Saving the world

Climate change is arguably the fight of our lifetimes, yet it attracts a fraction of global philanthropic funding. With all nations feeling the impact of a warming world amid droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels, is there a case for putting climate change at the top of the social agenda?

Climate change is arguably the fight of our lifetimes, yet it attracts a fraction of global philanthropic funding. With all nations feeling the impact of a warming world amid droughts, heatwaves and rising sea levels, is there a case for putting climate change at the top of the social agenda?

It is said to be the defining issue of our time, an urgent global crisis that affects everyone and every area of life. Yet rich governments meeting in Paris this December for the UN climate summit will quibble over giving paltry amounts to help the world’s most needy adapt to global warming, and it is believed that just 2 per cent of all private philanthropic money is being spent to address it.

“Climate change threatens everything that philanthropy seeks to do. Whether it is to improve health, alleviate poverty, reduce famine or promote peace”

For Larry Kramer, president of the US-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (WFHF), which has assets worth over $9bn, the lack of giving for climate change is an anomaly that needs addressing.

“Climate change threatens everything that philanthropy seeks to do. Whether it is to improve health, alleviate poverty, reduce famine, promote peace, or advance social justice, [climate change] is a problem that can and must be solved,” he has written.

“It isn’t just an environmental problem. It is an everything problem. Its effects touch all cultures, all incomes, and all geographies. Climate change disrupts earth’s natural systems. It threatens public health and safety. And it hurts the world’s poorest people – those living on less than $2 a day – most of all.”

Philanthropists together control multibillion-dollar budgets, but tackling something so enormous as climate change appears to paralyse them. The reasons for not giving are complex; ranging from funders being too narrow, an assumption that others are doing it, and that not all foundations are scientifically on board.

But climate change poses other problems. Traditionally, philanthropists want to measure success and see real impact, but how do you measure atmosphere, they ask. Should foundations address its causes or solutions? Do you work on a global or local level? Is it better to address technologies or changing people’s behaviour? To get companies to leave fossil fuels in the ground or to use them more wisely? How, indeed, can relatively small contributions change anything on the planetary scale?

According to Jeremy Leggett, founder of UK solar energy company Solarcentury and SolarAid, a social enterprise which has brought solar energy to over 1 million people in Africa, there are several ways that foundations and philanthropists can successfully fight climate change.

“The first is to invest in zero or low-carbon climate-solution companies and projects; the second is to divest from fossil fuels and to reinvest in clean energy companies; the third is to campaign to put shareholder pressure to end spending on exploration for and development of new fossil fuel reserves,” he says.

“The fourth is to accelerate zero or low-carbon markets... by giving grants – on a scale they never have before – to the multitude of projects that can make a difference across the greenhouse gas emissions spectrum.”

Leggett also chairs Carbon Tracker, a team of foundation-funded financial, energy and legal experts aiming to curb future greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, they got the winners of environmental prizes from 46 nations to call on global foundations and philanthropists to use their financial muscle to dig into their endowments to create a tipping point in climate action – “to trigger a survival reflex in society”.

But foundations and philanthropists are both individual and used to following their noses, with the result that climate giving is extremely varied.

For American investor Tom Steyer, who made his fortune from hedge funds, climate change must be addressed politically. He is funneling money via his charity Nextgen at the 2016 US presidential race, challenging candidates to declare their positions and backing with hard cash those who are prepared to take action on climate change.

“We are committed to supporting candidates, elected officials and policymakers across the country that will take bold action on climate change – and to exposing those who deny reality and cater to special interests,” he says.

Others, like British entrepreneur Richard Branson, have identified climate change as an urgent issue, but also as an opportunity to make money by investing in new low-carbon energy sources, such as biofuels, for transport.

Branson set up and funds the Carbon War Room, a business NGO which aims to reduce carbon emissions on an industrial scale and has now merged with the Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the world’s leading energy think-tanks. The two are now moving into China and India where they believe their advice on energy could bring massive change.

In the Middle East, there has been a significant new understanding of the risks involved in climate change – and the solutions. Described as “one of the world’s most climate vulnerable regions” by the World Bank, countries from Iraq to the UAE have this year experienced some of the highest temperatures ever recorded, possibly a foretaste of the extreme weather and more frequent heatwaves and water shortages that climate scientists have forecast will occur more often in future across the region.

A recent World Bank study found that if the global temperature rises by 40C, the average number of extremely hot days in Middle Eastern cities could exceed 115 per year. That would make life outdoors intolerable for hundreds of millions of people for much of the year.

Arab governments have taken a global technological lead and carved out a reputation for investing heavily in massive solar power array projects such as the UAE’s Shams 1. With Irena, the world’s inter-governmental renewable energy body, now based in Abu Dhabi, the UAE is also developing future technologies for desalinating water, generating electricity and reducing waste at industrial scales.

Meanwhile, the region’s philanthropists are working at corporate and grassroots level to back a wide variety of social enterprises, environment and sustainability groups to educate people and help them adapt to a warmer world.

Because Arab societies are increasingly urban rather than rural and likely to have to face extremes of heat and water shortages in future, making cities liveable has become increasingly important. Abu Dhabi-based Masdar City, a $30bn laboratory of future life in the desert, is taking old architectural ideas about how to live in extreme heat, and applying them to show that modern life does not need air conditioning or carbon-heavy building. The message is getting through.

“Climate change forces upon us all a serious discussion on green building and the promotion of sustainability,” Egypt’s minister of housing and urban development Mostafa Madbouly told the Arab world’s first Forum for Sustainable Communities and Green Building in December. “This is no longer a luxury.”

One response in Arab countries has been to improve green urban infrastructure. Cities including Dubai, Beirut and Riyadh have adopted green building codes and others are working to ensure new buildings cut their emissions and electricity consumption.

One model for philanthropic foundations is the UK-based Skoll Foundation, which aims to drive large-scale change by investing in social entrepreneurs. It has given $15m to the Climate Reality Project, a global initiative for public education on climate change, which has 7,500 activists working to educate and empower communities in more than 125 countries to take action.

“We can no longer sidestep the threat a warming planet presents to all the good we seek to achieve in the world”

Other groups that have received Skoll funding include the American Council on Renewable Energy, Ceres – a coalition that uses financial leverage to get businesses to be more sustainable – and a training programme for local governments in tropical countries to learn how to use satellite technology to track deforestation.

Many however, such as the Gates Foundation, say that they do not invest directly in climate change but contribute to the solutions.

“While we do not fund efforts specifically aimed at reducing carbon emissions, many of our global health and development grants directly address problems that climate change creates or exacerbates,” a spokesperson for the US-based foundation says. “For example, our Agricultural Development Initiative works to help smallholder farmers who live on less than $1 per day adapt to increased drought and flooding, through the development of drought and flood resistant crops, improved irrigation efficiency, and other means.”

In fact, some of the foundations and individuals most associated with the environment often do not give the most to climate change. A study by the James Goldsmith Foundation, which supports hundreds of environment groups in the UK, found that together British groups raised only £68m ($107m), or 7 per cent of their incomes, for climate change. This compares with £284m – or 30 per cent – raised for biodiversity and species preservation activities.

“We don’t expect every foundation to make climate change its top priority. There are many urgent issues demanding attention. But there is a role for every organisation to play in the fight against climate change,” says WFHF’s Kramer. “We can no longer sidestep the threat a warming planet presents to all the good we seek to achieve in the world.”

Green cities

As contributors to a warming climate, cities are also at the coalface when it comes to keeping large populations safe from flooding, rising sea levels and drought, writes Adrienne Cernigoi 

Cities are on the front line of climate change. It is a threat many urban authorities are keenly aware of – and willing to do something about, according to James Alexander, head of finance and economic development, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

“At the moment, city leaders are among a very small group of people calling for and implementing the significant changes required to keep us on a trajectory that avoids catastrophic climate change,” he notes. “Cities have big plans across different types of sustainable infrastructure.”

Those plans include waste-to-energy plants, green transport networks and adapting to climate threats such as coastal erosion. But infrastructure does not come cheap. Getting financing relies on a healthy credit rating, something many cities lack. A meagre 4 per cent of cities in the world’s largest developing nations have an international credit rating, says the World Bank – a significant hurdle to low-cost capital for green projects.

C40, a decade-old members network of 78 cities, thinks it can help. This year, it set up a Creditworthiness Network to help cities boost their credit rating and “show investors they are serious players” Alexander says, so they can get money from development banks or the private sector to fund climate-related projects. Each dollar spent improving creditworthiness can unlock $100 in private sector funding, says the World Bank.

The network’s first academy in May in Amman, Jordan, gathered senior finance officials from Amman, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Karachi, Curitiba, Dar es Salaam and Durban – together home to 70 million people. The workshop set out a plan for each city to improve its credit standing over the next four years, including increasing reliable revenue sources and setting and sticking to realistic budgets. Such steps would go some way to raise funds for projects such as Amman’s planned Bus Rapid Transit system.

The creditworthiness initiative is backed by the UK-based Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF).

“Climate change poses the single biggest threat to the future health and livelihood of today’s children,” said Shirley Rodrigues, CIFF’s climate change director.

C40 hopes to run more workshops in future and is working closely with ratings agency Standard & Poor’s. The network estimates that with proper investment, the C40 cities could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8 gigatonnes by 2050.

“Funders, organisations and the finance community are waking up to the fact cities are where it’s at when it comes to climate change,” says Alexander. “Any [UN] deal in Paris… will be delivered predominantly in the big cities of the world.”