Firefighters work the Bobcat Wildfire in the hills above Los Angeles in September. Matt Gush/shutterstock
Firefighters work the Bobcat Wildfire in the hills above Los Angeles in September. Matt Gush/shutterstock

In 2009, the inauguration of Barack Obama launched an all-out push to pass a federal cap-and-trade bill. A handful of major climate funders and wealthy individuals gave heavily—one report estimated at least $100 million—to big green groups to advance the effort. The bill passed in the House, but never made it to a vote in the Senate. It is the last major legislative effort on climate change.

More than a decade later, the election of President-elect Joe Biden has once again made federal action on climate change a possibility. Biden has listed climate change as one of four major priorities for his administration, and even with control of the Senate up in the air, there is a range of executive actions he can take.

What role can—and should—climate funders play during this new opening? I spoke with a handful of climate funders and network leaders to hear their perspectives on the recent election, what their next steps will be, and their hopes for philanthropic action on climate. And while it’s a bit early to tell what the largest philanthropic players have in mind, smaller, more progressive climate funders in particular identified some clear lessons from the election about their priorities moving forward.

Progressive funders plan to ‘double down’

Across the board, progressive funders described the election as evidence of the power of investing in grassroots groups working with people most impacted by and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, particularly Black, Indigenous and people of color.

“Movements and organizing produced the results of this election,” said Crystal Hayling, executive director of the Libra Foundation. “And that has made us think we need to support that even more.”

For Libra, that increase will be a matter of focus—how to better support movement collaboration and how to build electoral power—rather than funding. Libra doubled its payout in 2020, including raising its giving on environmental and climate issues to $50 million. In the coming year, such giving will return to its 2019 level of $25 million.

Hayling believes more funders, particularly large and influential ones, are coming to see that a broad base of support is necessary to make resilient progress on climate action, while executive and even legislative advances can be too fragile.

“Switches in power can erode those successes overnight,” she said. “How do you actually build wins that sustain? The answer is you actually have to build community power. You have to build political will amongst the people.”

Helen Chin, program director for sustainable environments at Surdna Foundation, said her institution’s long-term focus on centering race and those most at harm in its climate funding is “bearing fruit.”

“What we’ve seen with this election is that we should be funding those communities,” Chin told me. “We make excuses for why we shouldn’t fund those organizations, but the reality is that they deliver. So let’s fund them.”

Surdna takes an intersectional approach to its climate work. The climate justice organizations the foundation supports are working with a broad range of movements, including immigrant rights groups, the Movement for Black Lives and Native activists. “What you’re seeing is that many of these communities are in a broader movement formation that do not fall within, as philanthropy thinks about it, a climate silo,”  Chin said.

Surdna used to have discrete programs on transportation, wastewater management and food supply within its environmental portfolio. It still sees those issues as vital, but in a shift born from their decision in 2009 to center social justice, the foundation ended those programs and moved to a broader framing a couple years ago.

“What we realized is that we needed to evolve to a space that was more in alignment with the folks that we’re here to serve,” Chin said. “We don’t live single-issue lives.”

Surdna granted nearly $11 million through its Sustainable Environments program in 2020, as well as $4.5 million through the Amplify Fund to support leadership and infrastructure in the climate field.

Both Chin and Hayling told me their institutions are “doubling down” on their approaches, evaluating how they can further support movements and frontline activists, even if they do not have the funds to give twice as much.

How larger funders may respond is unclear 

Biden’s election ensures the country will reenter the Paris Agreement—and it may go beyond that. The campaign’s transition website says Biden is “working to lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets.”

The prospect of U.S. reengagement on the agreement was the focus of a post-election blog post by Charlotte Pera, the president of ClimateWorks Foundation. The funder devoted resources toward a multi-party effort launched in 2018, the Independent Global Stocktake, that tracks countries’ progress toward the Paris Agreement goals, in a bid to improve coordination and transparency, as well as to evaluate elements not captured under the accord’s formal measures.

But it’s unclear what else the election might mean for ClimateWorks. The foundation, along with the Hewlett and Packard foundations, were unavailable by press time to offer comments on its post-election plans. Those three institutions were among the largest supporters of the push for cap-and-trade. Lengthy post-mortems offer a variety of reasons for the bill’s demise, but critics often highlight the top-down nature of the effort and the lack of engagement with the grassroots.

It’s worth noting that those institutions do put some funding toward base-building work, and increasingly so since 2009. As I wrote about recently, Packard was a founding funder and longtime supporter of the Colorado Plateau Foundation, which works to strengthen Native-led groups in the Southwest.

Similarly, before the election, ClimateWorks gave $100,000 to the Urban Mobility Fund, whose launch Inside Philanthropy covered in May. National contributions combined with local matches allowed the effort to award more than $700,000 to eight mobility advocacy groups. “I can’t overstate the impact of ClimateWorks. Being a big first mover made a big difference,” said Darryl Young, director of the Sustainable Cities program at the Summit Foundation, one of the founding backers of the fund.

For other major climate funders, it’s too early to say what impact the election will have. The MacArthur Foundation counts climate solutions as one of four “big bets” in its portfolio. The Chicago-based grantmaker is one of the largest U.S. climate funders, giving more than $313 million since 2014 on the issue. The program is under a planned five-year review this year and the election results will “undoubtedly” inform that process, said a spokesperson. But final decisions will not be made until early 2021.

For other large players, the United States simply isn’t a focus of their climate grantmaking. Take the Oak Foundation. In 2019, it gave out $65 million in grants through its environmental portfolio, including a long list of six- and seven-figure gifts related to climate. But just five of its grants on climate change in the last five years went to U.S.-based organizations, and each of those do international work, according to the foundation’s grants database.

“Our money is better spent elsewhere,” said Anne Henshaw, in a conversation before the election. Oak did not hold funding in anticipation of a changed policy environment in the United States, but she didn’t rule out that some new funding may flow as a result of the election. “It might be a discretionary funding opportunity,” she said.

“As crazy as this year is, it doesn’t get any easier”

Donors are famous for stepping in with big dollars during presidential election cycles and then tuning out during off years. Apart from political donations, that dynamic can play out in the waxing and waning philanthropic support for nonpartisan get-out-the-vote and issue-focused campaigns at the state and local levels.

Roger Kim, who leads the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, is concerned that pattern will play out again this year, damaging the prospects for whatever climate action might be achieved at the federal level in the months ahead.

“Climate funders have such a predilection for federal policy as the answer to the climate crisis,” Kim said. “It is absolutely vital and important, and I don’t discount that at all, but being able to support that at the state level” and beyond is also essential.

Experience across recent administrations shows that whether climate action comes in a sweeping bill like the Affordable Care Act or a series of executive actions, state responses—which are driven in part by public opinion—will shape their local impact.

With gubernatorial elections in two states in 2021 and 36 in 2022, not to mention two Senate runoff elections in Georgia at the beginning of next year and countless lower-level races, there’s a lot of potential to elevate climate issues in the states at a time when they appear to have more political resonance than ever.

“Implementation is going to hinge on state ambitions and what they’re going to do,” Kim said. “We need ground forces in the states to get things passed. As crazy as this year is, it doesn’t get any easier.”

Those efforts can also help earn local wins on climate. In 2019, New Mexico passed a bill committing to 100% carbon-free energy by 2045, while back in 2017, Miami voters passed a $400 billion bond for climate resilience investments and have more recently elected a climate-friendly representative on the measure’s oversight board. Grantees from Kim’s fund supported those efforts.

Kim believes such local mobilization is also key to winning the narrative on climate policies. States are facing a more than $500 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. As seen most recently during the Great Recession, environmental regulations can struggle to win broad support when seen as a threat to jobs and growth during hard times.

“The oil industry uses economic uncertainty and economic pain to thwart action on climate change,” Kim said. When presenting messengers calling for climate action, “it’s very different to have a person facing those calamities—people who are really close to the pain and understand what that means at a really tangible level—than to have some environmental organization from D.C.”

Relieved, but readying for coming battles

Biden’s transition page illustrates the breadth of his climate vision—and, by extension, the Democratic coalition. Environmental justice, which Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris named prominently during the campaign, is one of the climate priority areas. There are also nods to more contentious issues, like negative emissions technology and advanced nuclear power.

Some of those priorities concern Angela Mahecha Adrar, executive director of Climate Justice Alliance, which connects grantmakers and grassroots groups, and grants one-third of its funding to its members. Adrar is particularly focused on Biden’s support of natural gas and fracking, as well as his interest in geoengineering and carbon sequestration—and those technologies’ impacts on Black and brown communities.

“We don’t have a Trump reality right now, we have a Biden reality,” she said. “It’s a big sigh of relief, but we know we’re going back to 2010, when we had a very neoliberal approach to climate.”

With the new administration expected to push for a large stimulus bill, Adrar would like to see a drive for mass transportation and environmental justice provisions. Beyond investments at the federal level, she thinks funders should prioritize local and state policies on climate. She says New Jersey’s recently passed landmark environmental justice bill could be replicated across the Northeast “to counter some of the neoliberal policies at the federal level.”

Some signs of shifts

Two recent announcements offer counterexamples to typical philanthropic patterns. One of the country’s largest funders, the Open Society Foundations, has a new $40 million Climate Action Initiative expressly focused on rights and justice. It will be distributing those funds through the end of 2021. Projects are largely overseas, but one aspect will target advocacy on potential stimulus plans within the United States.

While not explicitly about climate, Omidyar Network, Ford Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently partnered to create the $3-million-plus Carry on the Fight Fund, which will support grassroots organizations to continue movements as election-year funding dries up.

Sarah Shanley Hope, vice president of brand and partnerships at The Solutions Project, said she has seen even “the most status quo” climate funders paying attention to racial justice, though some seem to be trying to check the box. In the year ahead, she hopes that conversation can take some big steps forward.

“There’s a ‘stuckness’ around what it means to take a risk, and who is actually taking a risk,” she said. “Whether money moves fast enough, moves at the speed of trust to frontline organizations and solutions given the evidence of their outsized success is to be determined.”