Climate philanthropy – the tyranny of the 2 per cent

Edouard Morena

Two per cent. This is the estimated share of philanthropic dollars allocated to climate-related issues. In the run-up to the Paris climate conference, the 2 per cent figure acted as a rallying cry to get more grant dollars flowing towards climate-related actions. In an April 2015 opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Larry Kramer of the Hewlett Foundation and Carol Larson of the Packard Foundation expressed their dismay at the fact that ‘currently less than 2 per cent of all philanthropic dollars are being spent in the fight against climate change’. As the June edition of Alliance demonstrates, in the post-Paris context, the 2 per cent figure continues to feature in ongoing conversations about philanthropy’s role in the climate debate.

Yet, while funding levels deserve our attention, by repeatedly framing philanthropy’s challenge in such a manner we also tend to overshadow philanthropy’s contribution – past and present – to the international climate debate. Their limited resources notwithstanding, climate funders actively – and according to some, decisively – contributed to the Paris ‘success’. According to the European Climate Foundation (ECF), ‘although we should be careful not to overstate our role, it is important to recognize that the climate philanthropy community’s activities prior to and at the COP [Conference of the Parties] helped to lay the basis for the outcome’ (ECF, 2016: 2). Who are the organizations that  are responsible for the 2 per cent? How do they engage in the international climate debate? And what lessons can we learn for the future?

Credit Becker1999.

Credit Becker1999.


Looking back
Drawing on data from the Foundation Center, an analysis of the relative contributions of top foundations shows that in 2012 six foundations – the Hewlett, Packard, Sea Change, Oak, Energy and Rockefeller foundations (all with a long history of collaboration and strategic alignment) – accounted for more than 73 per cent of the total grants in the area of climate change mitigation (Fern et al., 2015); the Hewlett and Packard foundations made up 48 per cent of this total. Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, these and a handful of other climate funders pooled together resources, devised and launched joint strategies and initiatives, adjusting them along the way so as to maximize impact. From a very early stage, these foundations recognized that, given the scale of the climate problem, and contrary to other customary areas of philanthropic engagement – education, healthcare – no amount of philanthropic funding could, by itself, solve the climate problem. The priority was therefore not to work to change so much as to act upon the levers of change’.

‘In 2012 six foundations – the Hewlett, Packard, Sea Change, Oak, Energy and Rockefeller foundations – accounted for more than 73 per cent of the total grants in the area of climate change mitigation.’

In the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s, foundations helped to organize – and convened – international meetings, funded climate research and fostered greater civil society participation in the budding international climate regime. They firmly believed that, given adequate institutions, resources and information about climate science, governments, global civil society and the wider public would rationally choose to work together to solve the climate crisis.

Over the course of the late 1990s and early 2000s, various contextual factors led the most active climate funders to reassess and adapt their strategies. These factors included the US federal government’s reluctance to commit to ambitious mitigation targets, climate denialists’ effective scaremongering tactics and attacks against the science, and growing reservations about the ability of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to deliver an ambitious and legally binding agreement in the post-Kyoto context. For climate funders, it was a case of coming to terms and dealing with the irrationality of climate politics. For some, this involved adopting a strategic or focused approach to climate philanthropy. In particular, this meant focusing on the economic sectors (energy, transport) and regions (subnational, national and supranational) with the highest mitigation potential, and targeting stakeholders (regulators, utility companies) with the authority and economic power to exert meaningful change.

In addition to privileging an elitist and corporate-centred approach to climate action, a central and cross-cutting feature of this new brand of philanthropy is its effort to apply business or entrepreneurial principles to all levels of philanthropic activity. Instead of holding a backseat position, foundations actively contribute to the various stages of a given project by supplying grantees with expertise, insights and strategic direction. So as to maximize their impact, foundations regularly aligned their grantmaking strategies and, in certain instances, jointly set up new specialized re-granting – or pass-through – foundations to effectively channel money to carefully selected recipients and for the purposes of a pre-determined, and usually quantifiable, objective. Noteworthy examples include the Energy Foundation (1991), the ClimateWorks Foundation (2008) and the European Climate Foundation (2008), all backed by a relatively small group of well-endowed and well-connected foundations.

Although initially hesitant to do so, the prospect of an ambitious agreement in Copenhagen (2009) encouraged large climate funders to actively engage in and around the UNFCCC process. Although the ensuing collapse of the international negotiations deterred many foundations from investing in the international climate policy field, the main climate funders remained active at the international level. While supporting bottom-up action, they also believed that only an overarching international framework could generate the required momentum for decisive action at the national level. In the lead-up to Paris, through initiatives like the International Policies and Politics Initiative, they supported a highly sophisticated, multi-level strategy that consisted in bridging North–South divides in the negotiation space, encouraging countries and the private sector to ramp up their ambition, and orchestrating an effective communications campaign around both the dangers of climate change and also the projected benefits of climate action.

‘What is the point of funding the renewable energy revolution if our financial assets are invested in big polluters?’

Looking forward
As our rapid overview of climate philanthropy indicates, 2 per cent can take you a long way. The question, then, is seeing whether this is the right way. The philanthropic community must pay closer attention to the quality – and not just the quantity – of climate funding. What is the use, for instance, of actively supporting the phasing-out of fossil fuels if we do not account for how this is likely to affect the local communities whose livelihoods depend on them? What is the point of funding the renewable energy revolution if our financial assets are invested in big polluters? Thankfully, initiatives such as Divest-Invest Philanthropy or the Just Transition Fund are starting to address some of these contradictions. Yet the fact that an overwhelming portion of the 2 per cent is controlled by a handful of close-knit foundations inhibits any genuine discussion of the prevailing theory of change and its potential risks, contradictions and shortfalls.

‘In the post-Paris context, creating the conditions for a truly open and inclusive dialogue on climate philanthropy becomes even more important, given the scale and scope of the climate challenge.’

In the post-Paris context, creating the conditions for a truly open and inclusive dialogue on climate philanthropy becomes even more important, given the scale and scope of the climate challenge. As an ‘everything problem’, climate change requires foundations to continuously develop cutting-edge and innovative modes of engagement and, more importantly still, to adopt a holistic approach to social change. Yet, from the moment that the climate philanthropy landscape is dominated by a handful of funders, there is a genuine risk, as Betsy Taylor rightly pointed out, of sustaining an atmosphere of ‘groupthink’, where ‘money is channelled toward one shared strategy rather than distributed across a diverse number of possible options’ (Bartosiewicz and Miley, 2013:36). As the euphoria of the Paris climate conference dissipates, the climate philanthropy community must face up to this structural problem if it is to rise to the momentous challenges that still lie ahead.

Edouard Morena is lecturer in French and European Politics, University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP), and author of The Price of Climate Action: Philanthropic foundations in the international climate debate (Palgrave, 2016).


Twitter @Edouard_Morena

Further Reading:
Bartosiewicz, Petra, and Marissa Miley. “The Too Polite Revolution: Why the Recent Campaign to Pass Comprehensive Climate Legislation in the United States Failed.” 2013.
ECF. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change: A Perspective on the Implications for the Role of Philanthropy. The Hague: European Climate Foundation, 2016.
Fern, Nora, Marc Daudon, Imen Meliane, Amy Solomon, and Kendra White. Oak Foundation Environment Programme Evaluation: Executive Summary. External Evaluation, Seattle: Cascadia Consulting Group, 2015.

Lead image: Sea ice cover on the Arctic Ocean has been shrinking dramatically over the past decades.

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