We Have Just One Decade to Turn Back the Worst of Climate Change

Here's how philanthropy can lead the way.

We Have Just One Decade to Turn Back the Worst of Climate Change

New high-carbon capital infrastructure — some with life spans of 30 years or more — ranging from coal plants in Asia and parts of Europe to new natural-gas heating systems in American buildings, is being installed. We have no tax on carbon and continue to provide enormous subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This post has been reprinted with the permission of  The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has scared us.

It showed us how fragile our economy is and how unprepared our institutions are to deal with a danger that had been predicted. And it is a forerunner in fast motion of a much slower but ultimately far more destructive disaster coming along right behind it — global warming.

We are now in the last decade when we can still prevent some of the worst consequences of climate change. Foundations can’t squander this moment to make a difference ahead of the runaway wildfires, floods, storms, drought, famine, and massive, chaotic migration that will accelerate between now and 2030 and beyond if we fail to address this crisis seriously.

But tackling this challenge requires philanthropy — like the rest of us — to think and act in new ways. So, changing our thinking and expanding our ambition must be an integral part of the new agenda.

The process and advent of dangerous climate change are generally understood. The severe consequences have been largely foreseen and in broad strokes mapped out — over and over, by qualified scientists and thoughtful public-policy thinkers. And yet:

  • The president of the world’s largest economic power says climate change is a “hoax” and is pushing for increased coal use and higher allowances of carbon and even mercury (a known poison) emissions.
  • International climate-change negotiations have so far agreed only on setting unenforceable, aspirational targets that are not strong enough to avoid climate disaster. And even those unambitious targets are not being met.
  • Major carbon-emitting countries such as China, India, and Japan continue to build or finance the construction of new coal plants.
  • One of the world’s largest emitters, Brazil, is now encouraging illegal deforestation and the setting of fires in the Amazon, which is significantly increasing carbon emissions in the world’s largest tropical forest and carbon sink.

To be sure, there are lots of good people and organizations working hard to address the threat of climate change. There are even a few strong public leaders urging us to get serious about this deadly threat.

But taken as a whole, what we’re doing is not close to what is required. Emissions continue to rise. New high-carbon capital infrastructure — some with life spans of 30 years or more — ranging from coal plants in Asia and parts of Europe to new natural-gas heating systems in American buildings, is being installed. We have no tax on carbon and continue to provide enormous subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry.

When big problems like climate change are being neglected, it is the role of foundations to identify what’s needed and mobilize resources to address them. When I led the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1990s, I learned a lot about the Green Revolution it had pioneered, which for all its flaws had a significant impact in its day on fighting hunger in the developing world by developing greater understanding and use of agricultural science. But the challenge of global warming today dwarfs the problem of food insecurity we faced in the 1960s, and it requires those of us in the foundation world to rise to a new level of boldness, innovativeness, scale, and speed.

What is different this time?

A whole lot:

It is a global problem. The warming planet affects differentially the poor and the vulnerable — but it affects everyone, and our civilization as we know it will not survive if we remain on our present course. We can’t just hope to remedy things later; we must prevent the damage, and that is a new thing for us.

Time is short. We are working against a ticking clock that is setting its own deadlines, and it now leaves us very little time in which to act. So in addition to boldness, innovativeness, scale, and persistence, speed is now required.

The terrain is unfamiliar. Philanthropy works for the most part on problems of health, education, or opportunity, and fairness — areas in which civil society is heavily engaged. Human-induced climate change is largely a result of how our economic system functions — its technologies, its markets, its incentives, its use of natural resources, its processes of production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. While these are not fields from which foundations have been absent, neither is it a terrain for which most foundations possess tested tools and experience that would allow them to work at the needed scale and speed to change fundamental ways in which the global economic system operates. And there is no platform of global governance from which to address issues of systemic global economic change.

Another way to say this is that the challenge of global warming will not be met if it is addressed within the existing philanthropic framework. Ideally, the change in thinking prompted by the pandemic will allow us to embrace new approaches — but that has not been philanthropy’s strong suit to date.

What are some of the criteria by which we can assess whether the directions we are pursuing are likely to meet the required levels of boldness, innovation, scale, and speed? Here are some questions we should be asking about present and proposed courses of action now that time is running out, accompanied by some illustrations of potential courses of action.

  • We need to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions by half or more by the end of the present decade and, at the same time, expand development for the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Can a proposed course of action make a serious contribution to meeting that goal? Let’s take Africa as an example: Serious planning for emissions reduction and prevention in Africa is just beginning. Most projections see business-as-usual generating a 250 percent growth rate in greenhouse-gas emissions in Africa by 2050. If half of the world’s 40 largest foundations agreed to capitalize together an African “low-carbon development bank” by each providing 10 percent of their endowments, it could generate as much as $200 billion in new lending for low-carbon development on the African continent.
  • Is the effectiveness of the proposed course of action in reducing greenhouse gases clear and understood? Or are there fundamental uncertainties and complex technical issues that may take several years to research and clear up before we know if the proposal will work? In fields such as “ green hydrogen” and “ocean alkalinity enhancement,” there is research underway on potential technical breakthroughs to new methods of decarbonization. But we need to focus tightly on those with serious prospects for practical application in the next two to three years.
  • Does the proposal harness, or have substantial direct or indirect impact on, important market-based processes or regulatory forces in the economy? An illustration: Foundations decide to finance an effort in the United States and the European Union to require builders and operators of fossil-fuel pipelines to post bonds against the danger of methane leakage. ( Methane leakage sharply increases the global-warming effect of fossil-fuel facilities.)
  • Does the proposed course of action employ “sticks” as well as “carrots”? The philanthropic world has a long history of using “carrots” — positive ideas or new analyses seeking voluntary compliance and rational, constructive proposals counting on objective assessment to pave the way to widespread adherence. But our economic system relies at least as heavily on negative signals as on rational, positive ones. An example of a promising opportunity in which to use “sticks”: foundations support a global consumer movement that uses rigorously documented information on illegal deforestation and high-carbon supply chains to bring pressure and boycotts against retailers whose sourcing procedures are destroying tropical-forest carbon sinks and increasing carbon emissions.
  • Does the proposed course of action provide dramatic narratives or use public information to generate public understanding and support for decarbonizing the economic system? One example: A foundation sponsors the production of a short, powerful drama in which the younger generation puts the older generation on trial for endangering the planet. Such a film, which could easily be put on video in all the world’s major languages, would help us all think about and discuss within the lively context of a courtroom trial the arguments for and against the proposition that we have been guilty of negligence and possibly even criminal behavior toward our children’s generation in our handling of the global-warming threat.

A second example in this category: Foundations could fund a professional, independent global news service focusing solely on the battle to avoid global climate disaster. There is today no consistent, rigorously independent, widely trusted, and timely reporting on global warming and the struggle to avoid it; news on climate change is episodic, and neither sharply framed nor widely shared. We need to report on climate change and read and hear about it the way we follow hurricane disasters or the Olympics — or a pandemic.

There are lots of other questions and ideas to share, but the bottom line is this: We in the foundation world need to get bolder, more persistent, tougher, and more forceful in mobilizing to meet the challenge of global warming.

There is not much time left to save the only planet we will ever have. In this crisis, either we all build a path forward now, here, and together — or none of us will make it.

If not here, where?

If not us, who?

If not now, when?

Let’s get to work.