"Good Progress." A Leading Funder Weighs in on Climate Priorities

photo:  Tom Wurl/shutterstock

photo:  Tom Wurl/shutterstock

Last week, we covered a recent study that analyzed how large foundations in the United States have shaped action on climate change and pointed out some imbalances in funding. 

When the Hewlett Foundation, one of the largest of the 19 foundations studied by Matthew Nisbet of Northeastern University, reached out in response with some critiques of the report, we were all ears. Given the fact that Hewlett has been highly influential in shaping climate work—in fact, it's the top funder in this space—its take on Nisbet’s research warranted continued discussion here, including some responses from the author. 

You can read Nisbet's paper here, along with our earlier analysis, but briefly, Nisbet studied climate funding data from major foundations from 2011 to 2015. A few of the take-home points are: Funders have played a big role in shaping action, emphasizing shifting markets toward renewables; they favored a group of large NGOs, with 20 grantees receiving more than half of all dollars; and they gave very little toward technologies like nuclear and carbon capture. 

Hewlett’s Environment Program Director Jonathan Pershing reached out to Inside Philanthropy to point out what he thought the study overlooked, and what it got right.

Credit Where Credit’s Due

One main thing Pershing felt the study missed is the significance of philanthropy's overall positive impact on climate debates over the years.

“Long-term philanthropic support has made a tremendous difference on some very important climate achievements that have helped avoid levels of warming that would otherwise have caused significantly increased suffering.… We need to go much further, but philanthropy has clearly facilitated good progress.”

Hewlett’s team cited some examples, including the 2015 Paris Agreement and progress toward its commitments, and the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, both of which would likely not have been reached without support from the philanthropic sector, Pershing (formerly a U.S. diplomat) points out. The price of renewables has also come down dramatically over the last decade, making them more competitive and more widely deployed, and philanthropy helped by supporting state renewable portfolio standards and other policies. 

In response, Nisbet agreed that philanthropy deserves credit, citing other scholarship on foundations’ role in international negotiations (which fell outside of the scope of this paper). Regarding the growth of renewables, too, he credits the work of foundations, and pointed out this progress in his study. 

However, while the sector’s emphasis on renewables helped set the conditions for the the industry’s growth, Nisbet cites analyses finding that renewables and efficiency alone won’t keep up with future demand for electricity (how this plays out is a topic of ongoing debate). He maintains that the sector overall should be “hedging their bets and spreading their risks” by investing more in other areas. 

Branching Out

Hewlett doesn't disagree entirely with Nisbet's critiques of the sector, and the study focuses on “several valid concerns,” Pershing said. He underscored Hewlett’s efforts in recent years to address them, some of which are noted in the study. 

“We are among the few foundations that support work on carbon-negative and zero-carbon energy technologies, including [carbon capture and storage] and nuclear, and we would certainly urge others to elevate these portfolios. Furthermore, we agree that it is critical (and in fact have been adjusting our own grantmaking) to support a broader array of grantees from across the ideological spectrum working on a wide range of climate solutions at the state and local level, including grassroots groups and those focused on equity.”

One notable example on that last point: Hewlett has been backing a Climate Fund at the Democracy Alliance, which started in late 2015 to support local groups organizing around climate, particularly among low-income communities and people of color. We’ve seen this kind of equity-focused work emerge as a growing strategy among climate funders, as did Nisbet’s study, although it remains small. Hewlett Program Officer Erin Rogers also recently blogged about the foundation’s efforts to diversify its portfolio of climate grantees and “depolarize” climate action.

A Bigger Problem—"Woefully Inadequate" Funding for Climate Solutions

Pershing’s other main issue is that the study “misses a bigger point” that there is just so little climate funding in the grand scheme of things. 

The fact is that across the board, climate solutions and advocacy are vastly underfunded. Climate and clean energy solutions and policy advocacy still represent only 2 percent of total philanthropic giving. This is woefully inadequate given the scale of the climate change threat, and unfortunate given the impact that climate damages are likely to have on virtually every other philanthropic endeavor from health to women’s empowerment to poverty alleviation.

In response, Nisbet strongly agreed with the need for more climate and energy funders, and noted that he doesn’t see his research as adversarial to them. One of the goals behind this study includes making a case for why many more funders are needed, he said, which would likely diversify the strategies being pursued.

“It is this kind of diversity in approaches and groups working on the issue that is needed to solve a problem as wickedly complex as climate change,” he says.