Climate of Hope

by Michael Bloomberg, Carl Pope

Clock Icon 11 minute read




November 2, 2004. The exit polls are exhilarating. They show John Kerry ousting George W. Bush from the White House—a goal that has been the top political objective of tens of thousands of Sierra Club volunteers, leaders, staff, and donors since Bush opened his war on the environment in the spring of 2001. As the executive director of the club, I’ve seen our team pour their hearts and souls into a groundbreaking new progressive coalition determined to reach and motivate anti-Bush voters who might otherwise not get to the polls, and it seems to have worked! One of the major funders of the effort, George Soros, is hosting an election evening party in Manhattan, and the room is buzzing.


For a while. As real votes replace exit polls, things get tighter and tighter. The race finally comes down to Ohio, and late in the evening it is clear that even though thousands of voters all over Ohio stood in the rain to vote for Kerry, thousands more came out for Bush, and Kerry has lost Ohio, and the White House, by 2.1 percent. After thirty-five years as a practicing environmental advocate, ten of them as the Sierra Club’s executive director, I am at a loss. I came of age in the environmental movement at a time when its concerns were shared by most Americans of both parties. A bipartisan Congress and White House created the Environmental Protection Agency, passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and expanded parks and wilderness. In the decades that followed, however, this bipartisanship faded, and the Sierra Club faced an increasingly hostile Republican party. We weathered Ronald Reagan’s interior secretary, James Watt, and his contempt for the Grand Canyon, which he called “boring.” We helped the country withstand Newt Gingrich and his campaign to shred the public health safety net. But nothing compared to Vice President Dick Cheney’s brand of predatory disregard for clean air, water, and landscapes, which had also come to dominate the Republican Party. And now the party had just recaptured full control of the White House and both houses of Congress. How should the Sierra Club’s leadership respond? What is our strategy for coping with a second Bush administration?


Defense, it is clear, is not enough. To find an answer, we decided to mount the most intensive consultation process in the club’s modern history, inviting over five thousand grassroots leaders to participate in a series of meetings, surveys, and discussions. It culminated in our first national convention, which we held in San Francisco in September 2005.


Even before the convention, the results from the state and local consultations suggested a surprising shift in the membership’s concerns—after more than a hundred years in which the protection of wild places was our highest priority, club leaders were now saying that climate change needed to be at the top of our agenda. Then, even as the delegates were flying in to San Francisco, I got a call from Al Gore. In fact, we had invited Gore to speak at the convention, but he was already booked to address the National Association of Insurance Regulators at their meeting in New Orleans. Now he was calling to say that, due to a hurricane headed toward the Gulf Coast, the meeting had been canceled. Would we still like him to appear?


The answer was yes, of course. And so, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, the former vice president shared with the club’s leadership the slide show that became the basis for An Inconvenient Truth.


The impact of Katrina and Gore’s stunning presentation only strengthened our commitment to make climate our priority. After the convention, as executive director, I had a new mission.


Admittedly, climate change was not entirely new territory for us. The club had worked for years on energy and climate, taking the lead in pressuring the auto industry to improve fuel economy and cut carbon dioxide emissions from cars. But it had never been our top priority. How does a grassroots activist organization in the United States set out to stop global warming?


I didn’t know it yet, but this new priority would mean enormous changes in the way I saw the world and environmentalism. Previously environmentalists worked to stop bad things—pollution, clear-cutting, overfishing—but we more or less accepted the big-picture American economy, with the established industries that made it up. Not anymore. Now we were about to find ourselves in a different business: helping to foster a different kind of economic development, one based on knowledge and technology rather than fossil fuels. After thirty-five years of working to clean up after twentieth-century industrialism, environmentalists were about to plunge into creating its twenty-first-century replacement. But before we could go full tilt toward the new, we had to stop the last spasms of the old—an energy future crafted during George W. Bush’s first term by Vice President Cheney.


Staff and volunteer leaders began brainstorming, and eighteen months later, in February 2007, about one hundred club leaders gathered in Tucson in an unconventional forum to decide which campaigns we would rally around.


Anyone in the group who had a campaign idea he or she wanted to pitch set up a whiteboard in a corner. The rest of the group then “voted with their feet,” testing out different conversations until they found the one that gripped their imagination. At the end of the session we had four or five lively groups, but one had managed to attract almost half of the total audience. A club lawyer from the Midwest, Bruce Nilles, was proposing that the Sierra Club target the linchpin of the Bush administration’s energy proposal: building more than 150 new coal-fired power plants. Nilles pointed out that coal was the biggest source of climate pollution in the United States. Not only that, the proposed new plants would emit so much climate pollution for the forty years of their expected lifetime that if they were built, it would become mathematically impossible to tame the global-warming monster. This next generation of coal plants, he told us, would lock the United States into 750 million additional tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, just when we needed to be cutting those emissions by that same amount by 2012.


Nilles’ pitch was that we faced what I have heard the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew call a kairos: a supreme moment at which one simply must act, however implausible or inconvenient. His impassioned plea struck a deep chord with the club’s leaders, but the ambition of the task left me uneasy. Afterward, I took him aside. How could we take this on? What was his strategy?


“We just fight every single new coal plant,” he replied.


“Who is going to help us?” I asked.


“I have no idea if anyone will,” he admitted. “Most groups working on this just want to challenge one or two to try to get them a little cleaner.”


I was not reassured, but the die was cast.


The Sierra Club was now committed to transforming the entire energy sector of the United States, and to prevent it from locking itself into another generation of coal-fired power.


Thanks to some initial gifts from small family foundations and the leaders of the nascent solar industry, Bruce was able to hire lawyers for the effort, which we called “Beyond Coal,” and they began looking for planned coal-fired power plants to challenge. What they uncovered was shocking. The relationship between the coal industry and the electric utilities was so incestuous that coal executives simply assumed their plan would be rubber-stamped. Even more disturbing, the government regulators who were supposed to protect consumers and the environment were in many instances virtual partners in the planned coal rollout. None of these parties had the slightest experience of being challenged by citizens, and certainly none of them expected the next generation of coal plants to face serious opposition when they came before regulators for approval.


In fact, the coal team found two plants in the Midwest that were well under construction, with more than $100 million in expenses incurred—even though the appropriate government agencies had never issued the required permits for construction. When the club’s lawyers inquired of one utility why it had assumed that it could build a huge power plant without permits, the response was, “We asked the regional office of the EPA and they told us not to bother with permits.”


Our lawyer’s response: “Let’s see what a federal judge thinks about that theory.” Unsurprisingly, the judge told the utility lawyers that he was perfectly willing to hear the case, but he strongly advised them to settle it instead.


The companies building the two projects were now desperate. They didn’t want to admit to their shareholders and customers that each had squandered more than $100 million on projects that were now almost certain to be rejected by a court. They asked us if we really wanted to see that much money go to waste. Bruce and our coal team, mindful not to overreach, offered a deal: If the companies would shut down their oldest, very dirty coal plants and purchase an equal volume of clean wind power to lower their carbon pollution, the club would let them finish the ones that were half built. The companies agreed to the deal. It was a win for them and for the environment, and particularly for the people forced to breathe the filth from the old plants. By the spring of 2007, only a few months after the inception of Beyond Coal, the club had scored two stunning victories.


News that two companies were shutting down old plants, buying thousands of megawatts to jump-start the Midwestern wind power industry, and signing an agreement with the Sierra Club sent shock waves throughout the utility industry and its financiers on Wall Street.


A lobbyist for the biggest new coal plant in the queue, the 2,100-megawatt Sunflower plant in Kansas, approached me at a Washington cocktail party. She knew me from her time in the Clinton White House. “We’d like to explore having you green-light Sunflower if we shut down some of our old coal,” she explained. “Sorry,” I replied. “That was a Washington’s Birthday special only.” Sunflower was not even close to being built—there was no reason to give it a pass. With the club leading the opposition, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment eventually rejected its permit. This led coal proponents to launch a media campaign against Governor Kathleen Sebelius, linking her to Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chávez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. The Washington Post disparaged the ads as “extremely misleading.” Sebelius’s successor tried to revive the plant but failed.


These three early victories were encouraging, but three is not 150. The club’s resources, and Bruce’s team, were far too small to scale up the challenge and accomplish our goal. The large foundations interested in the coal fight rejected our goal as implausibly ambitious; instead they focused their efforts on a few plants only, hoping to settle for better pollution controls. The idea that we were on the cusp of a new era in which cleaner fuels would replace coal completely was too foreign for most of the players to grasp.


Later in the spring of 2007 I got a phone call. Aubrey McClendon, the head of a natural gas company called Chesapeake Energy, wanted to meet with us. He was frustrated that newly expanding supplies of natural gas, which would generate far less air pollution than coal, were being kept out of the market by the coal plant boom. He had already intervened in Texas and Oklahoma against two coal plants. After noting the club’s presence in a number of other battles, he wanted to make a donation.


It turned out that he wanted to make a big donation—$5 million the first year. Aubrey wasn’t eager to have his coal competitors on his back, so he made the gift anonymously. The coal industry suddenly had a much bigger fight on its hands.


Six months later, I attended my first United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Bali, Indonesia. The political director of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Abe Breehey, who enjoyed a wonderful reputation among my labor friends, was also there, and he asked me to have a drink with him. Abe had heard about our fight against coal and he congratulated me on our project. “I need to explain one thing,” he told me. “We build boilers. We don’t care what powers them. So we’re not pro-coal. We are pro-boiler.” But he wondered how far we could take this fight. “There are 150 in the queue,” Abe continued. “You can’t possibly go after them all, whatever your press releases say.”


I paused. “Actually, as of a few months ago, we now have the resources and the staff to challenge every single one—and we plan to do so.”


He put his glass down. “Well,” he said, “it looks like we and the utilities need a new business model.” If the coal plants weren’t going to get built, boiler makers needed to make sure that natural gas plants would be. In other words, Abe immediately grasped what the utilities refused to accept: Coal’s heyday was over.


For the next three years utilities struggled to get regulators to allow them to build scores of new plants. Ultimately, of the 150 coal plants that had been queued up when Bruce Nilles stood before his whiteboard in Tucson, only 30 were ever built. We stopped 100,000 megawatts of new coal power. To put it another way: Had those plants been built, they would have increased America’s coal power production by 30 percent—and locked in at least another generation of pollution and carbon emissions. Of the 30 plants that did get built, almost all of them turned into economic white elephants, driving up utility rates, bankrupting companies and communities, and in some cases sitting idle because no one could afford to operate them.


Coal power was an idea whose time had come and gone. People just didn’t know it yet.


* * *


While climate change had become the club’s top priority, and Beyond Coal the most successful anti-pollution campaign we had ever run, we were working on a broad range of other issues as well. In the spring of 2007, I received a second fortuitous phone call, this one from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office. One of his deputy mayors, Kevin Sheekey, reached out to see if we could help with PlaNYC, the city’s new sustainability plan. In particular, he was seeking support for a proposal to use “congestion pricing”—a toll charged during peak driving hours—as a mechanism to raise funds for improving mass transit. Better transit is a key climate strategy as well, so we were eager to help. My first assignment was to help persuade New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to support congestion pricing. (Eventually he did, although I doubt my lobbying was the key.) More significant, however, was that a partnership between the club and the mayor took root, while proposed coal plant after proposed coal plant bit the dust.


Those of us in the Beyond Coal campaign began to realize that we were on the way to something big—completely ending the U.S. coal boom. The combined impact of the club’s challenges, Wall Street’s nervousness about whether new coal plants would actually get built, and the declining price of natural gas brought on by the shale boom prompted utilities to lose interest in pursuing the black rock as their energy source.


Still, there was major work to be done. The country’s existing coal plants—many of which dated from the First World War—were still the largest source of carbon pollution in the country, belching some 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. And so Bruce Nilles designed a new and even more audacious game plan: We would mobilize neighbors and citizens to shut down the 535 coal boilers built before 2000—which were then providing about half the nation’s electricity—and replace them with wind and solar.


In 2010, at sixty-five, I stepped down as the Sierra Club’s executive director, but remained on as chairman through 2012. I had stayed in touch with Kevin, and over lunch one day, I told him about the club’s new vision—Beyond Coal Phase II: Shut down the old coal plants.


Kevin shared my excitement, and soon, so would the mayor. I didn’t know it then, but that lunch would launch the best-planned and most ambitious environmental campaign in the Sierra Club’s—and perhaps the U.S. environmental movement’s—history. This campaign yielded, as Mike will later explain, the biggest and fastest impact on the planet. It also led to our partnership, which has produced many collaborative efforts to drive progress on climate change—including, now, this book.




Copyright © 2017 by Michael R. Bloomberg



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