“We need to stop focusing on dates and numbers and actually accept and acknowledge the fact that we need to reduce our emissions right now. We can talk about 2030 or 2040 as much as we want. But it is what we are doing now that really matters.” – Greta Thunberg
Within a few short weeks of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people all over the world noted major differences in the earth’s atmosphere. Stars in the sky sparkled bright and air quality notably improved in cities like Los Angeles, London and Mumbai. Wild animals reclaimed the streets and parks, free to roam because humans were locked down to protect ourselves from the ravages of COVID-19.
Behind the veneer of these temporary benefits, however, the planet has been under severe stress. 2020 was a year of weather and temperature extremes. Humans inflicted even more damage during the pandemic, with increased single use plastic and reliance on online shopping. The negative trends are expected to continue, with severe ramifications for human health, productivity, and ways of life.
Despite the need for change and action, philanthropic contributions to mitigate climate change is far below giving to other causes, for example health, education or the arts. Giving to climate causes is only around 2% of all giving. In fact, according to ClimateWorks' report on climate change philanthropy, climate falls 16th out of 17th in terms of the issues to which foundations made grants. And yet, until the climate crisis is solved, all of our other philanthropic efforts will be for naught.
If 2020 taught anything positive, it showed that with collaboration, dedication, and an influx of funding, the world can make progress quickly. So now, it’s time to turn our collective action to mitigate the damage humankind exacted on the planet—not only to benefit the earth, but to protect our own lives and livelihoods.
Conservation and climate change are multi-layered, multifaceted, cross-cutting, global problems. Getting started can feel daunting, like you need to boil the ocean to stop the ocean from boiling. Where should I give? How will my giving make a difference when so much capital is needed? How can I focus on a problem that feels so far away when people are suffering from disease and food insecurity today? There is a path forward.
First and probably most importantly, don’t overthink it. Whether it’s air or ocean pollution, carbon emissions or even animal habitats, pick the issue that is most important to you, and start there. Because climate intersects with so many other cause areas, you don’t necessarily need to think of climate as an addition, but rather an extension of your giving. For example, climate and health are closely intertwined. If the global healthcare sector were a country it would be the fifth largest greenhouse emitter and climate change is putting pressures on our global health. If you want to support your local hospital, for example, your funding can help them transition to sustainable food sources, develop and execute plans to reduce their carbon emissions, or detox their supply chains.
Take advantage of learning resources and funding partners. Chances are there are other donors and foundations who are interested in the same topic. They have likely already done the due diligence needed to vet the nonprofits in the space, and your infusion of funds can help to broaden the impact of something that’s proven to be effective. Connect with learning networks and organizations like Climate Leadership Initiative to understand how and where philanthropy can make a difference. Tap into the knowledge of regional climate foundations and partner with strategic intermediaries like ClimateWorks.
Next, bring your entire financial portfolio to bear. There are ample opportunities to put your philanthropy to work through traditional nonprofits as well as more venture philanthropy flavors, such as Prime Coalition which is providing seed funding to companies focused on addressing climate change. Better yet, you can allocate some of your alternative investments into venture funds like Clean Energy Ventures, which is providing early commercialization capital to invest in climate tech. It's about making a positive impact and providing financial returns. And even better yet, if you are leading a company or investing in companies, think about how you can revise current business strategies—particularly ones that are damaging to the planet—and ensure that business goals and philanthropic visions support each other.
Finally, act with intention around equity. Climate change impacts communities of color, the poor, disabled, and elderly more than others—and exacerbates the inequality that already persists. Listen, learn from, and collaborate with those communities fighting for climate justice and support organizations led by people of color, indigenous, minority, and underserved leaders in the regions you care about.
Despite all of the benefits, climate philanthropy seems to be among the most difficult areas to motivate interest, let alone action, particularly in light of the more immediate threat of the COVID pandemic. For those donors bold enough to act right now and stay the course, you will be unleashing a positive legacy that will benefit the world for years to come.