Supporters of the Extinction Rebellion climate change movement marching. Photo: Kevin J. Frost/shutterstock
Protestors worldwide, often led by young people, are increasingly treating climate change as a global emergency, organizing disruptive actions and demanding radical change in a short time. Groups like UK-based Extinction Rebellion and teenage activists like Greta Thunberg are influencing news coverage and policy discussions alike.
Now philanthropy is following suit—or at least handful of donors who have started a new pooled climate fund—by more aggressively challenging the status quo and funding activists that are doing the same.
The Climate Emergency Fund, mostly backed by oil wealth heiress Aileen Getty, recently launched with a war chest of $600,000. The fund also has support from Rory Kennedy, filmmaker and daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, and Trevor Neilson, an investor and philanthropic advisor (including to many celebrities). Initial grantees include Extinction Rebellion in the U.S. and abroad and Climate Mobilization, but the founders say they want to raise tens of millions more and support hundreds of climate activist groups.
It’s a relatively modest fund so far, and past pooled climate funding efforts have struggled to meet fundraising goals, but the emergence of new, high-profile donors and yet another funding channel is encouraging. Beyond that, the initiative is an exciting development, if only for the remarkable tenor of the effort, and its uncompromising challenge to other foundations and donors to escalate their urgency and willingness to be disruptive.
“The world’s philanthropists need to wake up to the reality that a gradualist approach to the climate emergency is doomed to fail,” wrote Neilson in a blog post announcing the fund. “The truth is that this is an emergency and philanthropists need to act like that truth is real.”
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Philanthropy has played a role in the climate movement from very early on. A handful of large foundations in particular have been highly supportive of and influential on the field. Climate mitigation funding in the U.S. and Europe grew from $380 million in 2013 to $775 million in 2017, according to ClimateWorks. In 2018, a group of 29 funders pledged $3 billion in new giving to the cause over five years.
We’ve also seen a rise of new funding intermediaries such as The Solutions Project and the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund that are trying to increase funders’ abilities to connect with grassroots climate action. Small and medium-sized funders have similarly been pushing for ground-up action and an emphasis on justice and leadership from communities impacted most by climate change.
However, the favorite grantees of mainstream climate philanthropy are often large green groups that lean toward politically moderate or market- and business-focused strategies. Major foundations have historically put a lot of emphasis on insider approaches like working with utilities to increase percentages of renewable energy, pushing for market mechanisms like carbon pricing, and aiding climate diplomacy. While they’ve certainly had some wins, foundations are often criticized as focusing too much on incremental solutions and short-term measurable outcomes, hesitant to shake up the status quo.
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The Climate Emergency Fund was inspired by activists demanding more transformative action, and plans to fund groups engaged in exactly that—taking a non-violent, but disruptive approach. Grants are divided into three pools, depending on what stage activists groups are in, and support could include materials, staff salaries, office space, legal support, even bullhorns.
The initiative is guided by an impressive advisory board, including Bill McKibben, climate change journalist David Wallace Wells, and teen activist Katie Eder. Notably, the initial donors are relative newcomers to climate change philanthropy—Getty, who donated $500,000, has been a supporter of HIV/AIDS research and treatment, and started giving more to climate and the environment in recent years.
The creation of the new fund, and the new high-profile donors behind it, underscores changes in the climate funding landscape. There’s an ever-growing number of options for donors looking to back the issue, from a variety of angles. But this angle in particular is a unique one and may draw in more donors as the climate emergency framing draws attention. There’s also something about this fund’s very explicit goal of sweeping action—its willingness to swing for the fences on the issue—that’s notable within the sector. As Getty told the Washington Post, “Even if this approach isn’t going to deliver the outcome we’re hopeful it will, it’s better than doing what we’ve been doing that hasn’t amounted to any change.”
Philanthropy is a one-of-a-kind institution in that it really doesn’t face any short-term consequences from, say, voters or markets. That can be problematic, but it’s also a great source of potential power, in that it can think big and long term. And yet, all too often foundations play it pretty safe. For that reason alone, the Climate Emergency Fund is impressive philanthropy.
There’s also the fact that it, at least in its conception, this initiative seems to be responding to the field, observing what’s gaining traction in activist circles. In turn, though, the ability to continue answering to those on the ground—just as in the case of Bloomberg’s new Beyond Carbon initiative—will be critical to its success and differentiation. That’s especially true in terms of listening to vulnerable communities with the most at stake. As bold as the fund is, it still risks falling into the same environmental and climate paradigm of elevating mainly white, middle-class voices.
If the Climate Emergency Fund can bring in new streams of funding and substantially increase the number of diverse activist groups out there demanding action, and resist the urge to call all the shots, it will be a welcome new addition to the field.