The United Nations Climate Change Conference, which was postponed a year because of COVID-19, has promoted a series of announcements from foundations and individuals attempting to pour money into efforts to fight climate change, an area many think philanthropy has neglected.
As policymakers from around the world gathered in Glasgow for a series of long-awaited meetings on climate change, a group of governments and private foundations announced plans to direct $1.7 billion to Indigenous and grassroots groups working to protect forests, a key strategy in absorbing carbon emissions.
“We need to get the money out the door,” said Kevin Currey, program officer for natural resources and climate change at the Ford Foundation.
Ford has committed $100 million to support Indigenous groups in securing land rights and conserving forest land. Other donors include the Christensen Fund, Sobrato Philanthropies, and the Good Energies, Hewlett, Oak, and Packard foundations. Included in the $1.7 billion commitment are pledges from the governments of Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States. Those donors are joined by nine other grant makers participating in the Protecting Our Planet Challenge, a 10-year, $5 billion commitment anchored by $1 billion from the Bezos Earth Fund.
Separately, the Bezos Earth Fund committed a total of $2 billion to food-system transformation and landscape-restoration efforts to benefit the climate. The commitments come from a previous pledge by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to direct $10 billion to address climate change. The nutrition effort will support a range of activities, including raising crop yields while shrinking acreage devoted to farming, reducing food loss and waste, and helping to shift people’s diets to plant-based sources. The landscape work will be focused in Africa and the United States and will include planting trees and revitalizing grasslands, according to a news release.
Other recent climate pledges include $33 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, announced in October to support, among other things, entrepreneurs working on technologies to remove or reduce carbon emissions. Also in October, 20 foundations said they would devote $223 million to reducing methane emissions. In June, the Ikea and Rockefeller foundations said they would commit a total of $1 billion to develop renewable energy—and more money could be on the way.
Philanthropic grants to address climate change were on the upswing before the pandemic, said Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, which took part in the methane reduction commitment. Momentum stalled as the pandemic took its toll and the Glasgow meetings were postponed. Now that the meetings are taking place and the Biden administration has taken over from the Trump White House, which did not engage on climate, there is pent-up demand for action from philanthropy, he suggested.
“There’s a kind of reawakened interest and focus,” on climate, Kramer said.
Philanthropic support of climate mitigation and adaptation accounted for less than 2% of the $750 billion given by foundations and individuals globally last year, according to research conducted by ClimateWorks, a foundation-supported organization. But climate-related grants were growing at a faster rate than philanthropic giving over all, the report said, even before the commitments made in the run-up to the Glasgow summit.
The windfall has renewed a debate over where the money can best be put to use to help achieve international global warming goals.
Some experts like Ana Baptista, associate director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School, hope more money is directed to grassroots movements, particularly those led by people of color and Indigenous people, who are most harmed by the effects of climate change. Too much money, she said, is focused on “moonshot” technology developments that don’t address energy and economic policies that have been based on racism and colonialism.
“A lot of climate funders are very enamored with technological fixes and things that promise really rapid change through technology and innovation,” she said.
Johannes Ackva, a fund manager at the Founders Pledge, agrees that supporting grassroots movements is critical to the success of meeting broader climate goals. But Ackva, who manages a fund that hopes to disburse at least $10 million in climate-change grants this year, thinks there is a gap in philanthropic support in developing policies and technologies that help reduce emissions from big industry and support sustainable nuclear energy.
He warns that the attention grant makers are paying to renewable fuels, environmental justice, and conserving forest land could cause them to overlook worthy grants to organizations that could have a bigger impact.
While there has been an increase in grants to support grassroots climate organizations, it simply reflects growth in climate funding over all, said Lindley Mease, who directs the Clima Fund. The pooled fund is run by Global Greengrants Fund, Grassroots International, Thousand Currents, and the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights and hopes to raise $100 million to support groups that confront the fossil-fuel and agriculture industries and create locally controlled renewable fuel alternatives.
She cites the work of Clima Fund grantees in South Africa, including the Life After Coal coalition. After the coalition mounted a legal challenge to the construction of the Thabametsi power plant, investors decided not to proceed with construction of the project. Another South African grantee, the Doornkop Communal Property Association, seeks to help the nation transition to clean power by training women and young people how to install and maintain solar panels.
Over the past three years, the Clima Fund has raised about $10 million from individual donors and foundations. The group is aiming much higher now, in part because the protests against racism in the summer of 2020 helped donors understand the powerful effect of popular movements, Mease said.
“We’re in this sweet-spot moment where there’s much more massive investments on the table,” she said.
The Donors of Color Network’s Climate Justice Funders Pledge is another effort to steer grant money to groups led by people who are disproportionately harmed by the warming planet. Since it was started in February, 20 grant makers have pledged to publicly disclose details about the leadership of the groups they support and to steer at least 30 percent of their grant money to groups led by people of color.
The summit in Glasgow is drawing global attention to the climate crisis and could help spur more philanthropic support, said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which recently signed the pledge.
“I’m hopeful that the conference will stimulate greater ambition, a greater urgency, and an increase in climate funding — and, in particular, an increase in climate-justice funding,” Heintz said.
Announcements by large foundations that they will support environmental-justice groups is promising, but given the dire outlook on climate change, it’s not enough, said Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and an adviser to the Donors of Color Network.
“It’s important to celebrate where there have been shifts in philanthropy,” she said. “But it’s not anywhere close to meeting the need or the speed that’s required.”