The ‘Risky Business’ Climate Change Team is Picking up Steam

The Risky Business Initiative, a band of very different people making a common economic argument for confronting climate change, is gaining momentum—and funders. Will we see more philanthropists supporting this understated approach to the issue?

When Risky Business started, it was just an idea for a report on the economic costs associated with climate change, pitched to billionaire green activist Tom Steyer by one of his lieutenants. To insulate against entanglement in partisanship, Steyer recruited some fellow philanthropists—Republican Hank Paulson and independent Mike Bloomberg to join him in presenting the report. 

Related - What's Next for the Dream Team of Donors Behind the Latest Climate Alert?

But now, as the New York Times reported recently, Risky Business is taking on a life of its own. It’s turned into a "Risk Committee" of prestigious members, including former senators, cabinet members, and otherwise wealthy and/or powerful people spreading the message. Risky Business just put out its second report. And now the outfit is hiring a full-time staff. In short, a few rich guys and a one-off report are morphing into a full-fledged thing.  

Risky Business is also picking up philanthropic support. 

When the initiative formed in 2013, it was backed by Steyer, Paulson, and Bloomberg, each of whom put up half a million for the report, plus additional support from the Skoll Global Threats Fund. By the time the Risky Business report came out in 2014, the initiative had added the Rockefeller Family Fund to its list of backers. 

But things are apparently getting more serious, as the project picked up $1 million in support from the MacArthur Foundation, one of the country’s biggest funders, and one historically known for its conservation work when it comes to the environment. We reported not long ago that MacArthur is embarking on a foundation-wide exploration of ramping up its climate funding, and backing the Risk gang appears to be part of it. 

The Heising-Simons Foundation, the philanthropy of Liz Simons (daughter of philanthropic titan James Simons and sister of behind-the-scenes climate donor Nat Simons) has kicked in to the effort. And finally (for now), Risky Business has recruited a couple of the more prominent Midwestern environment funders—the McKnight Foundation and the Joyce Foundation. That brings this latest phase of funding to a total of $1.7 million. These last two joined up as part of the project’s latest report, which focuses on the Midwestern impacts of climate change. (Perhaps nudged by Risky Business member and former Cargill CEO Gregory Page?)

That adds up to one small but mighty roster of influential funders backing a small but mighty team of influential adocates. 

As for why this project is gaining traction, either these guys have a lot of time to kill in their retirements and just like to hang out, or they are making headway on the issue. The project is interesting in that all of the members have their own agendas. They don’t all acknowledge that humans are causing climate change, but they’re all really worried about its threat to the bottom line, and want others to recognize that threat. 

The “strange bedfellows” approach to advocacy is not new, but this is a fresh take on it. The Times feature describes how members employ a soft touch in their many meetings with farm bureaus, chambers of commerce, businesses, local community groups—basically, a lot of people who aren't normally getting in bed with environmentalists. But when they hear a former Bush cabinet member talking about their own local economies, they listen. 

Maybe this incremental turning of the tide can make progress that research and lobbying has not. Some pretty serious philanthropists seem to think so.