How One Funder is Looking Back Millions of Years to Understand Climate Change

Heising-Simons is an emerging force in science and climate funding. (See our earlier overview of this funder.) One initiative that straddles the two is paleoclimatology—mining the Earth’s past to understand the impacts of rising temperatures. 

There’s a lot of frightening uncertainty surrounding the effects of climate change. As the impacts of heightened CO2 in the atmosphere reveal themselves, we’re learning that hotter summers are just a sliver of the story. Ocean acidification, extreme weather events, and changing habitats threaten to reshape the planet in ways we’ve never seen.

We talk about extremes being the new norm, and about building resiliency for the unexpected, but could there be ways to get a better idea of how spikes in temperature and CO2 change the earth? One possible way to do so involves climates of the distant past to inform the future. 

“There have been periods deep in the Earth’s past where we have seen similar situations, and maybe we haven’t really fully utilized all of the information from those time periods,” says Cyndi Atherton, science program director for Heising-Simons Foundation

“Maybe we could milk it for all it’s worth to inform us what we’re looking at going forward, if we continue along these trajectories.” 

With the funding area picking up steam in 2016, the foundation has awarded around $4 million to institutions working on paleoclimatology, the study of past climates, with grants as large as $1.26 million.  

It’s an initiative that merges two of this young foundation’s primary programs—climate change and science research—to explore a relatively small and underfunded niche of work. Heising-Simons is the philanthropy of donor couple Mark Heising and Liz Simons, recently adding daughter Caitlin Heising to the board. 

With Heising having a computer science and physics background, and Simons an educator, research is in this funder’s DNA. (Oh, and we should add: Liz's dad is Jim Simons, the mathemetician whose hedge fund fortune underwrites the Simons Foundation, a major backer of basic science research.) So it only makes sense that Heising-Simons' science program would bleed into its climate giving. Other climate initiatives backed by this funder include energy policy analysis, efficiency standards, and communicating about climate through meteorology reports. 

In particular, the foundation’s paleoclimatology initiative focuses on reconstructing data from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a period 56 million years ago when the Earth’s climate was abnormally warm, and using data from before, during, and after to improve our current climate models.  

The creation of the initiative followed a common approach the foundation takes to identifying new areas of funding. The team starts with a germ of an idea, then conducts interviews and roundtables discussions, bringing together experts from varying fields to exchange knowledge and figure out opportunities where funding might be needed. 

They tend to look for areas that are emerging or where there may be a shortage of funders engaged, where the level of grantmaking they can provide could make an impact. From there, they tend to make long-term commitments to chosen fields of interest, with most grants running three to five years, and continue convening experts to see where the work is taking them. 

Related: Inside the Heising-Simons Foundation: A Brainy Startup Finds its Way in 3 Major Arenas