A Pitch to Billionaire Climate Donors: You Made the Pledge; Let’s Get To It

Editor’s Note: This is the second post in which Inside Philanthropy has called on some of the most influential givers to dramatically escalate the level at which they are funding efforts to combat climate change. Be sure to read our first installment: Dear Climate Funders: The Clock is Ticking. Use Your Endowments

Billionaires, we’d like just a moment of your time.

No, not you David Koch or John Paulson, this probably isn’t your kind of thing. We’re talking to a specific set of business titans, here—you guys who have more than a billion in the bank, have pledged to give most of it away, and are deeply concerned about climate change.

Namely, we’re talking to Mike Bloomberg, Eric Schmidt, Tom Steyer, Jeff Skoll, and Paul Allen. Here’s our idea. Sorry, we don’t have a slide deck.

The Elevator Pitch

You five have made it clear that you know climate change is a serious and imminent threat. We’re at a pivotal moment for action and curbing the worst effects, but things aren’t happening fast enough. Collectively, you have unique access to many billions of dollars, plus you’ve publicly committed to giving most of it away before you die. Some of you are already funding climate change efforts in a big way. But you all need to go bigger. We want you to give at least 10 percent of your wealth to fight climate change in the next five years, start a historic movement, and help save the world.

How was that? We’ve been practicing in front of a mirror.


We recognize that is a big ask. For Mike Bloomberg alone, that’s a $3.8 billion check. But this is a big problem, an existential threat the likes of which neither philanthropy nor industry have ever encountered before.

According to Risky Business, a project funded and publicized by Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Hank Paulson, the United States alone stands to see $106 billion in coastal property flooding by 2050. There’s a one in 20 chance that by 2100, more than $701 billion worth of coastal property will fall below mean sea levels, with another $730 billion threatened during high tide. This is only coastal flooding damage we’re talking about, but that report you guys published made it very clear that between agriculture, labor, energy costs, etc., climate change could be a crippling blow the American economy.

Economics aside, climate change threatens to undermine many of the philanthropic causes championed by so many wealthy donors like you. The public health goals that Mike Bloomberg made his legacy, marine conservation that Paul Allen and the Schmidts are so devoted to—lifetimes of work funded by millions in you and your peers have given to these worthy causes could unravel.

But you all know this, because you have already demonstrated that climate change is a priority, whether that’s Mike’s millions in donations to Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, or Jeff’s Skoll Global Threats Fund, or Paul Allen’s bankrolling a federal lawsuit to limit coal mining.

Things are, indeed, happening. The way the business community and city leaders are rallying around the cause, political deadlock be damned, is evidence that the logjam is breaking loose. But the challenge remains staggering, and we are not on track to meet the imperative of staying within two degrees of pre-industrial global temperatures, the agreed-upon “point of no return” for the worst effects of climate change.

Swift action by those who have the means to really shake the ground and stave off the worst effects will show a return on investment many, many times over, and define the legacy of the world’s private sector leaders. Delay, and half-measures will only undo previous work.

Value Proposition

Despite the grim picture, in these wild and crazy times we live in, there is an unprecedented set of private individuals who have the power to make an impact in ways only nation-states could before.

UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2015 “Billionaires” report found that we haven’t seen this kind of growth in wealth since the start of the 20th century, and much of it is self-made, and in the United States. The majority of the world’s current billionaires have made their money within the past 20 years, during which time they created more than $3.6 trillion in wealth.

With this accumulation, philanthropy has also grown, and the culture of donating has changed. Billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg are giving in earnest, and younger than ever. A productive conversation about how much is the right amount to give away, and when, has emerged surrounding the Giving Pledge.

In fact, a big part of why we’re talking to you is that you’ve all signed the Giving Pledge, making a commitment to donate more than half of your wealth in your lifetimes.

All of this is to say that there’s more money in play to benefit the social good than we’ve seen in a century, if not ever, and you five have committed to giving a lot of your portions away. That’s why we’re talking to you. You understand the impact you can have.

And while it’s great that you've all pledged eventually to part with much of your wealth, and have also prioritized climate change, what you need to do now is to move faster. A lot faster. With time running out on climate change, the Pledgers who care about this issue should make good on their commitments sooner rather than later. Indeed, if ever there was a case for front-loading philanthropic investments that will be made anyway, this is it.

Business Plan

We did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and came up with just how much of an impact you five alone could have. Again, we’re singling you out—Bloomberg, Schmidt, Steyer, Skoll, and Allen—because of your level of wealth and demonstrated commitment to philanthropy and the importance of climate change.

Based on your current net worth estimations by Forbes, you five alone are worth more than $72 billion dollars. We’ll make the same pitch we made to our favorite climate funders: 10 percent. Commit to giving 10 percent of your wealth within the next five years, totaling $7.2 billion, to benefit NGOs working on a diverse set of strategies to combat climate change.

I know you guys are big on metrics, outcomes, strategies, and such. So surely you’re wondering exactly what you’re being asked to fund—and whether such additional work would really make a difference. Well, we’ve done the due diligence for you. We’ve talked to eight of the executives leading the country’s top nonprofits working in climate change, and they had a lot of impressive plans that they would execute if they had the funds. You can read all about their plans here, but to name a few priorities:

  • Diversifying the movement to activate minority, community, and justice groups.
  • Breaking political deadlock with tailored campaigns in localities across the country.
  • Implementing emissions reductions at state and local levels, where dozens of administrations, legislatures, and utilities directly control GHG levels.
  • Campaigning to shut down more coal plants and shift from natural gas to clean energy.

As Gwen Ruta, VP of Climate and Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, told us: “Would more make a difference? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Now more than ever, in fact. While crucial progress is happening at every level, the window for action is closing.”

Growth Strategy

You may be thinking to yourselves, You know, we’re not even the richest guys out here (OK, Bloomberg isn’t thinking that). Does this problem really begin and end with us?  

The answer is no, this won’t end with you. We already mentioned the push to accelerate giving among major foundations. Then there are some of your peers. You five could set an example, just as the Giving Pledge has inspired others, and we believe the “Climate Crisis Fund” we envision will gain momentum. There are a lot of other billionaires out there who have signed the pledge and care deeply about the issue, but we just haven’t seen the kind of philanthropy we’ve hoped for from them.

Elon Musk has stuck to entrepreneurship, and is still finding his way as a philanthropist. Richard Branson’s intended billions toward energy advancements haven’t materialized, and his carbon capture contest is, well, a carbon capture contest.

If these guys alone get on board, your fund hits $10 billion. And imagine all of the mid-level wealthy donors who would jump on board to be part of this team, not to mention people like Gordon and Betty Moore, or Hansjorg Wyss, environmental donors who have stuck mostly to conservation giving.

Oh and there’s one more guy we have in mind—our dream Angel Investor, if you will.

Bill Gates has, thus far, been a disappointment when it comes to climate change philanthropy. He’s a believer, he publicly talks about it, but he has some stubborn opinions on the issue and on the right strategy to combat it. His biggest contribution was a major commitment to invest in energy technology, which is fantastic.

But Gates helms the largest foundation in the country, and has yet to embrace climate change as a top issue. This is especially puzzling, given the WHO’s estimates that climate change will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress from 2030 to 2050. It’s past time for Gates get on board. You can do the math and figure out how much of a difference his $77 billion could make if he follows your lead.

We can’t wait for Gates or Musk to kick into gear on this, or wait for their bets on tech breakthroughs to pay off. There’s tremendous work on the ground imperative in the immediate term to lower emissions, and we need to be firing on all cylinders.

You think big, in business and philanthropy. You want to change the world, save lives, avert crises. Well here’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do all of that. Thanks for your time, gentlemen.