David Vogel was not sure about climate change until he did the math himself.
But his back-of-the-envelope calculations—which included adding up the number of molecules in the atmosphere, then the amount of CO2 humans produce each year—convinced Vogel, who Bloomberg News once called “the world’s best quant.” “I realized this isn’t a soft science. This is black and white,” he told Bloomberg.
That realization set him and his wife, Thais Lopez Vogel, a lawyer, on a mission to confront climate change. Through the VoLo Foundation, which they formed in 2014 and takes its name from the first letters of both of their last names, the couple has funded a wide range of strategies to gather data and spread the word about the risks of climate change. The couple has more to give than most. Vogel runs a hedge fund, Voloridge Investment Management, that reportedly has more than $3 billion under management.
As residents of Jupiter, in Palm Beach County, Florida, the couple and their children have been reminded of the urgency of that mission several times over. In 2017, Hurricane Irma forced the family to evacuate their home, and Vogel, whose firm is also based there, had to relocate dozens of employees to a hotel in New York.
Lately, it doesn’t even take a hurricane to feel the effects of climate change in Florida. Flooding is becoming increasingly common, including in Jupiter, and temperatures are hitting record-breaking levels. Lopez says the family now typically spends summers elsewhere and leaves town even for relatively small hurricanes. But she knows not everyone has the means to do so. “We have to think of all the low-income families who cannot do that,” Lopez said. “Those people can’t even get a car to drive to North Carolina. It’s a social justice issue.”
What the VoLo Foundation supports
“We started the foundation with the typical subjects, education and health,” Lopez told me. But after Vogel ran the numbers on climate change, the foundation shifted gears. Now, about 70% of the foundation’s funding goes toward such projects, with the remainder going to their original focus areas. The couple’s giving is otherwise wide-ranging. VoLo supports projects all over the world, both local and international in scope, with a variety of approaches, from research to direct service.
Like other foundations directed by couples, VoLo’s grant portfolio reflects both Vogel and Lopez’s shared interests and their differing personalities. Lopez describes herself as “Latina, very outgoing” and says her personality, upbringing, and concern for her children guide her giving. The couple has four children in college and two more young ones who are two and six years old. (“We decided to do it all over again,” Lopez said.) “That has always been my driver,” she said. “They are the ones who are going to be affected the most, and they are the ones who haven’t done anything.”
One of the schools Lopez attended as a child had a saying: “There is no culture without musical culture,” she said. “So my slogan now is: There’s no future without environmental education.” That was one impetus behind funding the installation of a series of wax sculptures in Miami, Tampa and Orlando. The displays, organized by The CLEO Institute, featured a pair of Florida panthers, a grandfather and grandchild, and a lifeguard hut. Each slowly melted, revealing messages like “more heat, less wildlife,” serving as metaphors for what climate change was doing to the state. The project has earned media coverage from outlets across Florida.
Lopez, who is a native of Venezuela, also tends to look beyond U.S. borders in her grantmaking. “I’m more global,” she told me. She’s chosen grantees like the women-run Project Alianza, which builds schools and provides books and other supplies for students in Nicaragua, and Lelt, an educational nonprofit that with VoLo’s support, set up a computer lab for youth in Ethiopia.
Vogel, who made his name using big data and machine learning in financial trading, is the driving force behind the foundation’s research grants. These include funding an Ohio State University expedition to the Peruvian Andes to research one of the range’s ice caps and supporting a fellow at the Environmental Defense Fund to oversee a project that gathers air pollution data. (Vogel is one of several investors who serve as trustees for the Environmental Defense Fund.)
Some grants intersect with Vogel’s investing interests. For instance, the foundation supported a Massachusetts Institute of Technology project to measure deaths and other health impacts caused by poor air quality near facilities owned or operated by any of the top 1,000 companies in the United States. Similarly, VoLo funded JUST Capital to create a data center that ranks large American companies by their regional environmental health footprints.
VoLo also supports Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, which studies the emerging and controversial technologies that could be used to cool the planet by diverting sunlight. The foundation’s grant page borrows from the program’s language to note such measures should not be used as a “replacement” for reducing emissions, only as a potential “supplement” for such efforts.
A focus on investing
To date, VoLo Foundation’s funding has been modest, but it is rising fast. Launched in 2014, the foundation disbursed just $30,000 in 2015, but two years later, had increased that to $2.3 million, according to its 990 form for 2018. Lopez said giving last year was roughly $5 million. The annual amount should continue to rise—“as much as we do well,” she said.
Yet philanthropy may prove to be only one measure of the couple’s impact. In January 2020, Vogel publicly launched a $1.5 billion fund focused on climate change. Using big data on climate change to make big profits for ultra-wealthy investors may strike some as climate profiteering. But the fund is one of several promising climate-related developments this year in the world of finance.
In a world that still revolves around private finance, steps that help to price in the immense economic cost of climate change could drive capital from polluting industries to emerging green solutions. The new fund aims to do both. The fund will not only look for fast-rising climate change winners, it will invest just as much money in shorting unsustainable industries and unethical ones, such as firearms, tobacco and casinos.
“We agreed we have to put our money where our mouth is and try to short the oil and invest in renewables,” said Lopez. “It’s a moral thing, it’s an ethical thing. I wouldn’t feel OK with myself if I was putting money in the oil and the fossil fuel [industries] and it was making the future of my kids worse.”
Granted, $1.5 billion is not a lot in the world of hedge funds. Each of the world’s top 50 funds have $6.7 billion or more under management. But just as Voloridge Management’s strong returns have earned it attention on Wall Street—including a top-20 finish in Barron’s ranking of hedge funds in 2017—the new fund could lead others to take a closer look.
Vogel is also taking part in structural efforts to bring about that attention. He serves on the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Climate-Related Market Risk Subcommittee. In September, the panel released a report, Managing Climate Risk in the U.S. Financial System, an in-depth look at the structural dangers posed by climate change. It called for wide-ranging action by federal regulators and earned mentions in outlets like the New York Times, CNBC and Bloomberg.
Later that month, VoLo Foundation sponsored a session during Climate Week NYC on the report. The event and Vogel’s comments on the panel—which focused in part on the implications of climate change for the multi-trillion-dollar pension fund and asset management industry—showed the continuity between Vogel’s perspectives as philanthropist and finance guru.
“The job of philanthropy is to raise awareness on these issues. None of us has $10 trillion to invest ourselves in solar farms, but we can point out the opportunities,” Vogel said. “It can do some good, not just for the planet, but for some retirees.”
More climate advocacy funding ahead?
While much of its funding goes to research and program support, VoLo has supported two advocacy groups, American Conservation Coalition and Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends. Each seeks to mobilize voters, particularly young ones, around climate change action that takes a limited-government, free-market approach. The groups are “both Republican,” as Lopez puts it, but she says the foundation does not hew to any one ideology.
“Believe me, we fund anybody, any color, anything that is going to push for climate change,” she said. “It’s not a red or blue issue, it’s a green issue, and it’s going to affect us all.”
Vogel, on that panel during Climate Week NYC, also endorsed the idea of philanthropy stepping in to facilitate government action. “If there are political hurdles or other kinds of hurdles, we can help to figure out solutions,” he said.
So far, VoLo’s advocacy funding has flowed only one way. But that could change if the election opens the doors in Congress to greater action on climate. It’s not an opportunity they want to miss.
“We’re going to look into doing more if the government is with us,” Lopez said. “The government is the one that can really move the needle.”