That Dire New Climate Report is a Call to Action for Every Funder. Here’s What Needs to Happen

photo: 2M media/shutterstock

photo: 2M media/shutterstock

It would be quite understandable to react to the report released by the IPCC this week with despair. It is, in many ways, the bleakest publication we’ve seen from the UN’s panel of leading climate scientists—outlining the disastrous consequences of surpassing 1.5 degrees celsius of warming, a threshold we’re currently on track to blow past if we don’t make unprecedented societal changes.

But it’s simultaneously the clearest call to urgent action that climate scientists have issued, and one that the philanthropic sector, along with every other, has a moral obligation to answer. 

The 91 authors, citing over 6,000 sources, warn that in order to avoid severe and potentially irreversible impacts from climate change, humanity would have to slash its carbon emissions to almost half of 2010 levels by 2030, just for starters. So there’s every reason to be pessimistic.

At the same time, there’s something surprisingly encouraging about the contents of the report. For one, it provides a vision of what it would really take to tackle this problem—what it looks like to get serious—including an exhaustive catalog of climate solutions at our disposal. Also, by outlining the stark differences between the consequences of 1.5 and 2 degrees, it’s a reminder that every bit of warming and every action we take to stop it are profoundly important.

An underlying message of the report is that for all of the denial, apathy, industry resistance, and a malign federal government, we have solutions and multiple pathways to a better future. As Eric Holthaus put it, “a dead world is not our destiny.” 

The report brings new clarity to the fact that we need everyone working on this, and a broad arsenal of solutions. Which brings us to philanthropy. 

In response to the IPCC’s report and growing climate impacts we’re seeing around the world, we need the sector to reach its own tipping point. Far more donors and foundations need to realize how history will look upon wealthy institutions worldwide that collectively sat on at least $1.5 trillion in assets as experts called for a heroic effort to avert global suffering—and then those foundations need to take greater action. That means already committed funders giving more, and many new funders with disparate interests prioritizing climate change for the first time.

Sure, critics like myself will still take shots at foundations’ choices and theories of change, and there will be endless debate about strategy and effectiveness. There will also be much-needed debate about inequality and the growing influence of wealth. But for now, I want to focus mainly on what the sector can do.  

A Growing But Insufficient Response

Foundations and the donor class have not been absent in climate action by any means, and there is a lot of important work being funded in renewables, energy efficiency, diplomacy, and more. But the response has not been what you would expect, considering the pervasive nature of the threat. 

A group of large foundations, including Hewlett, Packard, Sea Change, and the funding intermediary ClimateWorks have been trying to change this, urging more philanthropies to step up. ClimateWorks estimates annual philanthropy for climate mitigation has, in fact, about doubled from $380 million in 2013 to $775 million in 2017 (U.S. and Europe). A group of 29 foundations recently announced more than $3 billion in new pledges to the issue over the next five years, and rallied around the protection of forests and indigenous land rights as an undervalued form of climate action.

But there is still so much more the sector can do. ClimateWorks also estimates climate funding is a meager 1 percent of foundation giving in the E.U. and the United States. 

We can only speculate as to why. At some point, tackling climate change requires a challenging of global power structures and industry, which wealthy institutions may not have an appetite for. The sector also shies away from political advocacy, often more than the law requires. Part of the inaction is also likely of the same sort that deters individual engagement—it’s a complicated and diffuse problem, and I suspect some are unsure of the first steps to get out of the path of the oncoming train. 

Another issue, a drum we’ve been beating for a while now, is institutional inertia that prevents even the most committed funders from tapping further into their assets, in effect prioritizing their own perpetuity over an all-out defense of civilization as we know it.


Part of the problem here is that with the passage of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, the legal requirement of 5 percent annual payout from foundations became the default—both a maximum and a minimum. Hewlett and Packard, which are undoubtedly leaders in the realm of climate philanthropy (their presidents penned an op-ed in 2015 entitled “Foundations Must Move Fast to Fight Climate Change”) still gave around 5 percent of their assets in recent years. I single these two out because they are leaders, but this is standard practice.

When I asked Hewlett’s Larry Kramer about this around the GCAS in September, he said that the board freeing up more of their own endowment is not an impossibility, something they might consider if they thought it would make a pivotal difference. But it’s not clear that’s the case, he said, relative to recruiting a larger range of funders with varied approaches. 

Increasing payout when circumstances call for it is not unheard of, and we saw some foundations do so after the 2016 election. If there were ever a reason for drastic, even if temporary, changes to payout rates, I’d say it’s the IPCC’s 12-year window to reduce emissions by 45 percent, at the risk of catastrophic consequences. Too often, the discussion over payout rates posit a choice between the extremes of perpetuity and spend-down. But there are obvious choices in between those poles—like digging deeply into endowments during an emergency period and then shifting back to a more conservative model later on.

Large funders could move a lot more money for climate change without coming anywhere near spending down. 

More (All) Funders Need to Support Climate Action

While big sector leaders can still do more, where I see a lot of potential is the vast majority of foundations and donors that have yet to prioritize climate change. That’s especially true when it comes to the power of local and regional funders. 

I realize that a lot of donors and trustees fall on the wrong side of this issue, and some even directly fund groups like the Heartland Institute, organizations which aggressively sow doubt around climate change. Those foundations will not be on board. 

But any donor or foundation leader who believes in the threat of human-caused climate change has zero reason not to engage at this point. 

Foundation Center logs around 86,000 foundations giving to wide range of causes in the United States alone. If more add climate to the list, that brings more dollars, and perspectives, to the issue. 

I suspect many haven’t because they fear it would be a kind of mission drift, that they have to focus their efforts with the money they have, and climate change is not on their dockets. Part of this stems from the fact that climate change is often viewed as an environmental issue. You can see plenty of foundations saying, well, that’s not really what we do. 

As a result, some large foundations doing work that is undeniably connected to climate change steer clear. The Gates Foundation, the largest in the nation, does not give to climate mitigation (although some of their funding is related to climate impacts). One of the largest environmental funders, the Walton Family Foundation, has no climate program. The fact that any environmental funder doesn’t have an explicit initiative, or at least a line item for climate mitigation, is staggering to me, but you could say the same thing about funders working in health, poverty, human rights, etc. 

One great example of a foundation not connected to climate at first glance, but still making it a priority, is Children's Investment Fund Foundation, which realized how profoundly climate change impacted its mission of helping children in poverty. CIFF recently extended its climate funding with a pledge of $500 million.

Nobody has to throw out their existing programs, but the IPCC report’s observations about drought, extreme weather, water quality, ocean acidification, displacement, flooding, and much more make it clear that no philanthropic mission will be left untouched as we approach 1.5 degrees. 

The Power of Local Funders

Big foundations aside, there are endless opportunities for smaller, regional, and local funders to find entry points to climate change. 

Again, the range of needed solutions is such that even a narrowly defined family foundation or community funder can find a link. Climate action certainly includes things like policy or renewable energy deployment, but also efficiency, green infrastructure, habitat restoration, reducing food waste, changing dietary habits, public education, empowering women, and lots more. Even foundations supporting the arts contribute to public engagement

The reason place-based funders in particular show such important potential goes beyond just dollars. Climate change is a giant, global problem, but it lives and breathes in communities. 

The consideration of place is how many people relate to the problem, and adaptation and mitigation solutions are often different, depending on local circumstances. There’s a huge need in particular for more support of grassroots climate action, and of low-income communities that IPCC emphasizes are most vulnerable to climate impacts. Local action isn’t sufficient alone, but it adds up, and it can contribute to a bottom-up climate movement to drive transformative, lasting change. 


Fortunately, we’re seeing more of this. Regional funders in the Midwest and the Northeast, like the McKnight and Barr Foundations, have emerged as major climate players. For one unique example of local philanthropy finding an entry point to climate change, we recently covered two community-focused funders in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that teamed up with Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to unlock millions in public and private dollars for climate-resilient conservation work.

Billionaires With Children

Earlier this year, Forbes reported that the world has a record 2,208 billionaires who have a collective net worth of $9.1 trillion. Just under 700 of these billionaires live in the United States, with a combined wealth approaching $3 trillion. All of these people have more money than they can ever spend in their lifetimes. Most also have children and many have grandchildren—offspring who face a world of growing disruption and calamity from climate change.

Given the limited resources of institutional philanthropy, it’s imperative that more members of the world’s billionaire class mobilize to take on climate change. Some among the super-rich are already on board, as we often report, including a number of Giving Pledge members. But even those who get it often aren’t giving at the level you might expect. Few donors, for example, care more about climate change than Michael Bloomberg. But with a net worth of over $50 billion, Bloomberg hasn’t even scratched the surface of his climate giving potential at a moment when many top environmental groups say they could have more impact with greater resources.

Billionaire philanthropists need to think bigger, much bigger, about the existential threat facing civilization. We need leaders among this group who will step forward with truly game-changing amounts of money. The three richest men in the world—Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett—have a combined net worth of $325 billion. Any one of them could make a pledge tomorrow that radically expands the resources available to fight climate change.

Related: A Pitch to Billionaire Climate Donors: You Made the Pledge; Let’s Get To It


Climate change demands bold, aggressive policy solutions at the national and international levels, but it’s also a collective impact challenge. The latest IPCC report makes it clear that parties with wide-ranging interests need to come to the table, and that means philanthropies from across the spectrum, and not just a bundle of leaders that have made it a top priority.

As Rebecca Solnit wrote in her book Hope in the Dark, in a half-century, people may look back and think our newspapers should have put a gigantic black box on every front page, saying “Here are some stories about other things BUT CLIMATE IS BIGGER THAN THIS.” They might say something similar about our philanthropic programs.