After the Paris Climate Summit, Time for Philanthropy to Step Things Up

Climate negotiations wrapping up this week in Paris mark an unprecedented moment of global action and momentum on climate change. They also reveal our utter, collective failure on the issue. That combination only reaffirms that now is the time for the wealthy to max out on climate philanthropy. 

Over the past year, Inside Philanthropy and other voices in the sector have been calling for increased funder commitment to climate work, prompted by the sort of palpable sense that things are starting to happen, but also that it’s just not nearly enough.


That’s a familiar sentiment for people who work in or even just read about climate change—the simultaneous sense of hope and optimism in response to signs of progress, coupled with abject despair due to the mostly grim situation. It’s probably deserving of its own German word. For many, it seems to be peaking with the Paris COP21 talks. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning environment writer Elizabeth Kolbert put these mixed feelings particularly well on the New Yorker Radio Hour in November: 

"The world is reaching a critical point of either committing to doing something or throwing up its hands and really letting the worst happen. And I think there is a sense among world leaders, including Barack Obama, that something must be done. So in that sense there is momentum,” she says, interviewed by David Remnick. 

As Remnick chimes in with understandable skepticism, Kolbert concurs, “A reasonable person could look at both the geophysics and the economics, and the politics, and despair. That is a very reasonable response.”

That convergence of overwhelming work to be done and the glimmers of progress exemplified by COP21 makes it the perfect moment in history for philanthropy to take unprecedented action.

Reason for Hope and Despair

On the hopeful side, it appears that some agreement will come out of the talks, intended to commit nearly every country in the world to plans that would cut emissions. The governments of the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest emitters, are among those pledging to take domestic action, where both have dragged their feet for decades. The United States is bringing to the table steps like EPA’s power plant rules, and the rejection of the Keystone pipeline.

Probably the most exciting indicators contributing to a sense of progress are happening at city levels. Mike Bloomberg acting as a special U.N. envoy has been promoting the role of cities to make an impact, including releasing a report (pdf) touting their importance. 

“Cities are where the people are, cities are where the problems are, cities are where the solutions are,” he said alongside Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the New York Times reports.

In the past week or so, we’ve seen the Department of Transportation launch a $50 million competition in partnership with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. to reward city transportation innovation. There’s also the push led by Bill Gates for huge private and public investments in energy tech R&D (read criticism of his plan here). Stuff is happening. 

On the other hand, U.S. politics and public sentiment are insufficient for U.S. compliance with any global bargain, and they stand to hold back large-scale domestic progress. 

As climate talks kicked off, Congress approved resolutions to gut the president’s executive action on power plant emissions, sending an unsubtle message that the rest of this country’s government is not on board. Mainstream Republicans in the United States still say they don’t believe that climate change is real. And while public opinion does appear to be shifting in a good direction, there are wide swaths of the American public that are still totally uninterested in taking action or joining a global agreement on climate change. 

It is impossible to look at our domestic politics alongside the country’s pledges to reduce emissions, not to mention the profound power and influence the fossil fuel industry maintains, and not be highly pessimistic. 

U.S. political reality will concretely affect COP21’s outcomes, as it ensures an agreement that emerges, even as underwhelming and insufficient its pledges may be, will not be legally binding, because the president could never get it ratified back home. That same resistance will make it exceedingly difficult to deliver our portion of climate aid to developing countries. 

All Reasons to Move Money Now

So basically, COP21 is a historic moment for global climate change efforts, from which a non-binding, wildly insufficient agreement will emerge. Both things can be true, and both things are OK. 

That’s because the agreement is a road map like we’ve never had before, with at least incremental action, and a path to greater action, being drafted by all of the major players. As Vox’s Brad Plumer points out, “The actual goal is much more modest: to add structure and momentum to efforts that are already underway, in legislatures and laboratories and cities and boardrooms around the world, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

But once the diplomatic meetings are over, if such efforts are to grow and accelerate as planned, they need money. 

Kolbert explains how COP21 could set in motion new resources toward the issue. “The idea is that this will become a virtuous cycle. Money and investment will follow the direction and the signals given in Paris. That is the best you can hope for.“

While she wasn’t specifically referring to philanthropy, the sector can be a force of nature in this regard. Foundations and donors don’t have to worry about congressional approval (although boards can pose a comparable challenge), or shareholders and ROI. While the work to be done in coming years is daunting, this is a unique time when committing funds could bear fruit where it’s failed to in the past. Philanthropy can be an accelerant to that virtuous cycle. 

At least some of philanthropy's biggest players recognize this. In a recent op-ed by MacArthur Foundation President Julia Stasch and Robertson Foundation President Julian Robertson, they echo an earlier op-ed by fellow foundation presidents, calling for greater philanthropy to curb climate change.

The Paris talks involve pledges to reduce emissions from nearly 170 countries. In this complex context, foundations are singularly situated to provide essential support for the nonprofits that will build an infrastructure to effectively monitor, support, and leverage progress at every level and in every critical place.

Well put, and we’ve given credit to MacArthur for launching a climate program and to others for their leadership on the issue. But even the best examples could be doing much, much more. 

That’s why, in previous posts, we issued a challenge to foundations to abandon the typical timid annual spending of 5 percent of assets, and to dip into their endowments to fund this urgent work—now. We’re also calling on those billionaire donors who have signed the Giving Pledge and already fund on climate change, like Julian Robertson, to acelerate the pace of giving to meet their pledge, since time is of the essence. If ever there were a moment for living donors to frontload their giving, now is it, on the climate issue. 

While some might think that the big environmental groups are amply funded, that's just wrong—at least relative to the challenge they're up against, which includes challenging America's carbon-intensive way of life and taking on one of the nation's most powerful industries, an industry in alliance with a political party that controls both houses of congress and a majority of state houses. 

More philanthropic dollars are needed in this battle—a lot more. There is substantial work to be done, as identified when we recently asked eight leading nonprofit leaders what they would do with more funding, including: 

  • Breaking loose the political deadlock and building public will behind the issue. 
  • Diversifying the climate movement by branching out from typical environmentalist circles and the three or four major green groups. Engaging with grassroots and justice groups to build a constituency that reflects the depth of the issue.
  • Implementing state and local emissions reductions to comply with federal regulations in ways that benefit affected communities.

And other diverse, distributed solutions, including backing the substantial efforts happening in cities to increase efficiency, improve transit, change local energy mixes, and improve electricity grids. All of this work and more needs to kick into overdrive coming out of Paris, and Obama and Bill Gates can't pull it off. 

The climate talks capture why it is both a hopeful and deeply concerning time to be on the planet. But if that concern can act as motivation, we can move substantial private wealth toward the kind of work that will only build hope, and let’s hope, speed up that virtuous cycle.