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Michael Bloomberg takes on coal — to the tune of $500 million

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Michael R. Bloomberg, billionaire entrepreneur and former three-term mayor of New York City, launched what he called “the largest coordinated assault on the climate crisis that our country has ever undertaken, ” with a plan to close every coal-fired power plant in the United States by 2030.

Bloomberg laid out the ambitious plan, Beyond Carbon, as part of his commencement address at MIT on Friday, June 7, telling graduates, “Your generation’s mission is not to explore deep space and to reach faraway places. It’s to save our own planet, the one we live on, from climate change.” His foundation will donate $500 million to the initiative.

Bloomberg recalled John F. Kennedy’s vision in promising to put a man on the moon, an achievement that happened 50 years ago next month. It was a milestone in which MIT figured prominently: Much of the technology was developed at MIT, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin was a 1963 doctorate of science graduate. The landing ushered in a new era of scientific advancement.

“Going to the moon wasn’t a popular idea in the 1960s, and Congress didn’t want to pay. Imagine – a Congress that didn’t want to invest in science. Go figure. That would never happen today,” he said.

Bloomberg said he believed that today’s graduates are living in a similar moment, though the consequences are far more dire. “Unlike 1962, the primary challenge before you is not scientific and technological: it is political. The race is against time, and we are losing,” he warned.

Bloomberg pointed to the worldwide rise in hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and typhoons. “It is a true crisis. If we fail to rise to the occasion, your children and grandchildren will pay a terrible price,” he said. “We cannot wait to act. Mother Nature doesn’t wait on an election calendar, and neither do we.”

To that extent, Bloomberg said, his new initiative will fight battles outside of Washington, focusing on four key areas:

  1. Beyond Carbon will push states and utilities to phase out every U.S. coal-fired power plant by 2030. Bloomberg noted that the goal is ambitious but achievable: A partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Sierra Club has already shut down 289 plants since 2011, with 51 closing since the 2016 election.
  2. The organization will work to stop construction of new natural gas plants. Bloomberg noted that cities such as Los Angeles are pursuing renewable energy and that states including California and Hawaii are working to convert their electric system to 100% clean energy. “We don’t want to replace one fossil fuel with another; we want to build a clean energy economy and will push more states to do that,” Bloomberg said.
  3. The initiative will support allies such as governors, mayors, and legislators in their pursuit of ambitious policies and laws. It will also empower a grassroots army of activists driving progress nationwide on incentives and mandates that increase renewable power, pollution-free buildings, access to mass transit, and sales of electric vehicles — "which are now turning the combustion engine and all of its pollution into a relic of the Industrial Revolution,” he said.
  4. Beyond Carbon will get deeply involved in elections across the country, “because climate change is now first and foremost a political problem, not a scientific quandary or even a technological puzzle,” he said. Bloomberg warned graduates not to shy from activism. “I know as scientists and engineers, politics can be a dirty word. I am an engineer. I get it. I am also a realist. I have three words: Get over it,” he said.

Beyond Carbon includes spending to mobilize voters against politicians whose actions could mean “the end of life on Earth as we know it,” he said. “Our message will be simple: Face the reality of climate change or face the music on Election Day. Our lives and our children’s lives depend on it, and so should their political careers.”

Bloomberg acknowledged job loss in mining communities and pledged funds for retraining those workers in growing industries.

In closing, Bloomberg urged graduates to dream in moonshots, much as Buzz Aldrin’s generation did 50 years ago.“We need your minds and your creativity to achieve a clean energy future, but that’s not all. We need your voices, we need your votes, and we need you to help lead us where Washington will not. It may not be a moonshot, but it’s the only shot we’ve got. I hope you carry with you MIT’s tradition of taking and making moonshots,” he said.

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