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Philanthropy: Time to Abandon the Ivory Tower of Climate Policy

Date: July 28, 2022

Arturo Garcia-Costas

Program Officer, Local, National, and International Environment, The New York Community Trust

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Even before the pandemic and nationwide racial justice demonstrations gripped the nation in 2020, “climate philanthropy” was rapidly expanding and evolving, with large foundations and mega-donors pledging billions of additional dollars to address the climate crisis. With an estimated $125 trillion of climate investment needed by 2050 to decarbonize the world economy, this growing support is welcome, but still represents a relative drop in the bucket.

The scope and nature of the challenge the world faces calls for a fundamental re-think of the philanthropic sector’s approach to this burgeoning crisis. Responding to accelerating climate change should not simply be a stand-alone grantmaking priority, but a programmatic consideration that influences a wide range of funding decisions, from youth development to affordable housing to the arts, to name but three. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) recent research into the philanthropic and nonprofit sector’s climate-related views and actions underscores the need for a fresh approach.

By most estimates, less than 3 percent of global philanthropic giving focuses in any way on putting the world onto a pathway to an acceptable climate future. CEP’s research seems to indicate that there is a definitional question in play, with many foundations simply not recognizing or being willing to embrace the climate-related dimensions of their grantmaking. While more than 90 percent of foundation leaders surveyed thought that climate change would negatively affect their grantees and the communities they serve, only 61 percent indicated that they incorporate climate considerations into their grantmaking in any way, and only seven of 188 foundations devote most of their funding to the challenge.

CEP’s report highlights in stark terms the continued gap between funder concern and concrete climate action, and speaks to the need for a more integrated, less siloed approach.

For much of the past thirty years, the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the global climate system was primarily the province of technocrats in the public and nonprofit sectors, who tried mightily to craft and impose grand solutions (“The Kyoto Protocol” and the Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade legislation).  These efforts routinely failed to engage with and mobilize key constituencies such as local governments, the transportation and agricultural sectors, and the frontline communities most hurt by the fossil fuel economy and the consequences of an overheating world. And, in each case, these complex technocratic constructs fell prey to competing political, economic, and social concerns.

While there are many lessons to draw from these repeated high-profile failures, they certainly signal the risks of trying to impose highly disruptive technocratic solutions that touch on almost every aspect of the economy from the top-down without building broad-based support and understanding.  For too long, the world’s climate agenda has been dominated by policy elites skittish about sounding too radical and unwilling to bring different perspectives, values, and approaches into the conversation in meaningful ways. Thankfully, over the past decade we have been dismantling the ivory tower that came into being around climate change after the Earth Summit.

From the beginning, stabilizing the climate system, and adapting to the inevitable changes already baked into it over the past 150 years, was going to be an all-hands-on-deck moment involving almost every sector of the global economy.  The New York Community Trust and other funders understood that reality when we supported the efforts of NY Renews — a statewide coalition of more than 300 nonprofits — to help develop and pass the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) of 2019. This ground-breaking legislation mandates that all state agencies begin addressing climate change in a more comprehensive and integrated fashion, and requires that at least 35 percent of climate-related investments benefit disadvantaged communities.

The funders behind NY Renews understand that these kinds of legislative victories can sometimes turn to ash during the implementation phase through bad regulations, bureaucratic inaction, or other official missteps. Though CLCPA implementation was slowed by the pandemic, a Draft Scoping Plan was released for public comment earlier this year. The plan set forth a framework for how the state will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. Advisory panels and working groups brought together experts on transportation, solid waste, buildings, economics, workforce, and environmental justice to help develop the draft plan, reflecting the need to more fully engage leadership from these sectors in the climate fight. Continued support for NY Renews has resulted in greater public awareness and engagement in the process, resulting in more than 20,000 public comments on the draft plan.

Ultimately, climate funders should be working more collaboratively to foster a similar dynamic among funders who do not consider climate change a priority issue. There should be a concerted effort to mainstream climate concerns into every relevant facet of philanthropic investment. The CEP report suggests that “non-climate foundation” leaders believe that addressing climate change would require a major restructuring of their grantmaking efforts or constitute unacceptable “mission drift.” This unfortunate perception emerges frequently when a foundation’s approach to grantmaking is highly siloed, and doesn’t make room for integrating cross-cutting concerns.

Like racial equity, addressing climate change can be used as a lens to examine and influence nearly all of a foundation’s actions and decisions. In the end, we need to redefine climate philanthropy in a way that enables and supports the integration of climate concerns across a foundation’s programmatic priorities. And this integration need not be limited to grantmaking, foundations can take a more holistic approach and examine how climate considerations should influence their operations, investments, and procurement decisions.

CEP’s report signals the need to experiment with new approaches. The philanthropic sector and the donor community should certainly continue to support a deep bench of climate policy expertise in institutions such as the ClimateWorks and Energy foundations, but should also begin investing in the integration of climate considerations into the efforts of intermediary organizations such as community development financing institutions, community foundations, and social service organizations/networks. In doing so, we would help to identify and lift up climate leaders in every sector and at the grassroots. We need to completely abandon the ivory tower of elitist climate policymaking, and work to build a just and inclusive lighthouse that shows the way to a greener, healthier future.

Arturo Garcia-Costas is The New York Community Trust’s program officer for the Local, National, and International Environment and serves on the governing boards of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Friends of the Earth, and the National Environmental Education Foundation.

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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