Climate Philanthropy

In “Climate Philanthropy and the Four Billion (Dollars, That Is)” (Issues, Winter 2019), Matthew C. Nisbet makes the argument that investments in climate change mitigation by large foundations have been too narrow in scope to help avert global catastrophe and that the growing influence of philanthropy in solving the climate crisis creates a problem of accountability, where the unelected leaders of foundations seek to exercise global power.

Nisbet is correct in his central argument that a wider set of solutions beyond simply deploying renewable energy and putting a price on carbon is required. The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report lays out, in stark detail, the calamity the world is facing and the need for urgent and extreme action to dramatically reduce emissions to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century. That’s why, at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we’re advocating an “all-in” approach in our support of climate solutions. That must include the rapid deployment of renewables and limits on greenhouse gas emissions, which include carbon dioxide, but also shorter-lived yet more potent gases such as methane coming from natural gas production and agriculture. We must also work with the energy industry to explore carbon capture and storage solutions, including the potential of direct-air capture, and to expand the use of safe and secure nuclear power that does not increase the risk of weapons proliferation.

Where we question Nisbet’s argument is in his assertion that growing and unaccountable philanthropic investment in climate solutions will surpass national governments in their ability to define the agenda on climate change. Though foundation trustees, presidents, and staff may wish they had that sort of influence, it is hardly the case.

In 2018, MacArthur joined 28 of the world’s largest foundations in pledging $4 billion in grants to accelerate the transition to clean energy and reduce the world’s emissions. That is a lot of money, but not nearly what it will take to offset the $54 trillion in damage the IPCC report says a 1.5-degree temperature increase will cost the world. That same report says the world needs to double its current energy investments to $2.4 trillion each year between now and 2035, largely on clean energy. And though philanthropic support may help strengthen the civil society actors and innovators working to accelerate climate solutions, a report in 2018 by Drexel University found that fossil fuel producers, airlines, and electrical utilities outspent such groups 10 to 1 in lobbying on climate change legislations between 2000 and 2016.

So, while big philanthropy can certainly help drive an agenda and make key strategic investments, its resources pale in comparison to the more powerful forces we all must increasingly engage with to solve this problem: government and industry. Indeed, it is time to “build a broader political coalition that seeks out nontraditional allies and welcomes challenging ideas,” as Nesbit writes. We have also called for that conversation and for stronger government leadership on climate from the city level on up. We encourage greater investment by both industry and government in climate solutions, and we look forward to being a partner in saving our planet.

Director, Climate Solutions
MacArthur Foundation

Matthew Nisbet’s article is an important contribution to the discussion about the role of philanthropy in addressing climate change. As he notes, climate philanthropy has resulted in several significant achievements. Yet I share his core concern that “as funders have invested in a common road map for tackling climate change, their preferred framing has become so pervasive…that most advocates, journalists, and academics no longer perceive…that there might exist alternative interpretations and courses of action to consider.”

I have witnessed this dynamic firsthand through my own work in climate philanthropy. Given the tremendous lift that it will take to decarbonize the global power supply, let alone transportation, buildings, and industry, I am of the belief that we should be expanding the set of potential tools at our disposal. But more than a decade of philanthropy and advocacy has been focused on a narrow tool kit—primarily solar, wind, energy efficiency, and carbon pricing—that is unlikely to solve this challenge on its own (at least if the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other credible agencies are to be believed).

In contrast to the well-funded environmental groups that Nisbet describes, the organizations working to advance policies regarding other potential solutions, such as advanced nuclear power, carbon removal, carbon capture, sunlight reflection, and broad-based innovation policy, are deeply underfunded. And though some longtime climate funders such as the Hewlett Foundation have begun to meaningfully widen the scope of their grantmaking, traditional climate philanthropy has been too slow to acknowledge that its funding patterns run the risk of contributing to a “dangerous path dependency,” as Nisbet puts it.

Where I respectfully disagree with Nisbet is that I think he overstates the power of big philanthropy to set the climate agenda. In many cases climate foundations are actually following the priorities set by their grantees. And despite Nisbet’s claim that philanthropists are “likely to surpass national governments in their ability to define the agenda on climate change,” money isn’t everything, and the power of public leaders to set an agenda remains unparalleled—even in an era of gridlock and dysfunction. The Green New Deal, which was not funded by big philanthropy, is just the latest reminder of this.

However, what the Green New Deal and much of the work funded by traditional climate philanthropy have in common is that they are well-intentioned but problematic agendas for building effective political constituencies on climate change. We need climate solutions that can help decarbonize the economy and break through partisan gridlock. Witness the passage in the last (highly polarized, highly dysfunctional) Congress of two nuclear innovation bills, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act and the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, both of which had strong bipartisan support.

Accelerating the pace of this work in order to meet the climate challenge requires building a new field of institutions that can work alongside big green groups to provide a diversified approach to addressing climate change. In my view, that is climate philanthropy’s most urgent task.

Pritzker Innovation Fund

Cite this Article

“Climate Philanthropy.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 3 (Spring 2019).

Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Spring 2019