Feng Cheng/shutterstock

Feng Cheng/shutterstock

Even within the past month, there have been shifts in the popular climate discussion, yielding a sense that things may be starting to break loose in terms of awareness and urgency. Now, we might add to that list of indicators a rare, university mega-gift focused on climate change research.

And mega it is, the $750 million donation to Caltech being the second-largest single commitment on record to an American university, according to the school. So it’s remarkable as a donation in general, but especially given that it’s focused on climate change, which hasn’t received the widespread philanthropic attention the issue warrants, beyond a short list of longtime donors and foundations. Especially striking is how higher ed donors have largely overlooked climate change as a focal point for big campus gifts, even as growing threats on this front alarm students and demand more attention from university-based researchers.

The CalTech donation comes from Lynda and Stewart Resnick, California agricultural moguls and owners of Fiji Water, who have had a lot of environmental criticism leveled at them over their water and plastic consumption, in particular. So there’s likely some level of self-interested motivation going on here. But having said that, this is an older, moderate couple entering the climate space at a level they haven’t before— potentially a sign of the donor class losing its ability to turn away from the problem.

Furthermore, an endowed, interdisciplinary research center could make some important contributions to a field that needs all the backing it can get. And, hopefully, it’s a sign of more, and more diverse, funding streams to come.

Where Did This Huge Gift Come From? 

Lynda and Stewart Resnick are not what I’d call environmental champions. While they’ve owned a variety of businesses, from flower delivery to commemorative keepsakes, the couple’s largest endeavor is their massive farming operation in the West, mostly in California. Their main crops include almonds, pistachios, tiny oranges, and pomegranates—trendy snacks that they have seen supercharged sales, thanks in part to some shrewd marketing.

Their operation is so massive, in fact, that Mother Jones in 2016 found that it was the state’s largest consumer of water, using more than every home in Los Angeles combined. The definitive piece on the Resnicks comes from Mark Arax for California Sunday Magazine, in which he documents the water rights machinations that keep them cranking out nuts and Pomegranate juice even during drought conditions. As owners of Fiji Water, they’re also contributing to the commodification of clean drinking water, packaging it up in single-use plastic bottles, and shipping it across the globe.

And yet, as Arax’s 2018 reporting suggests, their mastery of water and agriculture production is running up against its limits. Stewart Resnick pointed out himself that climate change is contributing to depleted crops for their company, which in part influenced their decision to make the gift. They also cite the influence of their grandkids, at a time when young people around the world have shaken up the global climate debate.

So what’s the motivation behind this giant gift?

Stewart Resnick acknowledged to the LA Times that some of the innovations that come out of the center could benefit their businesses. Projects include rainfall capture and reuse, resilient crops, and plastics that are easier to recycle, according to Caltech’s president. They may also be using philanthropy to shore up their reputations, a charge that’s been levied at them before. And maybe their grandkids are just waking them up to reality. My guess? Some combination of these factors.

A Boost for Climate Research 

The ag- and water bottle-adjacent research topics might set off alarm bells, but the donation will fund what looks to become a pretty heavy duty climate change research program. It builds on an initial $30 million contribution to Caltech from the Resnicks a decade ago, which established a Resnick Sustainability Institute. So while most of their giving is around health and education these days, this donation is not totally out of the blue for the couple.

But the $750 million takes things to another level, building a new facility, immediately allocating $250 million, and setting another $400 million aside for an endowment. There are four core areas: climate science such as modeling and measuring; water resource management; improving energy infrastructure and turning the sun’s energy into fuel; and global ecology and biosphere engineering. Caltech’s president says investigators will have complete independence.

When it comes to climate philanthropy, I’ve always tended to push for more movement-building and grassroots funding, which are hugely underfunded and undervalued. It’s also worth noting that this is yet another giant gift to an elite, well-funded private university. But we shouldn’t overlook the need for much more climate and energy research. For all the existing clean energy tech that must be deployed, we also need more dollars to develop the next generation of renewables, energy infrastructure, and advances in adaptation and sequestration.

In short, there’s no shortage of climate solutions needed, and philanthropy can play a part in developing a broader range of them. While not without its problems, this donation is an encouraging signal that more may be on the way.

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