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Flanked by Washington University Chancellor-Elect Andrew Martin, left, and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, right, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and former mayor of New York, announces expanded support of local and regional climate initiatives on Thursday, May 16, 2019, in downtown St. Louis' Kiener Plaza. Financial gifts from Bloomberg's philanthropic foundation will augment climate-focused efforts undertaken by both Washington University and the City of St. Louis. Photo by Bryce Gray

Although the Gateway Arch loomed as a backdrop, the structure standing in front of Michael Bloomberg — behind the cameras in downtown St. Louis’ Kiener Plaza — is what lent symbolism and contrast to Thursday’s announced expansion of local and regional climate initiatives.

Practically in the shadow of the global headquarters of Peabody, the world’s largest privately owned coal company, the billionaire philanthropist, former New York mayor and United Nations special envoy on climate action laid out new support to accelerate clean energy adoption in St. Louis and around the Midwest.

On the eve of his commencement address at Washington University — a school he said rejected him as an undergraduate applying for admission — Bloomberg said his philanthropic foundation would fund operations for the Midwestern Collegiate Climate Summit, set to be hosted at the institution in early 2020.

Washington U. billed the newly formed climate conference as “the largest expected convening of Midwest universities focused on mitigating the effects of climate change and moving to a 100 percent clean-energy economy.”

“Universities really are a force for innovation,” said Bloomberg, adding that forms of renewable energy “have to be the future” of electricity generation. “We have to do something about it, even if our government in Washington will not.”

The partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and Washington U. will also collaborate with climate efforts undertaken by regional governments including the City of St. Louis, supplementing a grant for climate initiatives worth at least $2.5 million awarded to the city last year. Resources from that competitive grant came through the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge and are aimed at reducing carbon emissions in two main areas, buildings and transportation.

According to Bloomberg, one example of the additional work that will be done is “aggregated procurement,” which pools funds to multiply buying power for efforts such as solar energy projects.

Bloomberg representative Lee Cochran said that the monetary gift required to support the announced initiatives has not yet been finalized, and that the funding was intended to apply for a finite amount of time.

Bloomberg said climate change will be one of the focuses of his Friday commencement address, and that he planned to mention “what has been done, what is being done and what can be done” to fight it. He said he has found the school to be a good partner on climate initiatives.

But politics and finances surrounding climate change and fossil fuel interests have stoked some controversy on Washington U.’s campus in recent years, given industry funding for certain research and the school administration’s resistance to a yearslong push from students for the school to divest its multibillion-dollar endowment away from fossil fuels.

“We’re going to continue in deep, substantive conversation,” said Andrew Martin, the chancellor-elect of Washington U., describing the school’s involvement with student calls for divestment.

Reporter covering energy and the environment for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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