Bloomberg On Climate Change: Cities Are Leading The Way 'Right Now'

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made combating climate change a major focus during his time in office. Now, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist has a new international role to push his message. He has been appointed the U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change. Melissa Block talks with Bloomberg about the new job and what cities can do to fight climate change.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Mayors from cities all over the world wrapped up a meeting in South Africa today, a meeting known as the C40 Summit. These local leaders were there to discuss how to confront a problem of global proportions, climate change, and they've released a 244 page report trumpeting work that cities are doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg handed off his role as chairman of the C40 at that meeting. He's stepping into a new related position at the United Nations, special envoy for cities and climate change. And Mayor Bloomberg is now back in New York. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Thank you very much for having me.

BLOCK: What would you say some of the most important things are that cities are doing to address climate change on their own?

BLOOMBERG: Well, there's lots of things. Every city does something different and we all manage to copy one from another. For example, bike share programs to get people to take bikes rather than drive their cars. A bunch of cities did it in 2013, 36 cities did it, whereas a couple years ago, only six cities did it. We've worked on changing lighting to LEDs which uses an awful lot of electricity.

And then, not only are we working on trying to reduce greenhouse gases, all these cities are working to protect ourselves and make us more resilient to natural disasters, which you see taking place more and more around the world.

BLOCK: When you weigh the efforts that you're talking about, basically, to adapt to climate change like you saw with Superstorm Sandy, how do you balance those against efforts to stop climate change or to roll it back in the first place?

BLOOMBERG: Well, I don't know how you balance saving the world and making your kids - the air your kids breathe be cleaner and the water you drink being purer with some kind of a economic political agenda. Most of the things that cities are doing happen to be very popular and it's certainly been true in New York City. We've closed some streets to traffic. It hasn't worsened the traffic, but it has given people a chance to walk and to shop. People, once they see it, come to think it's the right thing to do.

BLOCK: In New York, when you decided to close Time Square to traffic, that was a really controversial thing at the beginning, right? A lot of people thought that was a terrible idea.

BLOOMBERG: I don't think today you'd get any merchant on that street to roll it back. I don't think you would get very many people to say they were inconvenienced and it's the same thing with the smoking ban today. Nobody would want to go back to smoking in restaurants, but even that was controversial.

BLOCK: If a city, if a mayor of a city, were to come to you and say what is the one thing I can do that would have the biggest impact if I want to reduce carbon emissions. What would that thing be and what would...

BLOOMBERG: The biggest thing you can do in this country is to close coal-fired power plants. They generate a third of all of the emissions. And the Sierra Club has been very successful in preventing new coal-fired plants from opening. And thanks to their efforts and the lower cost price of natural gas, a lot of old power plants have been closed. And you can see it.

And one of the reasons is, we've got buildings to convert from heavy fuel oil to natural gas so that cuts the pollutions in the air. And this translates right now into your life expectancy. People tend to talk about climate change in the year 2050. I would argue we've got to do something right now and you see that around the world. Just take a look in China where all of a sudden, because of their economic growth - without focusing on the environmental consequences - the pollution is so bad people are having to stay indoors.

BLOCK: When you talk about things that cities can do and have done - like bike share programs and changing lighting and bus rapid transit - aren't those really nibbling around the edges when the key thing in reducing emissions really means changing power plants, as you say. And that's not a city responsibility. That would be...

BLOOMBERG: No, that's not. But...

BLOCK: ...a federal or a state responsibility.

BLOOMBERG: Yeah, but that's like saying I don't want to look left and right before I walk across the street because someday I'm going to die anyways. I think they are separate things. Cities can do things that make a difference right now. And in New York City, we've made a very big difference in our greenhouse gases; that does not take away from the fact that nationally we can do more. And that certainly doesn't take away the reason to close coal-fired power plants just because, in the rest of the world, some countries aren't doing it.

BLOCK: We've seen the U.N. climate talks get bogged down constantly. They never seem to reach any concrete agreement. Is one idea behind the meeting of mayors in to C40 that you don't have to get bogged down in negotiation, you don't have to reach a treaty? And does that mean you're giving up on bigger country-to-country talks?

BLOOMBERG: No, quite the contrary. C40 is a group of cities that are individually doing things. What C40 does is help them share best practices. And the fact that I've just been appointed a special representative by the United Nations by Ban Ki-moon is because he thinks that the national governments can do more, that cities are leading, and that if we work together you'll see much more progress than what you've had to date at a national level.

BLOCK: Mr. Bloomberg, thank you so much.

BLOOMBERG: You're welcome, all the best.

BLOCK: That's billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, former New York City Mayor. He's just been named U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change.

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