“From the Ashes,” a documentary on coal mining and public health funded by the former New York mayor, is airing on National Geographic on Sunday.
Mike Bloomberg was a Republican and a Democrat before becoming an Independent. Now he’s using his ability to talk to all sides to fight climate change.
“From the Ashes,” a slick documentary about coal mining funded and produced by the former New York City mayor’s Bloomberg Philanthropies, will make its television debut Sunday on National Geographic. Bloomberg’s environmentalism is well known: the media billionaire recently co-wrote a book about saving the planet. But instead of merely preaching to the converted, “Ashes” evangelizes by focusing on the public health consequences of America’s coal obsession, reasoning that wellbeing cuts across ideological lines.
“We’re going after a broad audience,” Katherine Oliver, the film’s executive producer and a longtime Bloomberg consigliere, tells Moneyish. “It’s clear what our position is but we were very thoughtful in creating a film that showed both sides.” Indeed, the characters in “Ashes” are a cross-section of Red America—the wife of an unemployed coal miner who was a victim of Barack Obama’s so-called “war on coal” and a mother with asthmatic kids. Bloomberg is also organizing over 200 film screenings, many of them in “coal country”—West Virginia, Montana and Texas—and hosting post-show discussions.
The documentary isn’t all tragedy: it also tells the story of the Coalfield Development Corporation, which retools laid-off miners with new skills and a Texas Republican mayor who’s pledged to make his city run entirely on renewable energy. The idea is that you don’t need to be a tree hugger to go green. “He’s doing this not because of climate change but because he’s a CPA who realizes coal isn’t effective,” Oliver says. “Solar jobs are growing at a rate much faster than the general economy and many of these opportunities are in states that voted for Donald Trump.”
Still, “Ashes” has quite the herculean task. Shortly after the filming ended, America elected President Trump, who’s cast himself as a hero for coal miners who believe they’ve lost their jobs to environmental regulations. However, Oliver thinks that just means the documentary is even more culturally relevant. “Who’d thought you’d see skits on ‘Saturday Night Live’ featuring coal miners?” she says. “The whole issue is part of pop culture now.”
She’s also not that worried that Trump—who’s called climate change a Chinese-manufactured hoax—will call “Ashes” fake news. “We’ve produced real facts,” says Oliver. “There are experts in the public health arena, scientists and real people and former coal miners speaking in the film.” The documentary also intends to make blue state voters reconsider their rhetoric toward those who make their living from energy. “People in L.A. and New York don’t think about the ramifications of the process” of going green, she says. “There’s a lot of naiveté about how the system works.”
Oliver won’t disclose how much “Ashes” cost to make but said it’s part of the $80 million her boss has pledged to the Sierra Club. But why a film? “We need to educate more people about the issues and have embraced filmmaking to inform,” says Oliver, who served as New York film commissioner for a decade. “With a platform like National Geographic, we can reach 440 million homes globally.” (National Geographic’s media operations are run by 21st Century Fox, which shares common ownership with Moneyish publisher Dow Jones.)
Ultimately, she’s still optimistic that environmentalism will cut through the smog. “The facts supporting coal mining just aren’t there,” says Oliver. “It’s a 19th century innovation that did its part for America. But now, it’s harming public health.”
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