Getting the United States to take meaningful action on climate change means building a lot more power, starting in communities where people are most vulnerable, and then building local momentum into state and national solutions.
That’s the philosophy of Roger Kim, and the Climate Fund he’s been overseeing at the Democracy Alliance since last year. The DA formed the Climate Fund in late 2015, pooling money from foundations and donors to back local groups organizing around climate, particularly among the most impacted communities, low-income communities, and people of color.
It’s not an approach that overall environmental philanthropy has excelled at—green giving has a track record of underfunding smaller grassroots organizations and justice and equity work—but Kim and the Democracy Alliance are trying to close that gap. I talked with Kim about where the fund is headed, and why the DA chose this route. It’s a moral decision, building power and leadership in vulnerable areas, but it’s also a strategic one.
“These are the communities where we’re seeing not only rising rates of inequality, but also profound growth in terms of the demographics of this country,” says Kim, who previously served as senior advisor to the Mayor of San Francisco and as executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). “That’s frankly where our strongest base of support is, and we haven’t invested enough in that pillar of support and power, to be more active and in a leadership role in tackling this issue.”
The kind of organizing the fund supports is often called “just transition,” or climate justice work, a flavor of climate change philanthropy that is in the minority, but which is gaining some momentum under champions like the Chorus Foundation and newcomers like Nathan Cummings and even Bloomberg. It seeks not only to cut emissions and switch to clean energy, but to do so in a way that builds power in marginalized communities and reduces inequality.
The Democracy Alliance, a network of liberal donors that coordinates funds toward candidates and causes, chose this as its niche in the climate space under the leadership of Gara LaMarche, who took over in 2013 after years with Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundations. The Climate Fund’s direction was shaped by several DA members, including Sarah Christiansen and Guillermo Quinteros of Solidago Foundation, Lee Wasserman of Rockefeller Family Fund, Josie Mooney of NextGen Climate, and Kathleen Welch of Corridor Partners. Farhad Ebrahimi, head of Chorus Foundation and a DA board member, also played an important leadership role.
Now in its second year, this combination of two funds—a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), the latter offering a strategic advantage of reduced lobbying and political restrictions—is looking to expand from four states to as many as eight. With major backing from Hewlett, a new stream of support from MacArthur, and around 20 total donors, the combined grantmaking budget for 2017 is approaching $2 million, up from about a million in 2016.
That's not a monumental sum, especially by the opposition’s standards, but the high interest in the fund, especially that of supporters with massive war chests like Hewlett and MacArthur, suggests a movement may be in the making within climate philanthropy itself.
"A Political Power Problem"
The challenge at hand is activating the public on an issue that is performing better in polls, but still relatively low on most Americans’ priority lists, while facing a sharp partisan divide and deep-pocketed interests undermining action.
Despite progress in cities and states, and during the Obama administration, the U.S. announcing its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, in particular, indicated just how far the country is from being the leader on climate that the rest of the world needs it to be.
As Kim puts it, even as public opinion on the issue moves in the right direction with higher support for taking action, the ability to enact policy change federally and in the states is actually getting worse.
“That, fundamentally, is a political power problem,” he says.
Kim sees several factors driving the lack of political power behind climate action. For one, as has long been the case, there’s well-funded opposition to action on climate change backed by the fossil fuel industry and conservative donors. But it goes beyond that.
“Our predicament around the political power problem is also shaped by this lack of investment in key pieces of our own infrastructure in the climate movement that build durable sources of political power,” Kim says.
The climate and environmental movements have traditionally been good at important tactics like litigation, policy and grass-tops organizing, he says, but have lagged when it comes to building broad-based power on the ground.
Environmental philanthropy as a whole has been guilty of overlooking the need to broaden and diversify that base. For example, both green philanthropy and nonprofits are persistently lacking in diversity, and one NCRP report found only 15 percent of environmental grantmaking benefitted marginalized communities, and 11 percent advanced social justice strategies. Giving is also top heavy, with one EGA survey of its members finding that among 6,000 grantees in 2013, the largest 3 percent of grantees (200 groups) received 53 percent of funding.
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“There’s a structural imbalance in terms of the flow of resources to the largest organizations and their dominance in the field,” Kim says. “What we need is more of the smaller and mid-level organizations to grow and to expand, and frankly, those are the groups … that have real, authentic connections to the communities in which we are trying to build power.”
Supporting local groups in impacted communities is important, Kim says. While such groups often work with very small budgets, they are also among the greatest champions for action. Community groups are also closer to the ground and can be more responsive to unique concerns in each locale, led by people who are closest to the problems.
“These are the groups that are known in their neighborhoods, have been able to maybe address other critical needs in the communities that are not related to climate and energy, and have track records there.”
That local power can then jump to larger changes at the state level and higher, especially when backed with both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) funds. Before starting with the DA, Kim had seen this firsthand in his work with APEN, which organized community members in Richmond, California, against a Chevron oil refinery expansion, on the basis of health and safety threats. That local base was then able to support the long-term solution—the state’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
"The Two Big Issues"
This approach to climate change is also crucial because these communities the DA fund supports are more vulnerable to climate change impacts and have high levels of poverty, both of which need to be addressed.
“At a time when I feel like the two big issues that this country is facing are climate change and the growing gap in inequality, it’s imperative that we figure out ways of tackling climate change and transitioning to a clean energy future in a way that actually promotes economic, social and environmental justice,” Kim says.
Low-income and communities of color tend to experience the brunt of the negative consequences of climate change, and in that sense, both climate mitigation and resilience efforts are inherently justice issues.
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As the global economy shifts away from its reliance on fossil fuel extraction, there’s the matter of what lies on the other side.
“Who’s actually going to have access to clean energy and electric vehicles? Will the transition to a low-carbon, clean energy future reproduce and exacerbate inequalities, or are they actually going to help protect, and build, and distribute benefits more broadly to reduce those disparities?”
On-Ramps to Climate Change
Organizing around climate change means getting people to care about a global problem that can feel 50 years off and as far away as the Arctic, problems that some insist aren't even happening. No small task.
For Kim, it’s all about making the issue real as it relates to individuals, something that can be experienced very differently from city to city—in energy costs, flooding, storms, heat waves, asthma rates, etc. Kim calls these “on-ramps” to engaging in the issue of climate change. These connections to climate are already muddied by climate denial, but environmentalists haven’t always succeeded in getting the issue to land, Kim says.
“We need to do a better job, as the climate movement, in articulating what this means for real people’s everyday lives,” he says. “People need to be able to point to and see and smell and touch and feel the solutions to this, whether that’s a solar panel on their roof that’s helping a family save on their energy bill, or energy efficiency measures... or access to electric vehicles.”
As far as how giving is playing out, in the first year, DA awarded support in Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio, and depending on budget, the fund is looking to expand to between two and four additional states.
In Virginia, for example, the Climate Fund has supported the New Virginia Majority, an organizing group that works on issues like economic justice, immigrant rights and criminal justice reform. The DA’s support backs building public support in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Hampton Roads, a coastal area that is among the most threatened in the country by sea level rise. The group has organized around the local problem of coal dust pollution, but is connecting that issue to climate change, and the persistent flooding in the region.
In climate philanthropy, donors are often drawn to thinking big—big bets, big groups, big national policy, big breakthroughs in technology—sometimes to the point of deterring giving in the first place. While massive investments and grants are certainly needed, often it’s these local problems and solutions that build up to lasting, durable change.
“By making them real and tangible at a local level, it only accelerates what we are going to do at a state level and how that adds up to a global level,” Kim says.
To get in touch with the Climate Fund, you can reach Roger Kim here.