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A Narrowing Window for Foundation Action on Climate Change

Date: July 12, 2022
Katarina Malmgren

Katarina Malmgren

Former Associate Manager, Research, CEP

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As a kid growing up in Louisiana, one of the first times I ever learned about climate change was in science class, when we were taught that we were slowly sinking into the sea. Our teachers explained this coastal land loss to us in maybe the most American unit possible: the football field. The state was losing a football field’s worth of land every hour.

Coastal Louisiana is disappearing for several reasons, largely because of the system of levees and flood walls built to harness the Mississippi river that prevent it from depositing new sediment. Another reason, as our teachers would briefly mention, is the sea level rise brought on by climate change.

Back then, this threat seemed distant. Today, the impacts of climate change are plastered daily across the headlines. Longer droughts, stronger hurricanes, record highs and record lows. According to the most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying.

Given this alarming reality and the implications for communities across the globe, philanthropy’s actions to date have been startlingly deficient. As has been documented by the ClimateWorks Foundation, total philanthropic giving by foundations and individuals focused on climate change mitigation represents less than two percent of total global philanthropic giving. In CEP’s new research report released today, Much Alarm, Less Action: Foundations & Climate Change, we concur that efforts by U.S. foundations to address climate change, in terms of both their grant dollars and investment practices, are relatively limited.

In this research, which was conducted with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we examined how leaders in the philanthropic sector, both at foundations and nonprofit organizations, perceive the issue of climate change and how it will affect their work. We found that:

  1. Foundation and nonprofit leaders overwhelmingly see climate change as an urgent problem that will negatively impact the lives of the people served by their organizations, especially historically marginalized communities. While they believe the public and private sectors, in particular, are not doing enough to address climate change, they believe foundations and nonprofits could also be doing more.
  2. Despite foundation leaders’ concerns about climate change, foundation efforts to address climate change are relatively limited — in terms of grant dollars and investment practices — and are also seen as limited in effectiveness. Foundation and nonprofit leaders alike describe ample opportunity for philanthropy to engage more deeply and effectively to combat climate change.
  3. Despite their concerns about climate change, most non-climate funders tend to see this issue as outside the scope of their mission, though some have not ruled out future funding efforts to address climate change. Leaders of climate nonprofits and foundations urge these funders to consider how climate change affects their missions.

Foundation leaders spoke to the harm and costs — financial, material, and social — of continued inaction and noted that climate change will result in funders and nonprofits “losing ground on so many priorities.” One said, “If we do not bring climate change under control, our efforts will be undone by the cascading economic and social effects of climate change.”

Moreover, many of the nonprofit leaders in our survey reported already experiencing the consequences of climate change. Almost one third of nonprofit leaders — including both those who do and do not focus on climate change — said that climate change is currently having a moderate or significant negative impact on their work. As one leader underscored, “the impacts from climate-related extreme weather are serious and happening now.”

While many of the leaders of foundations not engaged in climate work reported seeing this issue as outside their missions, other leaders provided examples of incorporating efforts to address climate change in their program areas. Said one of these leaders, “We focus on the root causes of homelessness and housing instability and only recently made the connection that in our desire to advance racial justice and housing justice, we can’t leave out climate justice — these are interdependent.”

Leaders from foundations that fund climate efforts encouraged non-climate funders to learn from and partner with other funders and “start somewhere, even if it is small.” Noting that “funders control billions of assets through investment portfolios,” some suggest that “foundations that don’t want to change programmatic efforts can change their investment strategy; that is a powerful place to start.”

Today, I am thinking about all the football fields of my home state that have disappeared since I first learned about the impacts of climate change. As we begin another Atlantic hurricane season, I’m also thinking about all the lives that have been — and will be — impacted by stronger and more frequent hurricanes. The leaders of nonprofits and foundations that we surveyed in this research effort have their own touchpoints with the stark realities of climate change, some more poignant and some more abstract. But the alarm is shared by all, and, regardless of mission, the consequences of inaction will be, too.

The report contains a list of resources for funders looking to learn more about how climate change intersects with their missions or for those interested in collaborating with others in this space. As one of the foundation leaders in our study said, “the world is making the case for us to take up this issue.”

Katarina Malmgren is a senior analyst, research, at CEP.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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