We dropped the ball on climate protection in 2008 – we can’t afford to do it again


Peter Heller


In 2009, I wrote a piece for AllianceWanted: First movers. Reading it now, I feel tempted to copy and paste the introduction into a new article about the COVID-19 pandemic: ‘It is a hard time for those concerned about global warming. Governments, still in ‘shock and awe’ mode in light of the economic crisis, are presently steering away from saving the planet to save their banks and carmakers’.

When the economic crisis fully hit in 2008, its collateral damage wiped climate protection off the priority list of governments. Philanthropy too faced a setback when it came to funding environmental projects – major foundations lost too much capital to continue their climate friendly impact investments. It took seven years for climate protection advocacy to recover. A major step in the revitalised global movement came when 189 governments committed themselves to the Paris Agreement in 2016. Yet just two years later, it became clear that many OECD countries were disregarding the terms of the Paris Agreement and in some cases were working actively to water down their commitments.

Facing a fast-contracting window for climate action, a new generation began to raise its voice. Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, both founded in 2018, organised school strikes, protest marches, and roadblocks. The emergence of fresh pro-climate activism prompted me to reconsider – and revise – my call in 2009 ‘in favour for direct action’.

Direct action means first-hand assistance to grassroots organisations and social enterprises in the non-OECD world fighting global warming. In 2009, I argued for using the resources of committed foundations in their multiple roles as grantmakers, ‘business’ development advisors, and impact investors to support projects on site where people are most in need. However, in the fresh activism of FfF and XR, I sensed a new quality of political advocacy which goes beyond the usual NGO lobbying and compromising.

Pivoting to pro-climate advocacy

The process of rethinking the strategy of our foundation led to a gradual shift of its activities in favour of pro-climate advocacy. Two projects may serve as examples well aligned with that new perspective.

Since 2017, ‘Climate Transparency’, a global partnership of 14 climate research organisations and NGOs from G20 countries and emerging economies, releases the annual ‘Brown to Green Report’. The reports provide a comprehensive overview of all G20 countries, and what they are doing on the journey to transition towards a net-zero emissions economy. Among the main authors of the reports is the Humboldt Viadrina Governance Platform in Berlin, a non-profit organisation co-founded by Canopus in 2014. Now in its third year, the Brown to Green Report has become a valuable source of information about the implementation of the Paris Agreement, its annual releases are regularly covered by international media.

The second project is the Forum for a New Economy, launched in 2019 and based in Berlin. It is a platform for progressive economists and social scientists working on a new economic paradigm, and its gatherings address the rise of populism, macroeconomic strategies against global warming, and recently the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economic policy agenda.

What survives after the pandemic?

Those two projects will survive the pandemic, but what about the larger picture? We are seeing a strikingly adverse effect from the health crisis in the pro-climate arena. It dealt a heavy blow to activism: no school strikes when the schools are closed and no protest marches when gathering is restricted. As a consequence, climate activism has almost disappeared from headlines, coverage, and discussion on social media.

On the other hand, as observers we notice that the virus has proven to be the most effective global climate protection programme ever. It cleared the skies from kerosene vapour contrails, removed the deadly layers of smog over Jakarta, Delhi, and Santiago. It led to an unprecedented cut in CO2  and other emissions induced by lower mobility and energy consumption.

Yet both economists and scientists agree that these measures, required to protect humanity from the virus, have created economic consequences that are unsustainable, especially for the poor.

How will, how should philanthropy respond? Our primary partners, the civil society organisations have likely suffered more than the private sector. In Germany, the government programmes spending billions of subsidies for keeping SMEs alive are not suited to supporting the non-profit sector – only a few find access to bridge finance.

Can the bright side of life in the last weeks, the deceleration, the absence of ‘too much, too loud, too fast’, as Olga Tokarczuk, last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, puts it, be safeguarded on the road to normality, and nonetheless the wounds caused by the crisis be healed? A critical assessment of that fundamental ambiguity is what we urgently need.

Peter W. Heller is the co-founder and executive director of the Canopus Foundation, based in Freiburg, Germany.

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