Local Action: Where Can Climate Funders Make a Difference in the Age of Trump?

Electric vehicle charging stations line the perimeter of San Francisco's City Hall. photo: Dan Schreiber/shutterstock

Electric vehicle charging stations line the perimeter of San Francisco's City Hall. photo: Dan Schreiber/shutterstock

Since the U.S. government dropped out of the Paris Agreement and set out to kill federal emissions reduction efforts, lots of smaller actors have been stepping up to fill the void. Long before that, though, a range of local and regional players—mayors, governors and businesses—were emerging as leaders on mitigating climate change. 

But do individual actors pledging to reduce emissions add up to real impact? Can they close the gap left by insufficient national action? Yes and no, according to new research by a team at Yale, released in concert with the Global Climate Action Summit coming up this month. 

The report, funded by philanthropic intermediary ClimateWorks Foundation, found that individual commitments from cities, businesses and regions around the world have the potential to significantly reduce GHG emissions beyond what’s currently expected from national policies. But they are still “not nearly enough” to hold global temperature increase to below 2 degrees celsius. It also found that such commitments in the U.S. could cover about half of the emissions reductions the country had pledged in the Paris Agreement.

So that sucks the wind out of some of the optimism regarding meeting our emissions reduction targets, with or without federal leadership. Angel Hsu, study co-author and director of Data-Driven Yale, told The Guardian, “When we look at the individual pledges [by cities, regions and businesses] the impact isn’t that large, so we absolutely need national governments to pull through and do a lot of the heavy lifting.”

The report is not an analysis of philanthropic or nonprofit activity, but its findings might come across as discouraging to private funders that are backing or considering backing climate change work. Many of them wield much of their power in cities, or have turned their attention local during the Trump administration. 

But it's not a total downer. While the report is yet another reality check on the scale of the problem, it’s also a hopeful indicator that local and piecemeal work does, in fact, add up, even if it’s not enough on its own. It can be seen as a call to action for more and varied funders to get involved, and to think bigger and more collaboratively to magnify local action.

Surveying the Landscape

The report—from Data Driven Yale, NewClimate Institute, and PBL Environmental Assessment Agency—looked at commitments from almost 6,000 cities, states and regions, and more than 2,000 companies, focusing on nine high-emitting countries. Accounting for overlap, they found these combined pledges could add up to reductions, beyond national policies currently underway, of 1.5 billion to 2.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year by 2030. That’s equivalent to roughly twice Canada’s emissions during 2016, but still relatively small, considering last year’s global GHG emissions climbed to 32.5 billion tons.

The United States is one region where these individual commitments are more significant compared to current national policy. The combined individual commitments across the country could meet at least half of the emissions reductions needed to meet the pledge the United States originally made in the Paris Agreement. So it's a real glass half-full/half-empty situation. 

More encouraging was the team's separate analysis of more ambitious, collaborative initiatives around the globe, which, if brought to fruition, could actually get us in line with long-term climate goals. 

Local Action Isn’t Enough, But It Adds Up to Real Impact

Coverage of this research has focused a lot on the “still not good enough” aspect, and that is an important point. In particular, it should be a check on the “we got this” narrative—that idea that forward-thinking cities and businesses will handle this problem, regardless of retrograde federal leadership. 

This is something I wrote about previously regarding some of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ efforts and Michael Bloomberg’s statements about large, liberal cities handling what Trump and the GOP will not. It’s nice to think that climate-woke segments of the country can handle the job, even while large swaths of the public and one political party remain unmoved or in opposition. But they can only get so far with a problem this big. 

That being said, the report is certainly not downplaying the importance of such individual commitments. Particularly in the United States, the second-largest GHG emitting country, the team highlights promising movements emerging—like the US Climate Alliance, America’s Pledge, and the strong renewables industry—even amid policy rollbacks and surging transportation emissions. 

In fact, a big take-home message is that these actions are significant on top of still-necessary federal policy change. The study calls for both a renewed federal commitment to climate change, and expanded sub-national and non-governmental leadership. We need both. Remember, the current national pledges under the Paris Agreement are also insufficient to maintain the two-degree trajectory (they deliver about a third of the emissions reductions we need).

This means donors and foundations have an important part to play, even if they're not massive funders working on federal policy. We’ve frequently called on funders to give more to climate work (as have leaders within the sector), given the severe, pervasive threats involved. That includes those that might consider themselves too small, or far afield of what they might think of as mainly an environmental issue. Increasingly, regional funders like the Barr and Mott foundations are showing that climate can and should be a local issue.

This report can be taken as a reminder that there’s tremendous room and need for stakeholders—including foundations and donors of all sizes, geographies, and interests—to make a meaningful dent in climate change.

Think Big, Work Collectively

Regarding climate action outside of national policy, I’d say the other big takeaway here for funders is the potential power in collaboration, collective initiatives and movement building. 

This is apparent in the study’s analysis of what it calls “international cooperative initiatives,” which are often seeking more ambitious and systemic improvements, sometimes targeting entire industries or crossing sectors. While there’s more uncertainty around these outcomes, if they were to meet their combined goals, it could even bring our current global trajectory within range of the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement. 

This is a reminder that, even if we’re at a point in history when federal action is unlikely, there are lots of ways local action can build up to something much larger. For example, there’s huge power in local action as a way to set examples and best practices that can be replicated, or to dispel economic and other bogeymen that might be impeding action in less progressive areas. 

There’s also chronically underfunded grassroots action—building ground-up support at the community level. While inherently local, grassroots organizing can build a broad-based movement led by those who are most impacted by climate change, and call for collective action. 

It’s precisely that kind of groundswell—along with a mix of actors making strong commitments, and one glorious day, national policy—that could bring about the kind of transformation we need.