Resilience is Hot Among Climate Funders. Here's Who Is Out Front Prepping for Doom

The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was 2,600 pages of doom about the coming impacts of climate change. In short, we’re already experiencing the effects, but things stand to get much worse, including food shortages, damaged infrastructure and violent conflict. While most climate funding is to reduce carbon emissions, there are some funders preparing for looming consequences. 

Climate change has been a top issue in philanthropy since the mid-2000s, to the point that it’s difficult to find a foundation with an environment program that doesn’t include it at least as a subprogram (the large exception being the Walton Family Foundation). Same goes for nonprofits. The bulk of this giving tends to focus on efficiency, clean energy, public transit, etc. Which makes sense, since the overwhelming recommendation from scientists is that we have to stop pumping so much carbon into the atmosphere. 

But there’s a segment of climate change philanthropy that’s sending a warning about the grim reality that at least some of these hugely disruptive threats to our systems are coming, no matter what. Programs for “climate adaptation” or “climate resilience” have taken hold in recent years, whether it’s due to political stagnation, stubborn public denial of the problem, or warnings that we’re already past the point of no return. 

As a report from Kresge Foundation put it in 2012, following a workshop it convened on the topic:

As recently as five years ago, climate change adaptation was regarded as taboo – akin to giving up on the climate crisis. It is fair to say that the nascent field of climate change adaptation has since gained widespread acceptance. Despite continuing debate in the U.S., public and professional acceptance of the need to address the impacts of climate change proactively has been increasing. 

To be clear, these foundations are not abandoning attempts to cut greenhouse gases so we can mitigate the worst consequences. But with chatter increasing about the scope of these potential consequences, we’ll likely see this realm of funding grow. 

Here are the leading foundations giving to the issue:

1. The Rockefeller Foundation 

Rockefeller has been on the resilience case for quite a while, having given nearly 180 grants from its Climate Change Resilience Program as far back as 2007. Its focus has been on the developing world, and in some cases constitutes something of a global relief effort, recognizing that already, for “millions of people around the world, the consequences of climate change are increasingly devastating.”

This funder seeks to help those with the fewest resources and the biggest threats prepare for and withstand crises as a result of climate change. It has three areas of focus—Asian urban environments, African agriculture, and U.S. policy. One of Rockefeller’s more notable recent initiatives in this program is the Urban Climate Change Resilience Partnership, a $140 million fund to help 25 cities in six Asian countries, available for things like water and land-use planning, physical infrastructure and early warning systems. 

Rockefeller Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

2. The Kresge Foundation

As the earlier quote suggests, the Detroit-based funder has been one of the most proactive funders in this realm, with a mission to support vulnerable populations in cities. They just refined their environment program, and resilience in the face of climate change is the underlying goal. Again, part of that involves reducing emissions so as to dodge the very worst, but Kresge is adamant that the future stands to be “volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous,” as President Rip Rapson has said.

Kresge’s giving all stems from social justice, and how the poor will be disproportionately impacted by climate change. Rapson’s comments about the subject at a recent talk were downright sci-fi inspired, calling for a revolution in how cities operate in relation to the future, and referencing writers like Madeleine L’Engle and Kurt Vonnegut. 

Kresge’s priority is funding place-based solutions that can serve as models for other cities, and then, as with the 2012 conference, to bring those solutions to scale by building the greater field. While the refined program just launched, one large past grantee is the Institute for Sustainable Communities, based in Vermont. 

Kresge Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

3. The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation 

After those first two, there’s a pretty big drop off in terms of prioritization. MacArthur’s environmental giving is primarily conservation-based and focused on a few key areas of biodiversity. However, in 2011 the foundation revised its conservation program to include “climate change mitigation and adaptation” as one of four issues it will focus on. So the grants to climate issues alone are just a chunk of the environment program alone, but MacArthur is massive, and of those grants, there are some notable programs on climate adaptation. 

NatureServe, for example, is a frequent grantee of MacArthur’s, receiving more than $2 million since 2003. Some of that funding has gone to resilience, in particular in South America, one of its geographic priorities. Another interesting recent grant went to the RAND Corporation, another regular grantee, to develop metrics to gauge the level of preparedness in state and local governments. And EcoAdapt, a Bainbridge Island, WA-based nonprofit solely devoted to this subject received $400,000 to hold a National Adaptation Forum. 

MacArthur Foundation: Grants for Conservation

4. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation 

Moore is also mostly a conservation funder, with its main priorities related to Amazon protection, deforestation, and marine protection. But it’s become a pretty large funder on climate issues as they relate to those focuses. For example, Moore is a member of the Climate and Land Use Alliance, which deals with climate as it relates to deforestation and agriculture. 

Adaptation grants pop up in its environmental funding, mostly concerning how it affects conservation. For example, Moore has given a couple of grants to EcoAdapt, to incorporate climate change adaptation into Marine Spatial Planning, a big priority for the foundation. The funder also gave nearly a million to the Pepperwood Foundation, a wildlife preserve, to develop climate adaptation conservation strategies in the San Francisco Bay Area. And nearly $1.8 million went to the Sonoma Land Trust, in part to prepare for climate change.

Moore Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

5. Surdna Foundation 

Surdna is a sizable, New York-based foundation with one of three programs dedicated to Sustainable Environments. While it’s not explicitly about climate adaptation, its approach to sustainable cities is quite similar to Kresge’s vision of future cities. The program is all about overhauling infrastructure—not just bolstering it—to improve transportation, food and water systems. It actually makes for an kind of an odd program, not quite fitting into your typical green categories.  

It does, however, support a few programs working in climate adaptation and resilience. For example, it’s funded the Institute for Sustainable Communities (also Kresge and MacArthur-funded) for its Climate Leadership Academy, which helps cities reduce emissions and bolster climate resilience. And it’s supported Climate Interactive to create a simulation system that can test green stormwater infrastructure, in part as it relates to climate change.  

Surdna Foundation: Grants for Climate Change

6. Community Foundations

Politics and national policy aside, cities are getting worried about the effects of climate change, especially coastal cities. So it’s not too surprising that some of the foundations working to prepare for impacts are community foundations. When these funders take a look at how their cities can prosper in the next 50 years, it must be increasingly hard to look past climate change. Community funders like the San Francisco Foundation, the San Diego Foundation, the Community Foundation of Sonoma County, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the Vermont Community Foundation have all waded into funding this type of work on some level. San Diego Foundation, in particular, has an active climate program, funding a regional assessment back in 2009 of the threats facing the region subtitled “A Regional Wake-Up Call.” And the New York Community Trust recently hired a new environmental program officer, Arturo Garcia-Costas, who came to the job fresh off work on New York's Sea Level Rise Task Force, which explored how to make regional communities more resilient to coastal storms and climate change. (See our article about Garcia-Costas.)

This is still a relatively small piece of overall environmental funding, and not many foundations have made it an explicit priority. We're mostly seeing funders chipping in here and there. But there's a definite drumbeat the reality of these threats. And in a counterintuitive way, the framing of some of these programs can actually feel more optimistic than other climate activism, feeling out how we envision a future in our communities—how we might survive and even thrive in the face of crisis.