Could This Be the Year Philanthropy Gets Serious About Climate Change? Heard That One Before?

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Will this be the year that philanthropy finally gets serious about climate change? That question — which has been asked in hope, anger and disbelief over several years now — is starting to feel less like a query than a chorus. A cry for help, oft-repeated but never actually answered.

After a year of melted heat records and multiplying catastrophes, I find myself wondering: What more, exactly, could it possibly take to convince foundations and donors to start to move money at the scale necessary to address humanity’s greatest emergency?

I don’t mean to be entirely pessimistic. After all, things were looking up. After years of sluggish growth, foundation spending on climate mitigation accelerated in 2020 and leapt forward in 2021, roughly doubling over that two-year span. Billionaires like MacKenzie Scott, Laurene Powell Jobs and Jeff Bezos piled into the field. Community foundations turned their attention to climate. Racial justice protests pushed more funding to environmental justice groups. Indigenous land protectors saw overdue funding pledges.

Much more was needed, but the trend was in the right direction. Then progress stalled again, according to ClimateWorks Foundation’s most recent report on the field. Overall giving fell, and even though foundation funding rose 12%, that’s hardly the pace advocates were anticipating as the issue seemed to be catching fire. Ultimately, in 2022, the climate emergency was still an afterthought for most donors. Climate philanthropy not only fell short of 2% of total philanthropic funding — a watermark it has never surpassed — it fell short by more than $10 billion.

We don’t yet know how 2023 climate giving panned out, and it’s possible we got back on that upward trend. But the slowdown has me pondering whether there’s anything that will move foundation budgets en masse. Maybe, say, record-breaking heat waves? Well, last year, we lived through the hottest June on record, then the hottest July, and then August, all the way through December. Last year was officially the hottest year on record. And likely one of the coolest of the rest of our lives.

Global temperatures not only briefly reached 1.5 degrees Celsius this summer, the year’s average was just a hair under that mark, at 1.48 degrees. That threshold was originally set as a global limit in the Paris Agreements. Scientists now say it is “more likely than not” the world will pass it in the next five years. Some are worried heating is accelerating. Even cactuses are suffering, and scientists are scared.

“Staggering. Unnerving. Mind-boggling. Absolutely gobsmackingly bananas.” That was how Zeke Hausfather, climate research lead at payments company Stripe and a researcher at Berkeley Earth, summed up his reaction to heat data late last year. Responses from non-climate funders were… well, a few new players tiptoed into the field, but if there was even a small wave of new entrants to the field, I missed it.

So if sweat and superlatives don’t spark change, what about epic natural disasters? If so, I’m not sure what more it would take. There have already been too many recent ones to list, and I’m just talking about 2023. Some 4,300 are dead and 8,500 missing following climate-fueled flooding in Libya. Hundreds more were killed by Cyclone Mocha in Myanmar, floods in Sudan and extreme heat in the United States. There have been floods in Brazil, wildfires in Chile, and heat waves across Asia.

Limit your focus to the well-resourced West, and there’s still plenty of horror to go around. Fire burnt Maui to the ground and raged for so long in Canada that Midwesterners ended up breathing smoke. New Yorkers, too. Ice storms ravaged much of the United States, as well. Want to look further back? Heat waves killed tens of thousands of Europeans the summer before last. 

The conditions are so bad that companies that make disasters their business are saying enough is enough. Some of the largest insurers in the business — Allstate, State Farm, AIG — have quit California. Farmers Insurance and AAA have pulled out of Florida. Is your state next? Will you be able to renew your policy?

Perhaps it is pleas from high-profile peers that really move the needle? Every point listed here, after all, has been made before by someone with far more experience than I. Julia Stasch, the former head of MacArthur Foundation, and hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson co-wrote an op-ed that philanthropy must “move fast” on climate change because “the danger signs are all around us.” That was in 2015.

Larry Kramer, the former president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, also tried his hand at persuasion, initially asking his peers nicely. Five years later, he was bemoaning that philanthropy was “fiddling while the world burns” — and he’s now left the sector. I feel your pain, Larry.

And those are just big-name examples. In our pages alone, leaders of groups like the Equation Campaign and Green Leadership Trust, as well as of philanthropies like Water Foundation and Hidden Leaf Foundation, have pushed for more investment. Even more pleas were published elsewhere. A sense of urgency is a constant. A piece by the leaders of the European Climate Foundation and Sequoia Climate Foundation offers a case in point: “We have no time to lose.” That was two years ago.

Maybe what is really needed is not op-eds, but detailed, evidence-based reports from blue-chip consultants. Philanthropy, it will surprise no one, is swimming in those. Judging from Bridgespan’s latest entry in the genre, even level-headed analysts are starting to sound desperate. Maybe it’s because even after reports from the Aspen Institute, McKinsey, Climate Leadership Initiative, Candid and more, so many philanthropists are still sitting on the sidelines.

I have no illusions that my own words will make a dent. My editor and predecessor on the climate philanthropy beat, Tate Williams, was asking a similar question back in 2015: “Where the hell is all the climate funding?” Later that year, he and Inside Philanthropy founder David Callahan argued that the major philanthropies should tap their endowments for climate action. Spoiler: No major foundations touched their endowments.

Maybe $4 trillion in federal funding will do the trick? Record U.S. government spending is actually a much-needed bright spot in this litany. Moreover, there’s been a lot of interest in how not only to leverage this once-in-a-generation opportunity for climate impact, but to ensure it reaches communities that have rarely had access to such support. Yet, as Archana Sahgal, the founder of the intermediary Hyphen, told me, the scale of philanthropy’s investments so far is falling well short of the potential: “Millions are never going to unlock trillions.”

Is the hope that billionaires will save us? They already dominate environmental philanthropy, accounting for about two-thirds of the top 25 funders as of a couple years ago, including most of the top slots. Yet most of those who have pledged big dollar amounts to climate action are well behind schedule in acting on those promises. Meanwhile, many billionaire Giving Pledge signatories have actually seen their wealth grow, even those concerned about the urgent threat of climate change, as the Institute of Policy Studies has found. It’s “perplexing,” Callahan wrote of this phenomenon back in 2018. Perhaps we should also say predictable, until proven otherwise. What I feel about those spending nothing at all, or tiny fractions of their wealth, is less printable.

What about the mounting evidence that we’re missing our own targets? The State of Climate Action 2023 finds the world is behind schedule on 41 out of 42 of our climate goals for 2030. The United Nations Emissions Gap report suggests global temperatures are on track to rise nearly 3 degrees Celsius this century, way above the highest levels imagined under global agreements. And the fifth National Climate Assessment offered a roundup of what Americans can expect in coming years, like 110-degree heat waves, torrential rainstorms and fierce hurricanes. That sounds like it might just impact grantmakers’ plans, even if climate change isn’t yet in them.

I know program officers in the climate space follow this news, often much more closely than I do. And I know many of them have been beating this drum for decades. I have no idea what will make a difference, but could it be time for new tactics?

Many of the field’s biggest trends of recent years — the shifts of money and attention to environmental justice, Indigenous communities, people on the front lines, regenerative agriculture, and trusted regrantors and intermediaries — have come after years of grassroots activists calling for more support in those areas. Is this the year those holding the purse strings will start to listen to their other calls?

Of course, grantmakers and donors are beset on all sides with urgent cries for help. Climate change, to state the glaringly obvious, is not the only urgent issue of our time. Russia has invaded Ukraine, Israel is fighting Hamas and bombing Gaza, Sudan’s civil war goes on, and other conflicts burn. Democracy, too, is under attack, in the U.S. and abroad, largely by forces that also dismiss the threat of climate change. Bigotry of all strains continues to cut short lives and opportunities. Yet these and the many other forces that oppress life around the globe are not discrete issues, either from climate or each other — and we should know this. We just had a world-changing reminder of how what hurts one of us can hurt all of us.

COVID forced most funders to see that they could not ignore a global emergency — and many responded brilliantly. Yet on climate, despite years of evidence, we still seem to be leagues away from that point. After three and a half years of reporting on this sector, this is the puzzle that has grown, not diminished for me. The polycrisis is upon us, but many continue to practice monoculture philanthropy. I still hear from well-known foundations, institutions that fund things like arts or science or conservation, who say they are not “climate” funders. I still see plenty of billionaires who have publicly pledged to give away half their wealth but whose operations have not given a dime to climate action. Such inaction seems likely to age as poorly as insurance premiums in the Sunshine State.