Professor Arthur Gautier, Executive Director, and Éléonore Delanoë, Research Fellow at the ESSEC Philanthropy Chair, ESSEC Business School, together with Dr. Charles Sellen, Global Philanthropy Fellow, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI, explore the recent upsurge in philanthropic interest for this urgent cause – climate change.
Climate Change: A new and unavoidable cause for philanthropy by Arthur Gautier, Eléonore Delanoë, and Charles Sellen . With kind acknowledgements to Arthur Gautier. Translated by Tom Gamble. Originally published in French on The Conversation.
In January 2020, devastating fires in Australia stoked a surge of global generosity with nearly €100m donated by anonymous givers, companies or celebrities.
In February, the love-him-or-hate-him CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, now first fortune in the world, announced his entry into philanthropy by setting up a $10bn climate fund. In June, his group launched the Climate Pledge Fund, a programme to invest in corporates facilitating the transition toward the low-carbon era.
But if the climate seems to be imposing itself as an urgent cause for private donors and citizens, it still only makes up a small fraction of the philanthropic flow of funds – a surprising paradox given the gravity of the problem at hand.
Climate Change: A cause – until now – neglected by donors
The shift and impetus of civil society in response to global warming has considerably increased in the last few years. However, climate still only represents a minute portion of private donations. And when people give for the environment it is, moreover, rarely for “climate” as such.
The latter is often pushed into the background of the various environmental struggles (ocean conservation, air quality, forests, wildlife, etc.) which form a bundle but do not overlap.
As such, the movement offers a mixed and miscellaneous face including rhetoric and objectives which are sometimes hard to render compatible: conserving biodiversity, advocating economic degrowth, massively investing in the production of decarbonized energy, establishing carbon taxes and markets, or minimizing the impact of climate change for populations at risk.
This weak visibility granted to the climate cause is accompanied, as mentioned, by little private financing. In 2015, the members of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, which groups the main American philanthropists specialised in environmental issues, gave $1.54 billion in subsidies – only $142m of which was destined for the climate. According to the OECD, 143 large foundations operating in the field of development spent a mere $1.5bn (6.5% of their aggregated budget) between 2013 and 2015 to fight against climate change.
For private individuals too, climate remains far behind the most popular causes. The French, for example, prefer child protection, the fight against social exclusion, or even medical research, whereas the Americans only devote 3% of their giving to the environment – and as such still less for climate alone.
Mutually, private donations only count for a drop in the ocean of funds required to fight against climate change and its consequences. In 2015, only 0.1 % of financing for the climate came from philanthropy. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimates that $1,600 to 3,800 billion dollars of annual investment is required until 2050 to limit warming to 1.5°C in relation to the pre-industrial level – a scenario which focuses on the prevention of the crisis. Yet, climate adaptation, which consists in adjusting societies and ecosystems to minimize the negative impact of climate change, could constitute a much larger cost item…
Climate and Philanthropy: Cognitive inconsistency and awareness
Why is there such a gap between the urgency of the problem and the timidity of the reactions it generates? A preference for the present, a “spectator effect” watering down individual responsibility or even “ecoparalysis” and “solastalgia”: there are many of us who suffer from cognitive inconsistency, our behaviour seeming to be at odds with our beliefs.
As such, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Reports position climate risk in first place among planetary risks – even before pandemics from the double perspective of their probability and gravity.
Despite these alarming signals, the media only give limited cover to climate-related topics in their reports or debates. In 2019, for example, Le Monde granted only 5% of its articles to climate change, with climate accounting for only 1% of France 2’s topics appearing on its prime-time televised news.
This gap can also be explained by the psychology of giving. The complexity of the climate topic and its shape-shifting character demands greater thought from potential donors than a cause that is simple to understand such as aid to earthquake victims. Moreover, empathy for others’ suffering and the identifying of real victims play an important role in triggering the act of giving. Yet, it is difficult to feel concerned by climate change as long as it remains a far-off threat, dispersed, and without an immediate victim.
The last few years have been a game-changer. Successive natural catastrophes attributed to climate imbalance – fires, floods, etc. – have shocked public opinion and the climate movement has grown in size. Climate change is now a source of major anxiety for people the world over. And in the philanthropy sector too, the subject has gained importance.
Climate and philanthropy – a common story
Onlookers to this trend, several flagship philanthropic commitments have been strongly mediatised, notably that of Jeff Bezos who was immediately criticized for his hazy character, his insufficient funding – 8% of his wealth – given the magnitude of the problem, and the contradiction between his philanthropic gesture and his billionaire entrepreneurial practices.
Already in 2009, the British businessman Richard Branson had created the “Carbon War Room” to identify and test innovative solutions for the energy transition. According to the ClimateWorks Foundation, donations for climate increased by 30 % between 2015 and 2017. This is still far from enough, but the trend is increasing.
Philanthropy’s interest in climate is not, however, completely new. Back in 1987, meetings between experts who set the foundations for the IPCC were financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
In the 1990s, groups of stakeholders such as the Energy Foundation were set up to promote clean energies to citizens and decision-makers – and still continue to this day to meet within alliances to offer their financing capacities to the benefit of a shared strategy.
Because of its ideological diversity, philanthropy however has never been an ally of the climate… The Koch brothers, billionaires whose fortunes was made in the oil industry, have financed think tanks and climate denial campaigns in the United States for over thirty years. Without doubt, they remain the most emblematic example of the alliance between elite philanthropy and fossil fuels.
Whether progressive and eager to react to climate challenges, or conservative and climate sceptic, American donors have been the spearhead of climate philanthropy. This is less developed in Europe where the financing of general interest causes is more or less catered for by the state.
In China, where greenhouse gas emissions overtook those of the USA in 2007, the rise of an ultra-rich class has strengthened a well-anchored philanthropic tradition which recently seized hold of the subject of the climate. As such, the billionaire Niu Gensheng has positioned himself as a leading figure in climate philanthropy, whereas the businesswoman He Qiaonv tallied up the largest donation in history for the conservation of biodiversity.
Private generosity in favour of the climate comes in many ways: the financing of NGOs specialised in appeals, networks of experts, support to local initiatives or even investment in companies providing solutions to the climate crisis to name but a few. In spite of its limited resources, philanthropy has a key role to play in the coming transition.
Its rallying effort is all the more necessary given that the causes currently given priority – such as health or assistance to the needy – risk being hit full force by the effects of climate change.
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