Too little, too late? The growing urgency for philanthropic leadership


Leslie Johnston


Last year, in the wake of COP26, I recognized the fact that it was philanthropy’s ‘extraordinary moment‘. And indeed, we saw a number of pledges being made, where philanthropy was a quiet catalyst (as with the launch of the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance) or a more active driver (as with the Global Methane Pledge).

A year later, I fear we, as a sector, have not risen to the challenge.

To exacerbate the situation, our job has become harder. We are in a very different world than we were last year. With one of the bloodiest conflicts on European soil since World War II continuing, we are rocked by economic and geopolitical uncertainty and a cascade of interlinked and deepening crises. And it’s looking inevitable that we will surpass the critical 1.5°C limit, as outlined by the Economist in a sobering briefing ahead of COP27.

Further, the official outcomes of COP27 do not go far enough to address the root cause of this existential crisis: fossil fuels. As Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundationsaid, ‘This COP has weakened requirements around countries making new and more ambitious commitments. The text makes no mention of phasing out fossil fuels and scant reference to science and the 1.5-degree target.’ Clearly, the 636 fossil fuel lobbyists registered to attend COP27 (an increase of more than 25 per cent from COP26) have been busy.

Still, as I reflect on my time in Sharm El-Sheik, the discussions I had with our many partners there, and the various panels I participated in on topics such as climate justice and gender equity, I do see some points of light.

First, it is increasingly clear there is recognition that the climate crisis is, in fact, a broader systems problem. This may not be a surprise to those philanthropic foundations well versed in systems thinking. But to me, it was refreshing to see this systems lens make it onto the main stage as the indomitable prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, called out how our global financial architecture penalizes poorer countries, which are already vulnerable to increasing natural disasters. The Bretton Woods system that established our world economic order is no longer fit for purpose. And we, as philanthropic foundations, have a role to play here, particularly in supporting the inclusive convening and dialogue needed to design what can replace it.

Second, while the heads of state failed to take a brave and bold stand with the final COP27 outcomes, businesses have stepped up to assert that 1.5°C is a limit, not a target. We saw this in the declaration made by the We Mean Business Coalition and the B Team, along with 200 leading companies and civil society organizations, calling on government leaders and negotiators to uphold their 1.5°C commitments. It said, ‘Every part of society has an essential role to play in delivering 1.5°C. History shows us that humans have the capacity to innovate and solve immense challenges when we work together. The technologies exist and our destination is clear.’ This is also where philanthropy can accelerate efforts—supporting research and innovation on new solutions.

Third, as only the fifth COP to be held on the African continent, justice was front and centre to the discussions. And indeed, the key outcome was the agreement to set up a loss and damage fund and mechanism for those countries hit by climate disasters. As United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres said, ‘This COP has taken an important step towards justice.’ This is a first for a COP- and an opportunity for philanthropy to step in to catalyze other funders (just as leading philanthropic funders such as the William and Flora Hewlett, European Climate, Children’s Investment Fund, and Open Society foundations provided $3 million during last year’s COP to kickstart this process).

Finally, we know significantly more funding is needed to accelerate a just energy transition. In fact, the Climate Policy Initiative has estimated that we need to increase climate finance by some 590 per cent to $4.35 trillion annually by 2030 to keep within 1.5°C. Blended finance flows clearly have a role to play in mobilizing the billions into trillions. We, in partnership with IVPC and WINGS, had the opportunity to convene more than 60 financial practitioners and experts across the continuum of capital from philanthropic foundations to family offices, venture capital to insurance companies, where it was apparent that more concessional capital is needed to crowd in more sustainable private investment. Clearly, philanthropy, by taking the first loss, can also play an important de-risking role here.

And yet, we are not stepping up. While total philanthropic giving worldwide increased to an estimated $810 billion in 2021, and support for climate change mitigation increased last year by 25 per cent, this still represents a paltry 2 per cent of global philanthropic giving.  We can do better.

The European Union’s climate policy chief, Frans Timmermans, said in the COP27 closing plenary: ‘The world will not thank us when they hear only excuses tomorrow. This is the make-or-break decade but what we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward.’

I urge each of us to step forward by integrating a climate justice lens to our grant giving, by joining the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement, and by collaborating with each other so, together, we can be more than the sum of our parts.

This article was first published by Philanthropy News Digest on 23 November 2022. It is being re-shared in Alliance with permission

Leslie Johnston is CEO of Laudes Foundation in Zug, Switzerland.

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