New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is—by virtue of his billions of dollars and his eagerness to use them to bend policies well outside the five boroughs in his preferred direction—a national figure. So it is no surprise this morning to see him producing one major story of national import and one major story of exclusively local concern. I just wish they could switch places.
The national story is that Bloomberg is urging wealthy Democratic donors in New York to shun the four Democratic senators who did not vote for the federal gun background-checks bill in April. Though there are legitimate questions about the wisdom of Bloomberg’s move—it could endanger the Democrats’ Senate majority, for example—it will surely have the intended effect of advancing the national gun conversation, particularly inside the Beltway (it led Politico’s Playbook today), as the White House gears up for a renewed legislative push. Bloomberg justified his action by telling the New York Times that (in the reporters’ words) “gun deaths had reached such a state of crisis that he needed to force the issue.”
And the local story is that Bloomberg unveiled his $20 billion plan for New York to build floodwalls, a planned community, and even levees (holla, Staten Island!) to prepare the city for another extreme-weather event like last autumn’s Hurricane Sandy, the increasing future likelihood of which has been brought to you—if you believe science—by man-abetted, carbon-related global warming. Unlike with his unabashedly political, extremely provocative guns gambit, Bloomberg spoke the language of technocracy and benevolent management in presenting the plan; he even revealed it not at City Hall but at the once-flooded Brooklyn Navy Yard. “This is a defining challenge of our future,” Bloomberg declared, a statement not of normative hope but of observable fact.
Bloomberg is right about guns and, when he has at other times treated climate change as the political issue it is, he is right about global warming, too. But his emphases are all wrong. While Bloomberg has plenty of actual capital (he is worth some $25 billion and has said he intends to give it all away), he is investing his finite national political capital in a watered-down bill addressing an issue that—it is hard to say this after reading Eli Saslow’s impossibly moving story this weekend about Newtown survivors, but it’s true—is nowhere near as important, by virtually any measure, as climate change is.
The scourge of guns, the more than 30,000 American deaths they help cause each year, the gruesome mass shootings they enable: Bloomberg is right to hope they go away. But climate change is an existential threat, to everyone. It is probably not accidental that climate change is the reason Bloomberg gave for endorsing Barack Obama over Mitt Romney.
This isn’t mere nitpicking. Bloomberg is passing up the chance to use his political clout to help set the agenda on the defining issue of our time in favor of buttressing an already existing, imperfect agenda on an important but, frankly, not-top-priority issue. (It’s a troubling thought-experiment, but gun control almost certainly would not be an issue in Washington right now had 20 children and six adults not been brutally murdered one month after the presidential election. Few would have batted an eye had Newtown not happened and a second Obama term passed without action on gun control). Guns are, in fact, a perfect issue for Bloomberg to tackle in a local and technocratic manner, as he did with the flood planning. In fact he has done this, utilizing different policing methods to oversee a massive reduction in gun murders (and all murders) in New York City. Since climate change, in contrast, does not know municipal boundaries, efforts at the national (and international) level are necessary.
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has the motto, “Saving Lives Millions At A Time.” Well, climate change kills millions every year, and the numbers are rising with the temperatures. And levees, though necessary, will only hold off the next storm in New York.