The Long Game: Why More Funders Are Keen on Environmental Education

The effects of climate change are already here—just ask residents of Norfolk, Virginia. The city is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay, rivers, and creeks that are increasingly flooding its streets and buildings. 

In fact, Norfolk and the greater Hampton Roads metropolitan region make up one of the most vulnerable geographies in the country when it comes to rising sea levels. 

When coping with that kind of pressing vulnerability, it can be hard to grapple with the long game needed to tackle the global issue behind it. But as urgent as policy change or infrastructure funding are, for example, we still have a way to go when it comes to the general public’s understanding and acceptance of climate change. 

Even as flooding rises and scientists point to other alarming developments—most recently, an ominous crack in the Antarctic ice shelf—climate change remains a low concern for the American public. This problem has rarely, if ever, cracked the list of top priorities that people say the nation's leaders should be addressing. Meanwhile, there are few signs of major shifts in the public's behavior in response to environmental threats, such as buying fuel-efficient cars instead of SUVs. 

All this explains why some foundations and philanthropists have grown more keen on investing in environmental education—with the goal of changing cultural norms and attitudes over the long term.

We've written here and there about funders in this space, such as the Captain Planet Foundation and the Melinda Gray Ardia Environmental Foundation. But lately, we've noticed some newcomers, including the Pisces Foundation, which is funded by a Gap heir, and has lately rolled out major grantmaking on environmental education. Pisces says that such investments can alter "the context in which environmental, public health, and natural resource decisions are considered and ultimately made. It’s a game changer."

Similar thinking seems to underlie a recent grant to a public media outlet in the Norfolk area for K-12 environmental education. The $3 million donation to WHRO from Hampton Roads community leader and donor Jane Batten will create educational resources for students throughout the state on basic Earth science, environmental literacy, and a focus on sea level rise. 

Batten is the widow of media executive Frank Batten, both longtime philanthropists in the region focusing on causes like universities and early childhood education. The new program will be called the Batten Environmental Education Initiative.

Under the grant, new programming such as videos and online courses, and a mobile student lab, will be made available free of charge to public, private, and homeschooled kids. It’s common for public media organizations to create educational content, and WHRO, which is owned by the region’s public school divisions, currently delivers programming to students. But the environmental education focus is new.

On one hand, the grant is about meeting the state’s standards of learning goals, with the announcement noting that this aligns with the governor’s goal to prepare students for the jobs of the 21st century. But there’s also a connection to climate change, and the programming will include a video series and an interactive student lab focused on sea level rise.

It’s also worth noting that Virginia is a purple state, with some deep red strongholds. While it would be nice for environmental education to be a nonpartisan issue, that’s definitely not the case right now. Such an effort to engage more kids on these topics could make inroads in breaking down that barrier (or perhaps cause a backlash).

We have seen communities in mostly conservative geographies taking more steps to deal with the impacts of climate change. Having to cope with a problem on the ground is certainly one motivator for bypassing political conflict. Maybe education can be another factor. Environmental education doesn’t get a ton of attention in philanthropy, and again, climate change is such a pressing issue that it’s easy to overlook the long view. 

But one way progress is made is by introducing young people to new ideas. Climate change is a wedge issue right now, but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s also, unfortunately, a marathon, not a sprint.