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The State of Climate Philanthropy

October 22, 2021 - By Heather Grady

There is a heightened sense of urgency leading up to COP26, the 2021 installment of the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12. This year’s conference comes in the wake of a devastating report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was released during a summer marked by extreme weather events around the world—from more intense hurricanes in the Caribbean to wildfires in California and extreme floods in Germany.

To place these developments into context, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Vice President Heather Grady outlines the state of environment philanthropy in the lead-up to COP26 and describes what it will take to meet the urgency of the climate crisis.

What are key themes to watch at this year’s UN climate conference?

Heather Grady: First, the latest report from the IPCC released earlier this year made us realize that things are more dire than we thought. I spoke recently with someone who had just traveled to Greenland, and she told me that it was raining on the glaciers, which were disintegrating before her eyes. And think of all the disasters around that we have witnessed this year that are exacerbated by climate change: the ice melts, the wildfires, and the floods. It’s as if the whole ground is shifting below us. To me, there’s a much stronger feeling of urgency leading up to this year’s climate summit.

Second, youth activism continues to gain in importance in terms of pressuring leaders to address both climate and environment more broadly. At a recent meeting, we discussed the twin phenomena of climate anxiety and “eco-grief,” and I think youth are right to castigate their elders for not doing enough. I see adults more often acknowledging responsibility for the world that we are leaving for our children.

Third, almost every significant business is getting on the net-zero bandwagon. Of course, these are just commitments, and businesses need to be held accountable as never before for their commitments. But it’s notable that climate commitments from the corporate sector are becoming more mainstream.

Finally, as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, China’s growing commitment to climate action is significant. Officials in China are moving fast, and they are pushing businesses there to keep up.

Those are four storylines to watch leading up to this year’s COP conference. It’s a combination of frightening and hopeful.

What is the state of climate change-related philanthropy heading into COP26?

The picture is generally a good one. The amount of philanthropic funds going to climate change is growing fast. There is more strategic thinking, with a growing recognition that to address the climate crisis, we need fundamental changes in our economic systems and more public policies that drive deep decarbonization of business. Accordingly, there is a push for more systemic, integrated approaches to climate philanthropy that require serious engagement with the public sector, the private sector, and civil society movements.

Philanthropy also increasingly recognizes the close linkages between climate and nature solutions. To address the climate crisis without protecting nature ignores the symbiotic relationship between the climate and what we call the global commons—biodiversity, the ocean, freshwater, and land. And partial approaches like carbon offsets can actually do harm to nature and people if they don’t include a more holistic understanding of the context in which investments are made. Promoting regenerative agriculture and deep decarbonization through emissions reductions are examples of complementary approaches to support.

Additionally, more philanthropists are getting interested in climate justice and environmental justice. This involves, for a start, recognizing that climate impacts disproportionately hurt the communities and societies that are least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, and then providing investments that ensure those communities have the renewable resources to develop. It means supporting a just transition away from fossil fuels that ensures alternative livelihoods for those who are at risk of losing their jobs. And it means giving greater weight to the voices and perspectives of people who have generally been sidelined in both boardrooms and traditional environmental organizations.

How must climate philanthropy continue to evolve to meet the urgency of the crisis?

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen some significant investments toward addressing climate change, both through ESG (environmental, social, and governance) in the private sector and through philanthropy. At RPA, we’re hosting a number of high-impact efforts including the Climate Leadership Initiative, the Global Commons Alliance, Climate Nexus, and the Climate Breakthrough Project, all of which are important within the broader climate and environment field.

At the same time, the scale of climate philanthropy is nowhere near what it needs to be—it’s not growing quickly enough. There is a push for two shifts to happen simultaneously. First, there are growing expectations for philanthropic institutions who care about climate change to divest of fossil fuel investments in their endowments. This is where the bulk of philanthropic capital rests.

Second, there is a push for wealth-holders to spend their money faster. What does an endowment in perpetuity mean if the future of people and planet is in question?

Ultimately, philanthropy alone can never adequately address climate change. Public policies need to change, regulations need to be tightened, and companies need to be held accountable to the commitments they make. What philanthropy can do is support the kinds of organizations that are creating the pressure to achieve the necessary changes. That includes, for example, funding youth movements that push for more ambitious climate policy, supporting civic action groups that encourage people to consider candidates’ positions on climate when they vote, or supporting the frontline communities most active on climate change. In other words, philanthropic capital can serve as a catalyst for more transformative change in terms of business practice and public policy.

What will it take to sustain the momentum for climate action after COP26 ends?

A lot of commitments are made at every climate conference. It’s essential that funders support accountability mechanisms to make sure that companies and governments act on those commitments. There are many organizations out there now that are creating new tools for change, like Science Based Targets initiative, and others like Industry Tracker and ShareAction that work to hold companies accountable for the commitments they’ve made. By investing in those kinds of organizations, funders can help maintain the momentum after COP26. Finally, trusting organizations to do the strategic pivots they will need to make after this COP by giving longer-term, flexible organizational support is a key contribution to maintaining momentum into 2022 and well beyond.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash


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