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.

Read the full article about abandoning the ivory tower of climate policy by Arturo Garcia-Costas at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.