Philanthropy and Climate: Hope and Opportunity

Hilary Pearson

It has been a very tough summer for the world, weather-wise. Heat, storms, floods and fires affected countries across the map. The changing climate convinces many of us that these are partly human-made, not just “natural”, disasters. This could be cause for despair. But there is still room for hope. And philanthropy can be both part of and a contributor to that hope.

We are told by ClimateWorks that philanthropy worldwide contributes less than 2% of its giving to climate mitigation funding. That suggests significant opportunity.

For many in philanthropy, the question isn’t why but how to engage in what is a very complex and quickly worsening problem. Peer sharing and encouragement can help. A global foundation movement, #PhilanthropyforClimate, is showing how through its International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change.

In Canada, where warming is happening twice as fast as the rest of the world, Canadian philanthropy is joining the international movement with a Canadian Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change, which is gathering speed with almost fifty foundations signing on.

This is reason for hope. And there are many ways in which foundations can make a difference, even with limited funds. As interest and urgency grow, so too does the availability of the models and resources.

A March 2023 report from the Aspen Institute and Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management, Funding Climate Action: A Pathway to Climate Philanthropy, takes an interesting approach to helping foundations and philanthropists think about options for climate change funding. It describes five climate funder « archetypes » to show how the various tools of philanthropy can be used according to these types. Several foundations are profiled in the report to demonstrate the ways in which archetypical funders are intervening on climate. The archetypes are: climate explorer, climate lens applier, climate philanthropy leader, investment-led philanthropist, and climate action integrator.

The report suggests that many family foundations are increasing their climate engagement by moving into the climate lens applier archetype. Climate Lens Appliers have recognized that climate change is an important global challenge and that their own philanthropic mission will be impacted by the changing climate. While they may not have shifted their mission to focus exclusively on climate issues, they have explicitly decided to apply a climate lens to their giving.”

While it uses mainly American references, the report offers as an example of this archetype a Canadian family foundation, the Trottier Family Foundation. Eric St-Pierre, the Executive Director, describes how the Foundation is using its approach to climate in its healthcare work. “We are maintaining a focus on healthcare in Quebec, but intentionally looking at the relationship between health and the environment. We are launching both an adaptation and mitigation strategy in the context of health.”

Another very useful guidance report for climate funders was published in August 2023 by the Bridgespan Group. Winning on Climate Change offers a summary of past progress funded through philanthropy and a set of practical suggestions to climate donors. Like the Aspen report, Bridgespan interviewed many funders who are active in the climate change fight. And like Aspen, Bridgespan’s report suggests some guiding principles for climate change funders at any stage of their exploration: Invest now and early, even in small-scale efforts; collaborate with others through intermediaries and pooled funds; support the equitable implementation of existing laws, treaties and policy changes. You don’t have to do all of these things to be effective as a climate funder.  But starting somewhere is the key.

Many funders will say that it is easy to get lost in the multiplicity of initiatives and efforts. How to know what is going to be most effective? On this point, one of the funders interviewed by Aspen, Chris Kohlhardt, recommends that “you have to decide if you are more afraid of analysis paralysis or potentially wasting money. Err on the side of moving money sooner and learning from your experiences.”

For those philanthropists who do want to see the pathway to a low carbon energy economy before they decide on what will be most effective, the best approach may be to fund the development of the energy transition roadmap.  A great example is the German Energiewende or energy transition strategy, which was developed by an independent nonprofit think tank, Agora Energiewende, in the 2010s. Agora is a public policy consultancy which convenes stakeholders from government, political parties, universities, labour unions and industry to discuss policy solutions. According to an article by Paul Hockenos in the Fall 2023 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Plotting the Path to Carbon Neutrality, Agora’s work “over the course of a decade…has definitively framed the climate-protection agenda in Germany and Europe”. Agora’s work was funded by private philanthropy - the Mercator Foundation and the European Climate Foundation. Today, “roughly 80% of its budget comes from private foundations worldwide”.

This is another example of philanthropy’s opportunity to drive a successful climate agenda, even in the face of accelerating climate-related disasters. The Ivey Foundation in Canada, arguably an example of the climate action integrator archetype sketched by Aspen, has taken the approach of going all in on climate. Like Agora, it is working on the roadmap to transitioning to a low carbon economy. The Foundation collaborates with experts across the spectrum of academia, government, industry and NGOs and has supported many policy advances. Its role as a non-partisan funder of policy think tanks and collaborative funds shows how private philanthropy can spur public progress.

There is plenty of hope in the midst of 2023’s climate-related gloom.  I take heart from the way in which philanthropy is rising to the opportunities. The tools and ideas are available. The key is to start. Note: I write about how Canadian philanthropy is rising to the challenge of climate change in my book From Charity To Change. So much more has happened since it was published in 2022!

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