Support for tree planting efforts helps shade parks used for play and exercise. Shcherbakov Ilya/shutterstock

Support for tree planting efforts helps shade parks used for play and exercise. Shcherbakov Ilya/shutterstock

The United States may be abdicating its global leadership on climate change, but are American citizens? And how can philanthropy help catalyze action on a personal and community level, powering change from the ground up?

A summertime poll showed the great gulf between the number of Americans advocating for climate action, and the number who are actually willing to shoulder some responsibility. Nearly 70 percent of respondents from both sides of the aisle said they want to see aggressive measures. Yet only 30 percent were open to seeing their taxes rise by even $100 to fund interventions.

Part of that can be explained by a natural disconnect to work that’s global in nature, and arcs to the faraway future, especially when weighed against immediate concerns like jobs and security. That’s even true in terms of messaging. Scientists at Climate Central showed that communications strategies that frame climate change in personal terms are more persuasive, and make the issue more relevant.

Enter the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF), which is not a grantmaker one typically associates with environmental challenges. But through its Health and Climate Solutions program, it aims to help people recognize how climate action can deliver real gains on a community level, and benefit their own immediate health and economic interests.

Integrated Programming

The nation’s largest foundation dedicated solely to heath, RWJF recognizes that human health, and the health of the planet, are intertwined—a view embraced by a growing number of funders, as we’ve reported—and considers climate disparities a matter of equity.

Alonzo Plough, RWJF’s vice president of research-evaluation-learning and chief science officer, says the foundation’s climate change initiatives run through all of its efforts to give Americans equal access to healthier lives. That includes bolstering health systems, funding programs for healthy families and children, investing in healthy communities, and providing development opportunities for health leaders and nurses.

Factors including where people live and work, age, race, income and baseline health all impact how Americans experience climate change, but they can also put people on the front lines of creating solutions. Plough says the foundation looks to support local interventions that improve health and health equity while addressing “some aspect of climate change.” After what he described as a “robust” response to a call for proposals in 2018, the foundation funded programs in seven communities across the country, each with its own specific challenges. Project funding is capped at $350,000.

In Austin, Texas, where extreme heat increasingly keeps residents and schoolchildren indoors, the city received funding to increase shade and green space around public schools, particularly in low-income areas. For kids, cooler spaces may mean more time to play in the park, but the move also increases the level of carbon in the atmosphere, and decreases the demand for electricity to power air-conditioned gyms. A Friends of Trees partnership in Portland, Oregon, works toward the same goals, and received funding to plant trees in diverse, low-income communities.

Four projects were launched by indigenous groups, a population the foundation feels has the knowledge and experience to shape local solutions, and is at greater risk for health harms. In Anchorage, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) received funding to develop a portable water sanitation program for home use in areas where climate change has made access extremely challenging. Swinomish Indian Tribal Community leaders are marrying the CDC’s public health framework on climate change with traditional values and practices. And projects in Finland, Minnesota, and Navajo communities in New Mexico, received funding for “regenerative agriculture,” practices that restore and rebuild farming soil and biodiversity ecosystems, while drawing down carbon and improving water cycles. It also boosts crop quality for people whose quality of life depends upon it.

The clearest correlation to economic opportunity may be the seventh project, in Buffalo, New York. That investment funded People United for Sustainable Housing’s (PUSH) efforts to help weatherproof homes, improving health resilience and energy efficiency while boosting community development and the local economy.

Funders Going Local

As previously covered in IP, there’s no shortage of philanthropies working in the climate action space, and no shortage of approaches, from saving rain forests to advancing clean energy. Three, in particular, take a local approach. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ $500 million Beyond Carbon campaign builds on climate action interventions that are already underway at the city, state and community level. The Boston-based Barr Foundation focuses on regional and local climate change efforts. And in 2019, the Kresge Foundation made grants of $1.5 million to 15 community-based non-profits across the country to develop multi-year working plans to address locally defined health and climate priorities. Plough says the two foundations share research and outcomes on their programs, and plan to convene project leaders.

With federal action on climate change either stalled or being rolled back, local collaborations have become more essential to sustaining forward movement on this issue—and to building an army of advocates that change public opinion on the ground.


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