Adapt or Die: How Climate Funders Are Falling Short on a Key Challenge

photo:  KAMONRAT/shutterstock

photo:  KAMONRAT/shutterstock

One of the challenges facing the field of climate adaptation is deciding precisely what it is. It tends to look quite different depending on location. Is it about coping with symptoms, or a systemic overhaul? And what are we even calling it these days, adaptation or resilience?

None of this ambiguity makes the topic any less urgent or important, as the 10 major disasters per year the U.S. has endured in the past five years—double the average in recent history—have made startlingly clear. That’s why the Kresge Foundation has made the issue a high priority, and commissioned a critical assessment of the state of the field. 

Rising to the Challenge, Together” found that despite progress, the field lacks a shared vision, doesn’t have enough steady and coordinated funding, and is only shallowly focusing on equity. In short, not nearly enough is happening to meet the approaching challenge, and funding is “utterly inadequate.” 

Kresge is one of a small group of major foundations that have planted stakes in this space, a group that includes another notable player, the Rockefeller Foundation. So the report was a way to check in on how things are going with its own portfolio and the greater field. Kresge’s giving is discussed, but the report is a broader report card and action plan meant to critique and spur things along. 

It’s not all doom and gloom, as the three experts who worked on the extensive study found that there is, in fact, a climate adaptation field to speak of. So that’s good. Communities across the country are taking action and displaying leadership—new actors are getting involved from the private sector, for example—and there’s an expanding network of knowledge and tools out there. But it’s not developed enough, and under the Trump administration, faces a stark vacuum in leadership and funding. 

Here are a few of the take-home points, particularly those relevant to philanthropy’s role: 

The field lacks a shared purpose or vision

This gets at the earlier point of the many interpretations of the same field. At this point, climate adaptation is mainly driven by crisis (the report uses adaptation interchangeably with resilience, although some, including Kresge, draw a distinction). That means that areas suffering actual consequences are the only ones doing much about it, as in the case of New York’s resilience work—in part, using disaster relief funds. 

Related: When the Floods Come, Rockefeller Wants This Region to be Ready 

But also, those working in the field seem to have quite different ideas of what it should be doing. For some, it’s a matter of bracing for impacts. For others, it includes correcting root problems like institutional racism, extractive economies, or wealth inequality. There’s also not much in the way of a common vision for a desirable outcome. This fragmentation also means that smaller cities and rural areas are being left behind, with efforts accelerating mainly in larger metropolitan areas. 

The field hasn’t made a serious commitment to equity

While there’s a growing awareness of the need for equity and the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities, practitioners often have a shallow commitment to the issue or don’t know how to integrate it into their work. This notably echoes the findings of another recent report on Southern resilience efforts—that despite tremendous need and potential, grassroots and community groups are not invited to the table. Both reports describe the deep divides between environmental NGOs and grassroots groups and communities of color. 

Related: "We Get the Crumbs." How Foundations Overlook Climate-Vulnerable Communities in the South

This was the most concerning part of the report to me, because without equity as the lens through which you view adaptation, you risk creating protected enclaves for those who can afford it, and repeating infrastructure mistakes of the past. This is an area where philanthropy can be influential in shifting resources toward communities and elevating voices that have more to lose, but also more to contribute. Unfortunately, this is isn't happening.

Obama helped define the field, Trump is trying to dismantle it

The second term of the Obama administration was “profoundly influential” in in the development of the climate adaptation field through funding, shared resources, policies, and by mainstreaming the conversation (among moderates and the left, at least). The administration provided some overarching leadership that helped things coalesce.

The Trump administration is trying to dismantle that legacy in policy, but there’s also a serious threat in the vacuum of leadership that’s been left behind with Obama’s departure. In a field that’s place-based and somewhat disconnected, that central force was important. Local leaders are stepping up, but the problem reaches well beyond individual city borders.

Philanthropy needs to do better

The report lands more than a few blows to the philanthropic sector, even to Kresge, although the funder mostly comes out OK. While philanthropy has been an important source of support for developing the field, the sector isn’t providing enough funding, and activity has been inconsistent and uncoordinated. 

The biggest suggestion was improving collaboration, which could help align the field and scale up efforts beyond individual success stories. “The Rockefeller Foundation and The Kresge Foundation barely seem to acknowledge one another,” one participant notes, which must really annoy grantees. Collaboration could also foster regional consortiums or pooled funds that might help overlooked areas. The report cites other common failings in philanthropy, such as its tendencies to follow trends and avoid risk. In a field with such profound implications, foundations need to think bigger and for the long term. 

Check out the full report, including much more on best practices and recommendations.