6 Questions with Arturo Garcia-Costas, New York Community Trust’s Environment Program Officer

Arturo Garcia-Costas, New York Community Trust environment program officer

Arturo Garcia-Costas is New York Community Trust’s environment program officer, a position he’s held since 2014 and one that remains a rarity among community foundations, which seldom have a staffer dedicated entirely to environmental issues. 

What’s even more unusual is that 80% of the grantmaking Garcia-Costas is responsible for is directed outside New York City. A more than $50 million gift from a donor in 1996 endowed the program and gave this place-based funder unique national and international reach. 

Garcia-Costas brings a resume to this unique position that spans the local, state, federal and international levels. Prior to joining NYCT, he oversaw an environmental justice grant program for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. He also has New York political experience, having worked on post-9/11 recovery and rebuilding in Manhattan for Congressman Jerry Nadler, and as a fellow on emergency preparedness under Mayor David Dinkins.

Earlier in his career, he worked for the United Nations Development Program helping developing countries implement environmental agreements from the 1992 Earth Summit and for the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration to engage the Latinx community on environmental concerns. He’s also done work on sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean with the Natural Resources Defense Council and other nonprofits. 

His current service on boards of directors displays similar range. He is a member of the boards of the nonprofit Friends of the Earth, the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency and the National Environmental Education Foundation.

As a result, he has a unique placed-based perspective, informed by a career spanning the globe, on challenges—climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation—that know no borders. I spoke with Garcia-Costas about how he approaches grantmaking and the current state of climate philanthropy. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

You started as an environmental program officer at NYCT seven years ago. How have you seen community foundation engagement on the environment and climate change evolve during that time?

When there’s some sort of crisis—be it the 2008 financial crash, or Superstorm Sandy, or 9/11, or the pandemic—community foundations are on the front lines of responding. Case in point: one Iowa community foundation. In 2019, major floods devastated Iowa and Nebraska. And that community foundation at first said, “disaster funding isn’t really what we do.” That was their initial stance. But when they dealt with the reality of what was happening in their communities, they changed quickly, and they became a key disaster funder. 

And the trust was similarly on the front lines in response to Superstorm Sandy, in terms of mobilizing a lot of philanthropic support. Though we’re unusual because we have a local NYC Environment Program. And we’ve had a focus on climate in our national program since 2003. 

So I would say that as the climate crisis has intensified, as climate change has accelerated, and these extreme weather events have become more common, more and more community foundations are recognizing that they have to step up, this has to be part of their focus. And one of the things that I hope is that more and more community foundations learn from each other.

NYCT is a member of, or supports, many networks, from When Waters Rise to the Climate Strong Islands Network to the Coalition for Green Capital. Why is supporting networks such a key part of your work?

I really think that it’s just so difficult to try to affect systemic change or transformative change without doing so as part of a coalition or part of a network. You need to understand all the contextual factors to affect a change at that scale, whether it’s neighborhood scale, the city scale, the state scale, or the national scale. Networks help you deal with those levels of governance and levels of change.

The Climate Strong Islands Network, for example, started out after Hurricane Maria devastated the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. A colleague of mine from the Hawaii Community Foundation and I were talking about how it would be beneficial for U.S. islands to be in dialogue with each other about issues of resilience and sustainability. So we began to organize a series of dialogues, which ultimately led to the establishment of that network. 

Almost always, having more minds focusing on something is going to be helpful. I’m not one of these people that’s super top-down. I have the patience for kind of bottom-up, messy consultative processes. I appreciate those things. A lot of technocrats often don’t. But I do. And I think that actually, it strengthens things to have that kind of consultative process. 

And what’s happening with climate justice right now is an example of rejecting very top-down climate policy advocacy for a more inclusive and bottom-up climate movement. That really is what we need in order to address that challenge. I’m not a funder that believes in the horse race dynamic when it comes to funding. Our grantee doesn’t have to be the one that crosses the finish line and gets all the credit. I think all initiatives add to the kind of throwing little stones on the side of the mountain that triggers the landslide of transformative change. 

You’ve long advocated for funding environmental justice networks more directly. What do you make of the current state of funding, both for those networks and environmental justice grantmaking more broadly?

I’m someone that says, “let’s not reinvent the wheel.” Firstly, we should go all-in on models and networks that are proven. We need to scale them up, rather than creating new ones. I strongly believe in that. 

There’s lots of networks, like WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Environmental Justice Leadership Forum and the Midwest Environmental Justice Network. And they actually, I believe, have the absorptive capacity to take much, much, much more resources. Yet they have to kind of struggle and compete for attention. 

The great thing about these networks is that they’ve come together organically. They’ve come together to maximize their impact, and a lot of them are community-based organizations who are working at a very community scale. By coming together, they’re able to affect national policy or state policy a bit more effectively and they have more gravitas.

When we last spoke, you observed that the world has squandered two decades of opportunity to get on a climate-friendly path, so now we have to consider more drastic measures. How does that imperative influence your grantmaking and what you would recommend for those just entering this space? 

What it really means practically is that less-attractive options need to be considered. One of those has to do with carbon-removal strategies. What kind of technologies and approaches and changes in major systems like agriculture, manufacturing, etc., are going to be required in order to lower emissions or start drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, or remove it from the oceans in order to help us stabilize the climate system? 

I think the trust has been one of the handful of funders that have been funding things like the Circular Carbon Network or the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy, which are looking at all the various carbon removal approaches under consideration and pushing for a conversation about which ones need to be prioritized, which ones are too risky, or are less attractive, that kind of thing.

Like so many other things, the devil’s in the details. Take what “net zero” means, and how it plays out. Either it’s going to turn into something that’s very prone to greenwashing and gaming the system, or it’s going to turn into something that really helps to transform these big, big systems. Anything in the net-zero realm that artificially extends the life of fossil fuel infrastructure and fossil fuel facilities should be completely rejected. It’s absurd to think that any kind of net-zero approaches that do that should be supported by philanthropy. 

I’ve been worried that many environmental justice groups are railing against net zero, they’re railing against carbon markets, market-based instruments, carbon sequestration, carbon capture and sequestration. Those things are sometimes being conflated with the concept of carbon removal. Carbon removal is taking stuff out of the oceans and atmosphere, even out of smokestacks and tailpipes. I actually think that there is common ground between those people who recognize that some degree of carbon removal is going to be absolutely necessary to stabilize the carbon system and front-line leaders and environmental justice groups that are understandably skeptical about some of the things that are being proposed right now. Sometimes, they’re talking past each other.

(Garcia-Costas is on the planning committee for an invitation-only conference, National Dialogue on Climate Justice & Carbon Management, that aims to bring together environmental justice leaders, representatives from big environmental groups and others to talk about equity and carbon removal.)

You have a relatively small budget to work with. How do you determine, beyond your program’s rules, how to divide your support between all these different arms of the climate movement from research to movement-building to finance?

That’s always one of the challenges for a medium-sized funder like us. One principle is that I’m looking where there’s gaps, where it needs a little more love, because there’s a possibility of transformative change. 

An example of this is rural electric co-ops. More than 40 million Americans get their power and electricity from rural electric cooperatives. And they’re being increasingly left behind in the clean energy transition, for a number of reasons. We’ve been supporting, for a number of years now, efforts to address that. It’s not an area that gets enough, frankly, philanthropic support. 

I try to figure out where there are windows of opportunity that are opening up right now that we should put our resources into. For example, we just did a big, three-year grant to the Northeast Carbon Alliance, which is really focused on regenerative agriculture. One big focus of that grant is to lift up the more innovative agricultural stakeholders and agricultural organizations in the Northeast that are working on things like healthy soils and drawing carbon out of the atmosphere through the agricultural sector. We want to lift them up as we go into the reauthorization of the farm bill in 2024. Because the way that the Farm Bill works is that usually, we reauthorize every five years or so. So now is the time, 2022 and 2023, to start setting the table—pun fully intended—to do some climate-smart innovations in the Farm Bill reauthorization. 

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about environmental climate philanthropy, what would it be?

I think that environmental philanthropy should embrace more participatory grantmaking. The Mosaic fund [which supports environmental movement infrastructure] has done something like this. One of the things that I pushed for was for them to embrace participatory grantmaking. And so I was thrilled when I saw the structure for the Mosaic fund, that they had this hugely robust participatory grantmaking mechanism. I love that kind of approach. 

The other thing would have to do with leadership. We need to, as quickly as possible, identify talented people of color to become program officers, presidents of foundations and other things. That’s what’s needed at this stage in the game to help transform the broader environmental movement. I’m the co-chair of the Green Leadership Trust, which is made up of people of color that serve on environmental organization boards. It works on putting more people of color on environmental organization boards, which sadly, are really not representative of our nation.

Correction: Garcia-Costas serves on the board of the National Environmental Education Foundation, which was referred to by an incorrect name in an earlier version of this article.