Deal, which he’s criticized as “pie in the sky,” and those who promote it as disingenuous. The Green New Deal is by no means perfect, but it is a sweeping, aspirational platform for government action, led and under development by mostly young activists. The idea that a wealthy donor would counter that with his own approach (especially coupled with political donations) is also troubling.
Going forward, will Beyond Carbon be willing to listen to the range of voices on climate action, whether Bloomberg deems them impractical? The climate community is thinking big these days, making demands, and being realistic about what we need to do transform our economy before it’s too late. Momentum is growing, and it would be a shame if a billionaire pragmatist hit the brakes.
Will it Strangle the Movement in Metrics?
Bloomberg loves data—we know that from his business career, his mayoral tenure and his philanthropy. But to achieve the kind of transformative change Beyond Carbon is calling for, he’s going to have to loosen the grip on metrics. That’s because climate change is messy and human, as is movement building, and philanthropy’s desire to squish it into a math problem has led to dead ends.
Recall ClimateWorks, one of the biggest philanthropic climate change initiatives to date, which boiled down potential for impact into a grid of metrics that became known as “the Sudoku.” ClimateWorks made some important progress and has evolved over time, but notably fell flat early on with goals of a U.S. carbon market and a strong global treaty (Copenhagen). An independent report on its first five years found, in part, that its rigidity and reductionist approach to a complex problem were weaknesses. “The Sudoku ruled; it was a straitjacket,” one interviewee commented.
More recently, a fixation on numbers helped bring an entire philanthropic climate initiative, Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities, to an abrupt end, despite the important work it was supporting. City Lab reported that the nonprofit had been under pressure to present the foundation with evidence of its impact. After announcing its closure, foundation President Raj Shah told the program’s staff that Rockefeller was shifting focus to “delivering measurable results for vulnerable people.”
This is all too common in philanthropy, a sector that’s uniquely structured to swing for the fences and take chances, but tends to limit itself with rigid metrics. Large societal change is rarely a straight line, and in a field as complex as climate change, a coal plant countdown will only go so far.
What Will Beyond Carbon Be?
Ultimately, all of these questions come down to power, which, after all, lies at the heart of combating the climate crisis. If Beyond Coal is a vehicle to strengthen the agenda of a billionaire activist, that’s neither democratic nor likely effective.
On the other hand, if Bloomberg and his team are building something out and trying to use his wealth to build power on the ground to bring about sweeping change, well, that could be something beyond his past giving, and beyond the sector’s hit-and-miss track record.