Bill Clinton and Michael R. Bloomberg announced a merger of initiatives in New York last month.
WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton and Michael R. Bloomberg have circled each other warily for a decade, ever since Mr. Clinton landed in Harlem after leaving the White House and Mr. Bloomberg ascended from a hugely successful business career to become the mayor of New York City. They have appeared together at a few civic functions, dined out a couple of times a year and hacked at golf balls on the same course.
Mr. Bloomberg’s billions of dollars and Mr. Clinton’s billions of friends are a potent combination, but can this unlikely power coupling make an impact in stemming rising seas or cooling the planet?
“This is enough to choke a horse, one of the two or three biggest challenges in the world,” Mr. Clinton said in an unusual joint telephone interview last week with Mr. Bloomberg. “But if we can prove that this is good economics, good public health and fights the most calamitous consequences of climate change, then we will have done a world of good.”
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bloomberg are men of considerable accomplishment and healthy self-regard. So, naturally, questions arose last month when they announced the merging of their climate-change initiatives into a single global effort focused on the world’s largest cities.
Who will be in charge and how will they share a stage, beginning this week when they appear together at a climate conference in São Paulo, Brazil?
“I have always thought that we should have a relationship based alphabetically on our last names,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
“I have a partnership with George W. Bush on Haiti, and I had a partnership with his dad on Katrina,” Mr. Clinton said. “So you know, I don’t care who gets the credit.”
It was six years ago when Mr. Clinton, working with Ken Livingstone, the leftist and then-mayor of London, drew together officials from 40 of the world’s largest cities, from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Yokohama, Japan, to share ideas for reducing carbon emissions and dealing with the inevitable impacts of a changing climate. The effort was ambitious but chronically underfinanced, with an annual budget of less than $500,000.
The group met periodically to discuss climate mitigation efforts like switching to LED streetlights, retrofitting public buildings and generating energy from landfills. The William J. Clinton Foundationprovided technical assistance and financing for discrete projects, but the group of cities, known as the C40, lacked a steady financing stream, a database of emissions and mitigation programs, and a professional staff.
Enter Mr. Bloomberg, who campaigned for and won the chairmanship of the group last year. He pledged $6 million a year of his foundation money for each of the next three years to bolster the C40 and essentially muscled aside the Clinton staff members working on the project. Mr. Clinton, never one to reject a gift horse, happily acceded.
“I really don’t care how you characterize it,” Mr. Clinton said. “The fact that he made a multiyear commitment coincident with his leadership means that we will be able to go in and help cities who are in trouble financially and can’t do these projects.”
An adviser to Mr. Clinton, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to elaborate more candidly on Mr. Clinton’s remark, was a bit less diplomatic about Mr. Bloomberg’s approach. “He came to us,” the adviser said. “What are we going to do, fight him? They have the money; the golden rule applies.” As in, he who has the gold, rules.
The Clinton-Bloomberg partnership comes at a tough time for those fighting climate change. Congress has made it clear that it is not going to enact a national program to address global warming any time soon and the 194-nation United Nations process has made little progress toward a binding international treaty.
Donors who have provided financing for climate programs are frustrated and fatigued, and many advocacy groups are turning their attention to issues on which they can have tangible impact. Organizations are consolidating and learning to make do with less.
Mr. Bloomberg refers to this as a “maturing” approach to activist philanthropy. “It’s not so much people getting bored with the whole thing or walking away,” he said. “It’s that if you’re going to live through the tough times, this type of efficiency makes sense.”
Mr. Bloomberg hired Jay Carson, a former assistant to Mr. Clinton and campaign adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to serve as chief executive of the C40. Mr. Carson said that what set the C40 apart from other climate advocacy groups was that the mayors had actual power to affect emissions and energy use, although it varied from city to city. This week’s C40 climate meeting is expected to reinvigorate the group and set its members on a path toward consistent and measurable reductions in carbon emissions.
They are expected to announce a new formal partnership with theWorld Bank, which will eventually provide financial and technical assistance for cities seeking to reduce emissions by improving energy efficiency in transit, power generation, lighting and public buildings.
Cities now house more than half of the world’s population, and while they occupy 2 percent of the globe’s land mass, cities consume 70 percent of global energy and produce 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. If anything meaningful is going to happen on climate in the short term, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bloomberg and their advisers say, it has to start in the cities.
“We are putting a stake in the ground around the idea that national and international governments have failed, possibly quite permanently, or at least in a way that they will not make any serious progress before it’s too late,” said Kevin Sheekey, a former deputy mayor of New York and principal political adviser to Mr. Bloomberg. “If you address the problems of the cities, there will be no need for China and India to sign onto some international accord. And thank God, because that’s not going to get done. It’s time to say it.”
Mr. Sheekey added, “This is much more than a few green roofs, but really cataloging the damage we’re doing to the climate in hard numbers and coming up with realistic plans and financing measures to mitigate it.”
While Mr. Clinton and Al Gore, who served as his vice president, worked together on climate issues in the White House, they have taken separate paths on the issue since. Mr. Gore focuses on raising awareness and stimulating grass-roots activism, while Mr. Clinton has devoted his time to on-the-ground solutions like retrofitting buildings with energy efficient windows and heating systems.
Mr. Bloomberg shrugged off a question about whether he sees climate change as an issue on which he will be judged long after he leaves office, in 2014. His focus is much shorter term, he said.
“I’m expecting we’ll have a few drinks and a lot of laughs in São Paulo,” he said. “I hope we can make a difference.”