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With Washington Out, Who Leads on Climate Action?


Antha Williams

Head, Environment Program, Bloomberg Philanthropies

Host Bill Loveless talks with Antha Williams, the head of the Environment Program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, about: how U.S. cities can best fight climate change; the impacts of President Trump’s environmental agenda; and business’ approach to climate change.

View the full transcript


Bill Loveless:  Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange a Podcast from the center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University from Washington I’m Bill Loveless. Our guest today is a woman who is very much in the forefront of efforts to promote clean energy around the world.  Antha Williams leads the Environment Program at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Where she oversees initiatives to accelerate the transition to clean energy, improve the sustainability of cities and protect oceans from pollution.

Antha also works closely with Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his efforts to combat global warming including in his role as the United Nations Special Envoy for cities and climate change.  Cities figure prominently in the environmental agenda of Bloomberg in fact his organization says that big changes in cities can make big differences in the world.  I reached Antha by phone at her New York office to talk about which cities are doing on climate change including how US cities might help compensate for changes in environmental policies under the Trump Administration.

We also discussed the ongoing decline of coal in the US, despite of Trump administration’s efforts to revive that industry.  The outlook for natural gas and on a more personal level, what makes Mike Bloomberg tick when it comes to pursuing his green agenda.  Antha Williams welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.


Antha Williams:  Thank you so much, it’s such a pleasure to join here.


Bill Loveless:  The environment is one of the areas five areas that the Bloomberg Philanthropies focuses on along with the arts, education, government innovation and public health, what are its environmental objectives?


Antha Williams:  It’s such a good question and a really exciting place to be.  I oversee the environmental programs here, at Bloomberg Philanthropies.  And Bloomberg Philanthropies is the home of all of Mike Bloomberg’s work to change the world.  And so not only do we oversee grants to release strong partners, some of them I’ll talk about like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group or the Sierra Club, but we are also the home of Mike Bloomberg’s work himself as an advocate and real spokesman on these issues.  And so for example he serves and has since 2014 as the secretary general to the UN Special Envoy on Cities and Climate Change and so really through that work, works to elevate the voice of climate leadership from cities and states and businesses in a broader, international context.

We are really driven by fast timelines and an optimistic and impatient boss.  And so and all the work that we do on environmental issues, we really try to get a lot done quickly.  And so just one example of it, I know is, is something that you follow in your work on energy and your coverage of coal is the work to close down coal fired power plants in the US and transition to cleaner sources of energy.  And on that work a really good news, we – when we launched that effort in 2011 with the Sierra Club, we had a goal of closing a third of the nation’s coal fleet by 2020 and as of 2 years into that program, the work was going so well was, ahead of pace, on schedule, that we said look with more money this Grassroots Army and smart lawyers who are working on this can get even more faster.  And so we increased the goal to close half of the US coal fleet by the end of 2017 this year.  And the good news is we just a couple weeks ago passed that landmark and there is now 263 power plants that are closed.


Bill Loveless:  Yeah I saw that, that was an announcement by Luminant Energy and Texas that it would shut down two coal power plants there –


Antha Williams:  That’s right.


Bill Loveless:  And that came as the Trump administration was taking steps to support coal in nuclear industries.  At fun there was one comment by Mayor Bloomberg at that time, he said passing the 50% mark ahead of schedule and during the week when the Trump Administration was announcing new efforts to subsidize the coal industry speaks volumes about who is waging and winning the war on coal.  That’s the quote from Mayor Bloomberg.  I found the comment interesting.  It acknowledged in a way that in fact there is a war on coal, but he’s saying it’s not Washington that’s leading that charge.


Antha Williams:  That’s right, that’s right.  And in fact what we see in our work is that citizens are really demanding cleaner sources of energy and when we’re at a time in the US energy market where we can get energy efficiency wind, solar at competitive prices.  We can get energy that’s clean, that’s not killing us and it’s also cheaper what’s not to like.  And so we are really seeing that, that’s the true face of the war on coal, and winning it is really important to both the environment and public health.


Bill Loveless:  You know before we go much further Antha, tell me a little bit about yourself, how did you get involved in this cause?


Antha Williams:  Well, as I said, I think there’s nowhere more exciting to be than Bloomberg Philanthropies in terms of the moment that we find ourselves in.  I’m at the fight against climate change as well as other urgent environmental issues like protecting oceans which is another area that we do a lot of work on.  My background for about — I’ve been at Bloomberg for about 4 years.  I started at the end of Mike’s third term as Mayor of New York city.  And before that, I worked for a number of Philanthropies and individual donors for about a decade, working on advocacy and environmental issues.  But my background before that is, in the environmental campaigns working with NGOs and trying to get big wins on environment.


Bill Loveless:  And Michael Bloomberg of course is a larger than life figure on this and other issues, you do work closely with him of course, what makes him tick when it comes to the environment?


Antha Williams:  Yeah, well, as I said, I mean, I think, one of the hallmarks of Mayor Bloomberg’s approach has been his optimism and his impatience.  He really got interested in climate change when he was serving as Mayor and PlaNYC which is the New York city sustainability plan, he really developed looking at the problem of any opportunity of a million more people, who are planned to come into New York city and saying okay what do we need to accommodate that and it turned out the things like parks and bike lanes and energy efficiency and buildings and getting better air quality were central to that plan, that was actually going to continue  to make the city livable and a great place to be, a vibrant growing place.

They also, those initiatives had huge climate benefits.  So a real point of pride for Mayor Bloomberg is that, when he was Mayor over the course of just 6 years, while New York city outpaced the rest of the country and job growth, we also reduced the emissions almost 20%.  And so he really I think sees the potential of those kinds of changes that deliver for the environment and for people’s health and quality of life in the short term.  And sees that as an opportunity and frankly thinks it’s crazy that we would be supporting as a country national policies that move us in the opposite direction.


Bill Loveless:  Well, in fact, you and others there at Bloomberg say the change that happens in cities can change the world, what does that mean and how does that role of cities compared with that of national governments?


Antha Williams:  Yeah, I was just — we’re at a Bloomberg Philanthropies event in Paris that kicked off over the weekend called City Lab, which is, that’s really amazing grouping of about 40 Mayors, Global Mayors from all across the world with artists and NGOs and urban planners and just brilliant people who are thinking exactly about these questions, how you promote sustainability, how you address climate change, but how you deliver for citizens and make people, put people at the centre of your urban planning  to make cities continue to grow.

I mean you’re familiar with the basic facts around cities, but just a underscore more than half the world’s people live in cities that number is continuing to grow and cities are the real sources of the energy demand, so about 70% of energy demand and therefore our greenhouse gas emissions are coming from cities.  So, cities are really the centre of the challenge, of the demand and if we can change how cities are working, we can, we can change the world.  They’re also really central to the solution and the cool thing about this event, City Lab in Paris was that climate change and clean energy are so central to what these Mayors are thinking about.  So we heard from Mayor Nashville and Mayors of cities in Central and South America including Mayor Penalosa of Bogota who is, has really enacted these incredibly world changing programs like Bus Rapid Transit that are delivering for their people but also cutting climate change.  And so to see this sort of brotherhood and sisterhood of Mayors who are kind of stealing each other’s best ideas and implementing programs faster and at a larger scale then would be possible without that sharing was really exciting and just affirming of how much we’re doing and how much more there is to do in cities.


Bill Loveless:  Well, it seems like that, that narrative takes on much more prominent and perhaps importance now at least in the United States given the change in administrations in the Trump administration’s policies and attitudes towards climate change right I mean you are speaking out on the role of cities that much more now given the retreat that the US government has taken under the Trump Administration.


Antha Williams:  Absolutely, I mean, we already — we’re feeling a lot of urgency in our work because of where the science as we need to go in terms of rapid emissions reductions, but on June 1st when Trump declared that the US was going to walk away from our climate commitments in the Paris agreement, Mayor Bloomberg got really energized by that as did many other people and we very quickly launched an effort in partnership with Governor Jerry Brown of California  who has been a great leader on these issues as he now called America’s pledge.

And what America’s pledge seeks to do is to look at the actions and the commitments that cities are taking, but also outliers in business and at the state level and at colleges and universities.  And to aggregate what the impact of those commitments are and the point of that is to show the world the reality of what’s happening on climate and clean energy in the United States.  And that reality is that we’re moving away from dirty polluting sources of fuel into clean energy and we’re actually on track to hit these ambitious commitments that we made in Paris, but you wouldn’t know it’s based on the rhetoric that’s coming out of Washington.

So I think the city role is really important in the wake of Trump walking away from the Paris agreement, in June.  We actually have had more than 300 US cities step up and say forget it we’re still, you can say whatever you want about the Paris agreement.  We’re still going to charge ahead with our climate commitments and we think we can get there.  And so, I think that will be meaningful and if anything I think we’re seeing that there’s been a really kind of galvanizing effect of Trump, just frankly advocating US leadership on this issue.


Bill Loveless:  Right, but what, what will be impact of the Trump environmental agenda, you say that in the short term the US is on track to meet its goals, goal set under the Obama administration for emissions reductions but, but beyond the next say seven or eight years, I mean, what happens, I mean what is there some long term implications from the US government backing off on these initiatives now?


Antha Williams:  We’re just, we’re really — it’s really such a shame, because we’re wasting time at a time when the US was poised to lead, to inspire other nations to act, Washington has really been moving in the opposite direction and I think when you look at changes like we’re seeing under EPA administrator Scott Pruitt rolling back basic environmental and public health protections that’s, that’s really damaging.  I mean the environmental protection agency is supposed to be the cops on the bee, that are stopping pollution and protecting people’s health.  And so, it’s certainly dispiriting to see those moves and then for local communities it’s a real affront to their health and their kids health.  So I don’t think — I mean we certainly wouldn’t say that it doesn’t matter.

Now it’s really important time and it’s a deep shame and missed opportunity that Washington is moving in the wrong direction, but at the same time it makes our work more urgent and more compelling, civil society, NGOs, cities, states, businesses, these many groups that we were working to mobilize and provide support for already just become really the lynchpin of climate action.


Bill Loveless:  Right, but and over the course of time can they, can these other institution, cities, corporation etcetera make up for the lack of US leadership, that you see right now in Washington.


Antha Williams:  We need both.  I mean we certainly need national policies that, that point the direction on where we need to go.  I mentioned being in Europe with some of the cities that we work with and every time we’re there, I’m just struck by how much further ahead Europe is in terms of — across many countries in Europe, but sitting in a business meeting in Germany, business formal very German starts right on time, you never see the electric lights go on.  They just don’t use electric lights during the day time.  It’s they have set policies in such a way that for people going with the flow is actually moving in the direction that we as society need to go and want to go.

That doesn’t mean we’re huddling in the dark, it means we’re sitting in a business room with very comfortable, beautiful, naturally like conducting our business and using a lot less energy than we would,  than we would ordinarily.  And so the role of policy and national policy is to make it so that in the course of everyday life, going with the firm, moving in the right direction and that’s what we need to see.  And ultimately, we need to see some sort of price on carbon at a time when we know that carbon pollution is causing climate change and climate change is causing a lot of problems for our society, for the environment and for public health.


Bill Loveless:  Right and despite coals by many corporations, including some energy companies, some oil companies for a price on carbon such as carbon tax, so that still seems like a long short, something a long way off in the United States.


Antha Williams:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I think that’s right.  I mean the thing is interesting that we are seeing is that companies both on the business side and investors are really seeing the cost of their bottom-line from climate change.  And so Mike Bloomberg actually was asked by the Governor of the Bank of the England and Chair of the Global Financial Stability Board Mark Carney to convene a task for us on climate risk called the TCFD, The Task Force for Climate-Related Financial Disclosure.  And that Task Force was working and has come out with their recommendations to companies to say, okay, here are the places where climate risk is material to a company’s bottom-line and some best practicing and guidance for how companies can be reporting on that risk, because increasingly we’re seeing that, that investors and shareholders want, want to know.


Bill Loveless:  Yeah, maybe I was thinking too, as you said that, that I was speaking with Senator Maria Cantwell, the other day and she was talking about not only corporate approaches to climate and steps being taken there, but regional approaches say in the United States where different parts of the country might have a different approach –


Antha Williams:  That’s right.


Bill Loveless:  Depending on their own economic needs, but that perhaps more, that needs to be taken into consideration too.


Antha Williams:  That’s right.  That’s right, yeah, that’s exactly right.  And you see these encouraging regional, regional moves and you also see that, again this is, this is — it’s like the difference between the rhetoric than we’re hearing from Washington and the reality on the ground.  There is a study out of couple days saying that, that wind capacity is poised to outtake coal capacity and the next, the next of couple years.  So and we’re seeing that to your point groups of states coming together to address these issues and the West and the North East.  And so, yeah I think there’s a lot of momentum in the right direction.

It was interesting, I was just going to say just because we do operate globally and we’re sort of having the conversations at the level of cost of energy and declining cost of clean and moving away from coal in the US, but we also do a lot of work especially in cities, but around the globe and around late May and early June when Trump hold out of the Paris agreement, we were in a number of European cities we did this documentary film with RadicalMedia called From the Ashes. That was – it was really the story of the Grassroots activism behind the beyond coal campaign in the US.  And so in that time period we kept getting asked by people at these screenings and country and cities around the world, what are these statements on climate change from Washington mean for the US, like, can you still hit your goals and how far can you actually get without Washington.  And so this America’s Pledge effort that I mentioned with Governor Brown is going to seek to quantify exactly, exactly that.  And so we will be releasing some of those numbers around the climate talks in Germany in just a couple weeks.


Bill Loveless:  You mentioned quantifying things Mike Bloomberg is a stickler from metric  as I understand it, I read where he once  –


Antha Williams:  Yes he is –


Bill Loveless:  I read where he once said, in god we trust everyone else bring data.


Antha Williams:  That’s right.


Bill Loveless:  What’s being done, what’s being done to demonstrate the impact of local initiatives and what are some good examples of those initiatives?


Antha Williams:  Quite a lot is underway to quantify the impact of local efforts and city efforts on climate change.  You have it exactly right when you say Mike Bloomberg is obsessed with that and he’s constantly saying to us okay what’s the measure, how do you know, you’re making a difference, I mentioned this, this point of pride around the 19% reduction in greenhouse gases from New York city over six years.  He wants that kind of like okay, what are our missions today, what are they going to be tomorrow?  How are we comparing Apples to Apples?  How do we know that Mayors are doing what they say they’re going to do?  And so to that end, I mentioned because of our working global cities Mike Bloomberg was asked by the prior Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to serve as a special Envoy on cities and climate change.  And then was subsequently asked by the incoming Secretary General, Guterres, to stay on in that post which is, is actually pretty unusual.  But it was really important to Mayor Bloomberg that, that he used that post not just to make speeches and say climate action is important, but to deliver something really tangible and so we launched an effort called the, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, which is designed to do exactly this.

It’s a standard platform for cities to report their climate action targets, their plans for getting there, their exposure to climate risk, their current greenhouse gas emissions and then we can see how that changes overtime and how the initiatives that are getting underway are actually having an impact or not having an impact.  And that’s helpful both to tell that story to the world of okay – what is that up to and are we getting far enough, fast enough, but also for Mayors to be able to look and see okay it’s what we’re doing on this program or that program is that actually having an impact and if not maybe there is some, some policy realignment at the city level that needs to happen.

And so that’s been a really encouraging effort on the city side to standardize some of that, that climate change reporting and to offer tool to Mayors, so that they, they have a good sense that of whether or not they are moving in the right direction.


Bill Loveless:  It seems important because it would enable a calculation that shows how these initiatives by cities add up in terms of emissions reductions and then you could take in account what might have happened in the absence of a stronger national policy right, or –


Antha Williams:  That’s right.


Bill Loveless:  Or make a comparison I suppose, I would love might if it happened say had a clean power plant under the Obama administration gone through –


Antha Williams:  That’s right, that’s right.


Bill Loveless:  Or other such initiatives.


Antha Williams:  That’s right.  And I think we on the clean power plant, we did announced this pretty quickly that showed okay, if we’re sticking to what we’re doing on transitioning half of coal plants to clean energy plus promoting state policies and city policies we actually think, we can get there.  And it’s been interesting because over the last couple weeks I think an increasing number of analysts have taken a hard look at that and said actually we think we can get there and we’re going to.  But back to your point about cities and using this data, the other thing that we see is that networks I mentioned we support the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, that’s a network of about 90 of the worlds megacities, so really big places with a lot of challenges in common with each other, to take action on climate change.

And one thing that we’ve seen that, that C40 and the Global Covenant of Mayors offers is that Mayors want to see not just what they’re doing and what their commitments add up to, but what are cities that are – have a lot of similarities with them doing?  And is there another Mayor who is doing something more ambitious and is that an idea that they could, they could steal.  Is that something that they could say all right, let’s bring that to my city.  And it’s one example if you think back to even a few years ago, about five years ago there were only six global cities that had Bike share programs, like, we have city bike here in New York or Velib in Paris, but there were only six cities that have that, within three years that number was up to 40 cities.  Now it’s even higher, I don’t know what the total number is today, but you don’t have that kind of rapid scaling without some network behind that like C40 to be able to say, okay, here’s, here’s how you do it, here is some ways to finance the bikes, here is how you can move the bikes around at the end of the night, here is how you can track the bikes, to not have to create those kind of programs from scratch, because it goes a long way with Mayors who just have so much on their plates in terms of what they’re managing.


Bill Loveless:  You were talking before about beyond the coal the campaign by the Sierra Club which Bloomberg Philanthropies supports, the commitment is to move, but at CR the commitment is to move not only beyond coal, but also beyond natural gas, I mean how does Bloomberg Philanthropies bring natural gas?


Antha Williams:  Well, you know, I think the landscape around natural gas has changed since we launched the campaign with the Sierra Club in 2011.  When we launched the campaign with Sierra Club in 2011, we really thought about natural gas as an important bridge fuel, being able to confer existing power plants to burning gas instead of coal, it gives you about 50% better energy in terms of climate change and about a 100% better in terms of public health. So we thought as an important bridge, if done correctly.  And so to that end we had a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund that was working in about 14 states that make up about 90% of the gas, the fracking for gas that happens in the United States.  It’s not, it’s not everywhere it’s not in all 50 states center, about a dozen or 14 states.  And so we supported Environmental Defense Fund to work in those states, which will include some politically perhaps more challenging places like Oklahoma for example or Wyoming.

And they went into those places and won some important safeguards on regulations, on how gas is fracked and disclosure about the chemicals that are used and all the rest.  In the mean time, the price of solar and wind has plummeted.  I mentioned  this study in Texas saying wind is about to takeover coal in terms of gigawatts installed, solar is globally was the first year, last year more net solar was installed than any other type of the energy.  So, I think as we’ve seen that market grow, it’s less important to think about any fossil fuels as bridge fuels and more important to think about okay what can we do on the demand side, the energy efficiency side and begin to transition to really zero emissions, sources of energy, that will, that will pay off course in terms of climate change, but also in terms of maintenance, costs and emissions and capital cost and all the rest of it over the long term.


Bill Loveless:  In an earlier podcast I spoke with Carl Pope the coauthor with Mayor Bloomberg of the book, Climate of Hope regarding broken politics and its impact on issues like climate change.  How do you overcome that?  How do you keep the issue in the forefront of people’s minds?


Antha Williams:  Well, I think our focus is really in all of our environmental work is to work to have people at the center, public health, at the center of what we’re trying to get done, Mike Bloomberg, Mayor Bloomberg became interested in the coal issue as Mayor because he saw the limits as Mayor of even if he could cut emissions by 20% and take a bunch of other measures to clean up the air, we were still getting air pollution from coal fired power plants in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania over the borders.  So the air pollution doesn’t follow state lines or city limits or country borders, these are really fundamental issues for all of us as humans. And so I think for us maintaining our focus on public health has been really central to our environmental work.  And the mission of Bloomberg Philanthropies is to ensure better longer lives for the greatest number of people.  So that’s really at the centre of what we try to do.


Bill Loveless:  Well, I’m afraid we need to leave it there, there’s really so much to talk about isn’t there, when you get, when you really dig into this topic.


Antha Williams:  It’s such as exciting time, but yes it’s — there’s a lot to do and we have a lot of ambition so we can stay in touch on other –


Bill Loveless:  We look forward to that Antha Williams thank you for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange.


Antha Williams:  Thank you so much, pleasure to be here.


Bill Loveless:  And thanks to you, our listeners for tuning in.  As always, we ask you take a moment to rate our podcast.  It helps us grow.  And for more insights on today’s energy issues, visit us online at or follow us on Twitter and Facebook at ColumbiaUEnergy.  For the Columbia Energy Exchange, I’m Bill Loveless.  We’ll be back next week with another conversation.


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