The Nathan Cummings Foundation’s New Climate Reality Check

The Nathan Cummings Foundation has been making some big changes in the past couple of years, and its newly revamped climate program is all about climate change in the context of poverty and developing populations.  

NCF is a medium-sized foundation that, on the environment front, has been shaking up the status quo of the movement. In recent years, though, we’ve also witnessed quite a shake up in-house at NCF. The 25-year-old foundation has undertaken a strategic planning process that has meant casting aside a few of its earlier programs. And last year, it suddenly ousted its relatively new CEO, Simon Greer. 

The foundation's Interim President and CEO, Ernest Tollerson, is a major enviro. He worked as the sustainability director for the MTA and, in earlier times, at a leading environmental grantmaker, the Beldon Fund. So you can imagine there's been some curiosity about where NCF's climate program might be headed next. A new direction has been in the works for a while, but now it's official. 

NCF’s new climate program is all about facing the hard reality of climate change, as it relates to what we can expect in poor and developing populations in coming decades. Even with energy efficiency improving, more of the world is modernizing and using more energy. This could improve quality of life dramatically, but the future of energy use needs to face up to this rapid development, and vice versa. At the same time, those living in poverty are going to face the worst consequences as the effects of climate change take hold. 

So the new program has two objectives—improving access to clean energy to alleviate global poverty, while reducing greenhouse gases; and improving resilience for those most vulnerable. 

If that sounds bold for a foundation that grants around $18 million a year, you're right. In fact, it sounds not unlike the goals of a way larger foundation, Rockefeller. 

Related - Rockefeller Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

And given the ambition here, NCF will need to look for some creative programs to fund, rather than trying to create change with sheer muscle. But Nathan Cummings has always tried to take a different sort of cut at environmental issues, one that engages meta issues, and it’s never been big on your run-of-the-mill environmental groups. So we’re not talking about a huge deviation from its previous climate funding. The biggest difference is that NCF has mostly been U.S.-focused, while this set of objectives seems to be looking toward global change. 

It also feels like yet another reality check from Nathan Cummings, worthy of the foundation that has been a major backer of the Breakthrough Institute, known for its “Death of Environmentalism” paper back in 2004. Cummings seems to want the movement to recognize that its efforts to ensure clean energy and more efficiency could be rendered moot as those advances increase energy use in developing countries and the overall production of greenhouse gases. As it happens, the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger, made this exact point in a New York Times op-ed piece last fall. 

So while great victories are now in the making to reduce "energy poverty," the Nathan Cummings Foundation notes that "countries in the developing world are expected to double their GHG emissions in the next two decades as they consume more energy and lift millions out of poverty."

This is a classic good news/bad news story, and one that's played out since the dawn of the Industrial Age: Technology improves the human condition, but with grave ecological consequences. In this case, there's an added irony: The world's poor stand to benefit greatly from better access to energy, while bearing the brunt of the climate change that's exacerbated with the proliferation of lights and refrigerators. 

NCF has definitely homed in on a pivotal dilemma facing humanity. Next up is making grants that tackle this vast challenge in a way commensurate with the foundation's resources. 

Regarding the strategic plan, what happens to the NCF's other priorities? Well, it does look like NCF has left itself a route to continue projects in some of its former programs—arts, culture, religion, and contemplative practices still have a presence in the climate resilience objective, and the foundation's overall stated approach. 

The new program is once again accepting LOIs, and you can see the full program description here

Related - Nathan Cummings Foundation: Grants for Climate Change