The response to Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement was swift and encouraging. Hundreds of mayors, at least 10 states, and scores of businesses and universities issued statements or signed pledges to continue progress on climate change, with or without the federal government.
On the philanthropic front, Mike Bloomberg (who also serves as U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change) took a lead role in committing many of these parties to maintaining U.S. climate leadership. Bloomberg Philanthropies also pledged up to $15 million to the U.N. body that oversees implementation of the agreement to cover a portion of the operations costs the U.S. would have paid. Foundations like MacArthur, Hewlett, Rockefeller, McKnight, and Goldman foundations all made statements with varying degrees of disappointment, regret and condemnation.
We should celebrate their actions and draw hope from the fact that so many are willing to defy such a reckless decision by the president and the GOP. But Trump’s decision, and the political landscape that allowed it, reveal a larger problem—the American public is just not all that concerned about climate change. For example, a recent Gallup poll on the "Most Important Problems" facing the country found that environmental issues ranked 15th among non-economic concerns. Other polling has found the same thing, even as Americans report supporting the Paris Agreement. If the mass public doesn't care urgently about climate change, why should we expect our political leaders to care?
All this suggests that the wealthy donors and foundations working on climate change need to reexamine their priorities, along with their pace of giving. In addition to substantially increasing their grantmaking, as we've argued before, they should place a much bigger emphasis on grassroots movement building and local action across the country. Philanthropy can’t step in for a federal government that’s checked out on climate change, but it can fund those working hard to build support for changing federal policies from the ground up, and there’s no time to wait.
How Bad Is It?
Honestly, there’s a lot we don’t know about how bad the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will be for global emissions reductions. Other countries may pick up the slack in terms of global leadership, and we could catch up under a new administration. But Al Gore’s good spirits aside, we’re nowhere near where we need to be, and this makes things worse.
It’s true that given the voluntary nature of nations’ commitments, and the fact that Trump already set out to dismantle the Obama administration’s rules that would allow us meet ours, the withdrawal is kind of gratuitous. But the Paris Agreement itself is too weak as it stands, and the only way for it to work is if countries unite to create a virtuous cycle of meeting and ratcheting up reductions. American participation was a major part of that process, and backing out could kneecap it before it starts.
There’s also the fact that the United States' contribution to the Green Climate Fund, which provides aid to developing countries for their own integral efforts to reduce emissions, has gone up in smoke. The U.S. backed out of its $3 billion pledge, of which we had paid only $1 billion.
And while it’s true that unstoppable economic forces, along with state and local government action, are making important progress, we really need the federal government on board to sufficiently reduce the country's emissions. Earlier this year, Brad Plumer broke down this argument at Vox, making the case that current trends in electricity generation are not enough, that only a small number of states are taking strong enough actions, and sectors like agriculture and transportation are making little overall progress.
Overall, the United States is still far from doing its part to halt global warming, and we need much more of the country, in addition to the federal government, on board to do so. What’s most troubling, however, is that we don’t seem to have the political or public will to get there.
Funding a Climate Movement
I appreciate the optimism behind the idea that Trump can’t stop us from fighting global warming, and it’s true. But if you zoom out just a bit from Trump, it’s clear that our problem is much bigger than our unfortunate executive branch.
Remember, this wasn’t a rogue act—22 Republican senators encouraged the president to leave the Paris Agreement. Dozens of conservative think tanks and organizations, many enjoying substantial support from wealthy conservative donors, also urged the withdrawal, and conservative propaganda machines continue to fuel climate denial.
While public concern about climate change is trending up, it still leaves much to be desired, with 45 percent saying they “worry a great deal” about global warming. Gallup polling puts that number at 66 percent for Democrats, 45 percent for independents, and a stubborn 18 percent for Republicans. And remember, these numbers must be viewed in the context of the fact, as mentioned earlier, that most Americans still rank the issue near the bottom of their list of priorities.
In other words, this isn’t merely a Trump problem, or even a Paris Agreement problem—there are large swaths of U.S. leadership and population, especially on the right, who just don’t care about climate change, or are hostile to taking action to fight it. And until we change that, our ability to enact the level of change we need is limited.
That brings us to philanthropy. All hope is not lost, and the notable backlash to Trump shows that the people who do feel strongly are ready to go to bat on this issue. But it’s clear that we need a huge, ground-up climate movement in all states, and that movement needs funding.
This is a call we’ve made before—a few times, actually. But we’re at yet another pivot point.
- A Pitch to Billionaire Climate Donors: You Made the Pledge; Let’s Get To It
- Dear Climate Funders: The Clock is Ticking. Use Your Endowments
When we first made a pitch for accelerated climate funding, we asked nonprofits how they would use more money, and they came back with an impressive list of strategies, including:
- Diversifying the movement beyond the typical green community, by supporting underfunded grassroots and justice groups;
- Building public will and engagement at local and community levels across the country to break the political logjam; and
- Implementing state and local emissions reductions efforts.
There are, of course, a number of other important approaches like supporting R&D, clean energy work in China and India, and arts and cultural projects that can shift the public discussion.
In particular, our current state of affairs desperately calls for more funding for work at the local and grassroots levels. Not only is this area of environmentalism sorely underfunded, it’s also highly effective, as we’ve seen in pockets of victories and momentum around the country. It can continue bolstering steady progress, while building a broad and diverse movement to steer the country as a whole.
That requires funders and donors to reach far beyond the handful of usual big green groups, which have a role to play, but already receive the lion’s share of philanthropic support.
The money is there to give. Foundations and donors concerned about climate change are collectively sitting on many billions of dollars in endowments and accumulated personal wealth. Much of that wealth is even promised for philanthropy under Giving Pledge commitments, but funds are generally moving slowly.
If there’s one thing we know for sure about Trump’s decision to formally turn the nation’s back on climate change, it’s that it will slow down progress. We don’t have that time to lose, but it seems that we are having a moment, and we need the money to make it stronger.