‘10 years to transform the future of humanity – or to destabilize the planet’ – this is the reality philanthropy is facing today. In time for Earth Day 2021 Dafne’s Max von Abendroth is calling philanthropy to be bold in addressing the climate crisis and deepening social inequalities.
‘The shock of my career’ – this is how Johan Rockström, an internationally acclaimed scientist on global sustainability and climate, commented on the most recent update of his research in 2019. Rockström helped lead a team of scientists that presented the planetary boundaries framework, first published in 2009.
In 2019, science informed us that nine of the fifteen known big systems that regulate the stability of the entire climate are showing very severe signs of approaching their tipping points. These tipping points, established over a decade ago, represent planetary boundaries which, if transgressed, would put us in a dangerous zone triggering nonlinear, irreversible changes. What does this mean exactly? The ice sheet could melt irrevocably, the ocean could change its circulation or the Amazon rainforest could turn into a savannah.
In January 2021, Rockström shared the latest findings in an interview with ‘Global Optimism’: three out of these nine systems must be considered to have passed these tipping points. This already creates unpredictable consequences for climate stability, the functioning of natural ecosystems, and by extension, for human well-being.
And now what?
Scientists and many activists around the world have been vocal in calling for climate action. The Paris Agreement signed by 196 parties in 2015 has introduced an important roadmap for climate action at a governmental level. Today scientists are calling for a net-zero world economy by 2050 to avoid global warming beyond 1.5 °C. However, this is not enough. We need to keep the remaining natural ecosystems intact, such as the oceans and the natural ecosystems on land. Besides, the climate crisis, like the Covid-19 pandemic, is exposing and deepening social inequalities that need to be urgently addressed.
How can philanthropy act?
Philanthropy is about mobilising private resources for public good. Because of their long-term perspective, their risk-taking nature and their ability to engage and support communities at the frontline of environmental injustice and climate change, there is a great opportunity for philanthropic organisations to become a leading force in the transformational change ahead for our society, economy and politics.
Four months ago, Tom Brookes from the European Climate Foundation reminded us that ‘we have to remember what we are trying to save and what we are trying to create. We are not saving the planet. It has been here long before us and will be here long after. We are trying to create a vision of human society that in fact has never existed. A society which respects our planetary boundaries, lives in harmony with nature and each other, that embraces difference, celebrates equality and promotes peace.’
I believe that philanthropy, with its power to take risks, be disruptive and develop, test and scale ideas is well placed to tackle the climate crisis and social inequalities. In my view, philanthropy even has to gain in doing so, to not put at risk its ‘raison d’être’. The climate crisis affects all areas of the public good. This is why foundations – regardless of their mission – need to be mobilised to implement this vision of human society respecting the planetary boundaries. This movement for collective impact is steered in Europe by the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate, an initiative started by PEX and hosted by Dafne that seeks to introduce climate action as a cross-cutting issue for all foundations in Europe.
One important building block in this approach is the ‘funder commitment on climate change’ – launched in 2019 in the UK, followed by France and Spain in 2020 and foreseen to ‘go global’ in summer 2021 with the international philanthropy commitment on climate change, hosted by WINGS. Such commitments are guiding foundations towards transformational change by providing low barrier entry for philanthropic organisations to climate action. All signatories commit to apply the climate lens to their daily operations, their more than 60 bn EUR funding of programmes per year, and the investment of their assets worth 511 bn EUR. As of this writing, more than 180 funders have signed this climate commitment in Europe.
The Philanthropy Coalition for Climate is also highlighting, connecting and building on outstanding and inspiring initiatives tackling the dual crisis from many different angles: some are driving citizens’ engagement on climate, while others are funding research at intersection points; some are aiming to transform the economic system to reflect the ecological and social costs, and others are engaging with governments to shape the policy agenda along the lines of climate protection and social justice. Connecting these and many more initiatives with each other as well as ensuring that we are conscious about their complementarity is our contribution for collective impact.
What is holding us back?
The philanthropy support system in Europe has to get ready to provide the necessary forums for peer exchange, the education to foundation leaders and staff and the guidance required to connect the dots across the philanthropy sector and beyond to tackle the dual crises of climate breakdown and deepening inequality. This is a big change for philanthropy and takes boldness on the side of foundations as well as philanthropy support organisations.
The Philanthropy Coalition for Climate is helping to put this boldness into action by empowering philanthropy support organisations to guide donors and foundations to live up to their ambitions to implement solutions for the dual crisis. The coalition also encourages foundations of all types to integrate a climate lens into their portfolio and actively positions philanthropy as a driver for climate action, for example with the European Commission’s EU Climate Pact, the G20 negotiations and COP26.
Call to action
Seven months ahead of COP26 in the UK and only a few years away from the tipping points of the twelve remaining systems that are maintaining the climate’s stability and the functioning of natural ecosystems for human well-being on our planet on track, board members, directors and staff of philanthropy support organisations need to focus on supporting the philanthropy sector to live up to this challenge, by offering access to collective learning, imagining and acting to foundations.
And foundations have no time to lose in embracing the challenge and integrating climate action in all its forms. It is now the moment to be bold, ambitious and courageous.
If we don’t act now, how can we be sure that we can act tomorrow?
Max von Abendroth is Executive Director at Dafne – Donors and Foundations Networks in Europe