This post was adapted from a piece published on the Hewlett Foundation website for Earth Day 2019.

The world is in dire straits due to looming climate change. For funders and nonprofits, it’s important to know that the challenges we face, while substantial, can be overcome – and there are signs of hope. Consider:

  • We have seen an outpouring of new enthusiasm from the global youth community: teens, university students, and young adults around the world are turning out to march for a cleaner environment and to demand their leaders provide more than rhetoric to solve climate change, to eliminate inequity, and to build a sustainable future. They are not content to hear promises, but instead seek concrete action in the form of legislation, regulation, and financing. And history suggests that when the world’s youth turns out, everyone listens—so this is an extraordinary harbinger of change.
  • Globally, we are seeing a diversification and a decarbonization of our electric system, with the prospects for even more to come this year. Renewable energy is now cheaper to install and run than any fossil fuel station built today, and globally, we are seeing coal retirements at an unprecedented rate.
  • Virtually every car company in the world now offers one or more electric vehicles in its fleet, and more consumers are choosing them. A host of new technologies are coming on the market to electrify trucks and buses, while the rapid rise of electric scooters is changing urban commutes worldwide. Manufacturers around the world see this trend for what it is: the future of transportation.

But the past year has not been one of unalloyed successes. Global greenhouse gas concentrations have risen and temperatures continue to reach new record levels. The consequences of these climatic shifts have been reflected in a litany of global disaster: wildfires in California killed dozens, destroyed millions of dollars in personal property, and devastated the land. Flooding in the Midwest disrupted the livelihoods of farmers at the heart of the American food system. Inundations at an unprecedented scale raged through Africa as a result of Typhoon Idai. Record heat levels in much of the Middle East and a continued drought in Australia and South Africa threatened human and wildlife populations. And the sources of this carbon pollution are making other forms of toxic pollution increasingly intolerable in cities around the world—with lives lost and public health at risk as our burning of dirty fuels adds a deadly and toxic mix to our skies and waters.

Simultaneously, while some governments are living up to their commitments to sustainability, too many have slowed or even halted their efforts. The U.S. federal government not only continues to dismiss the urgency of climate change, but has been destroying our national heritage by removing protections from our national parks and wild lands in order to drill for more oil and gas—even though global energy markets are saturated, and we are developing lower costs alternatives through renewable energy. And there are hurdles internationally, as well, from deforestation of the Amazon basin in Brazil to promotion of the export of coal power in Asia.

These challenges are substantial. But they are surmountable, and the Hewlett Foundation is proud to be working with grantees around the world to address them.

  • The next steps will need to be global in scope; no single country, no matter how large, can solve the problem alone. Collective philanthropic initiatives, including those of the European Climate Foundation, the UN Foundation, the ClimateWorks Foundation and others around the world have been actively working to support continued progress.
  • We know that change will not only occur at the national or international level; cities and states are essential players. The Energy Foundation has been a core partner in helping U.S. states move forward toward a cleaner future, while the U.S. Climate Alliance has provided a platform for states that are setting aggressive new targets to work jointly to develop and share best practices. With the support of organizations working on the ground, leading local governments have been taking the kind of steps that point the way for those to follow. Hawaii and New Mexico have announced their intent to be carbon free by mid-century. California continues to lead with its requirements on renewable energy and transportation, while cities such as Copenhagen, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and others are setting new standards for buildings, cars, and more.
  • And we know that public will is essential for making the kind of rapid transformation that is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. We are fortunate to have partners such as the Sunrise Movement, the Climate March, CHISPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, and countless others working to educate and engage people of all walks and in all corners of the world about the dangers we face, and the opportunities that are possible in a clean energy future.

We should be mindful of the challenges we still face. But the changes we need to make are within our grasp. In reality, we have no choice; to stand still is to face certain destruction. And to move forward is to open new opportunities for better lives for us all.


By Jonathan Pershing, Environment Program Director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. He previously served as the Special Envoy for Climate Change at the U.S. Department of State and lead U.S. negotiator to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.