Skewed Priorities? How Philanthropy Has Shaped Debates Over Climate Change

 The indian point nuclear power plant in New york. 

The indian point nuclear power plant in New york. 

Since the 1990s, U.S. foundations have played a major role in steering action to address climate change. The influence they wield, and their tendency to lock in on certain priorities, warrants a lot more attention. 

That’s the gist of a new research paper from Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at Northeastern University, who hopes to invite more scrutiny of climate philanthropy. Nisbet is especially concerned about the lack of funder support for nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and geoengineering. But more broadly, he’s examining how philanthropy can fuel a kind of orthodoxy of ideas and grantees, a criticism the sector’s fielded from multiple sides over the years.

“From an academic standpoint, it’s understanding, how do we draw judgments about really complex science topics that are politically controversial?” Nisbet told me. “And behind the scenes, foundations set the boundaries around which solutions are discussed.”

Nisbet’s line of research is about the forces that shape national debates over complex policy issues, but he also aligns with many of the ideas behind a philosophy known as ecomodernism. Ecomodernists, defined by West Coast think tank the Breakthrough Institute, approach climate change mainly as a technology and innovation problem. They advocate for large investments in R&D, including support for nuclear power, natural gas and other technologies mostly shunned by the environmental and climate movements. 

Nisbet’s recent paper is particularly critical of the bias foundations have toward renewables like wind and solar instead of these other technologies, but it also offers a kind of bird’s eye view of the climate funding field. He looked at 19 large, influential foundations, including two regranting organizations (he did not double count grants made to the regranting groups), and their activity from 2011 to 2015. Main points from Nisbet’s analysis include: 

  • Starting in the 1990s, coalitions of funders helped define climate change mainly as a market problem, prioritizing setting a price on carbon and shifting markets to renewable energy. Funding favored “insider groups” negotiating with industry and utilities, over those working in grassroots organizing, public health, or justice. 
  • In the five years since the federal cap-and-trade bill failed in 2010, large foundations “remained committed to their decades-old policy and technology roadmap on climate change.” Climate funders also continued to favor a small group of large national grantees, with 20 NGOs receiving more than half of money distributed.
  • The overall sector did, however, respond to some calls for new direction post cap-and-trade, backing cities and local economies, low-income and minority communities, more aggressive opposition to the fossil fuel industry, and shaping public opinion and influencing voters. 
  • Promoting renewables and efficiency received about a quarter of funding, while support for nuclear power received none, and other low carbon technologies like carbon capture received about 2 percent of the total. 

The review covers a lot of ground, but Nisbet offers a few main takeaways. Again, his biggest concern is that funders and their grantees are making a mistake by ignoring nuclear power and other technologies like carbon capture and geoengineering. Nisbet sees it as both a technological and a political misstep, citing some precedent that mitigation efforts that include them could be more likely to receive bipartisan support. He also expresses concern that the more recent embrace of strategies like pipeline protests, stronger opposition to industry, and climate as a justice issue could deepen polarization on the issue. 

Both of these reflect huge debates on the left right now. In academia and among pundits, there’s heated disagreement over whether we should be targeting 100 percent renewables, or instead embracing a mix of nuclear, natural gas, and researching new technologies. There’s also another divide—to oversimplify, it is whether the left should steer to the left or to the center during the Trump era. Nisbet suggests philanthropy has a lot of influence on such debates in key issue arenas. 

There are some nuances here that I think are worth pointing out. For one, it’s not clear how much these patterns are a result of philanthropy merely responding to the environmental community. Also, even though some funders have focused more on climate justice and the needs of low-income and minority communities, the total is still very small, at around 3 percent of the dataset’s funding. And while there’s been a lot of funding for anti-fossil fuel organizing among groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club, some of the biggest climate funders like MacArthur are also backing grantees to mobilize the public around bipartisan messaging. 

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The analysis also (by design) doesn’t look at activity of smaller funders, which can be influential. There are, in fact, some out there that have backed groups promoting nuclear. The Nathan Cummings Foundation, which funded Nisbet’s research, has given millions to the Breakthrough Institute, although that support recently ended. (He’s also previously received backing from RWJF, the Barr Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Heising-Simons Foundation. ) The Pritzker Innovation Fund is another in this arena. 

Ultimately, however, it’s true that there is very little climate philanthropy supporting nuclear power. And while there are legitimate reasons organizations oppose nuclear, there’s certainly not the kind of consensus that funding levels would suggest.

That imbalance gets to the other major conclusion Nisbet draws from this research—that philanthropy has a big influence on what solutions civil society pursues and (as critics pointed out post cap-and-trade) big philanthropy can tend to lock in on a narrow plan and a narrow set of grantees. Regardless of your opinion on nuclear power, this problem will be familiar to many in the nonprofit world. I’ve written such critiques myself, although usually calling for more grassroots and justice funding and for a more diverse spread of grantees. 

As far as climate funding’s future, Nisbet’s hopeful for more transparency, more scrutiny, more risk-taking, and funding for more opportunities to exchange “crosstalk and heterodox ideas.” 

“You would assume that the foundations would want to hedge their bets, that they’d want to spread their risk around both from a technology standpoint and from a political strategy standpoint,” he says. “But it doesn’t seem that they’ve done that.” 

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