Opinion
April 20, 2015

Foundations Must Move Fast to Fight Climate Change

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It’s not too late for grant makers to make a big difference in curbing climate change by promoting alternative energy and working collaboratively on a range of efforts, say the leaders of the Hewlett and Packard foundations.

Climate change is the defining issue of our day. It is an urgent global crisis that affects everything philanthropy seeks to do, whether it is to improve health, alleviate poverty, reduce famine, promote peace, or advance social justice. It is a problem that can and must be solved — a problem that demands action now, while we still have time. And it is a challenge on which foundations can make a profound difference.

Currently less than 2 percent of all philanthropic dollars are being spent in the fight against climate change. That is not enough given how big of a threat we face.

In 2013 the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million for the first time since the Pliocene epoch, approximately three million years ago. The global average temperature during that period was 2° to 3°C higher than it is today; global sea levels were, on average, 82 feet higher than they are now. Unless we act quickly, it will soon be too late to keep the average global temperature increase below 2°C, the internationally agreed threshold beyond which climate change risks become unacceptably high.

Climate change isn’t just an environmental problem. It is an everything problem. Its effects touch all cultures, all incomes, and all geographies. Climate change disrupts earth’s natural systems. It threatens public health and safety. And it hurts the world’s poorest people — those living on less than $2 a day — most of all.

The Hewlett Foundation and Packard Foundation have made commitments to the climate fight that far exceed any other pledges in our organizations’ histories. We have done so because the business values that motivated our founders, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, still underpin our approach: partnership, respect for science, tolerance for risk, and a willingness to make big bets on problems worth solving.

When we consider all of our grant-making priorities — children, education, health, reproductive rights, oceans, our communities, and so much more — it is profoundly clear that climate change has the unique potential to undermine everything we care about as foundations.

In California, for example, the Packard Foundation collaborates with organizations to ensure young children are healthy and ready for school. Yet in Fresno, a city faced with hazardous air pollution from traffic and industry, approximately 20 percent of children have been diagnosed with asthma.

Despite local efforts to address conventional pollutants caused by cars, agricultural operations, industrial processes and more, the challenge will intensify as drier air and hotter temperatures become more routine. These escalating conditions would make asthma attacks more frequent and more damaging to children, causing them to miss school and jeopardizing their ability to thrive and succeed.

In Africa, the Hewlett Foundation supports organizations that work to empower women to make choices about whether and when to have children, how to raise their families, and how to earn a living. But that work won’t transform women’s lives if climate change progresses at its current pace. Experts predict climate change could reduce the amount of arable land in Africa by two-thirds, making food scarce and less affordable, hurting families, and creating instability that could cause political and other problems.

Fortunately, significant work is already under way to confront these epic threats, and we’re beginning to see signs of progress worldwide: The U.S. has dramatically increased fuel efficiency standards to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025; Mexico has committed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 22 percent and emissions of black carbon or soot by 51 percent by 2030; Brazil has reduced rates of deforestation; China is embracing new models for cleaner mass transit; India is increasing efficient energy standards for appliances; and European nations are reducing their reliance on coal power.

Looking around the country, we see evidence of what’s possible when grant makers choose to engage in new ways.

The Barr Foundation in Boston expanded its climate portfolio several years ago and is now a leader in supporting efforts to promote clean energy and transportation alternatives. The Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities is working to align foundations to promote an array of local climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. And the Council on Foundations is helping to bring all of philanthropy together to spotlight climate change and energy through its annual meeting. Initiatives like these demonstrate that foundations can have a positive impact on our climate future. But if we are going to prevail and preserve a future in which every person has the ability to achieve his or her full potential, foundations need to do more.

Our goal now is to enlist as many other grant makers and partners as we can, as quickly as possible, to join us. Working together, and by supporting the local, national, and international organizations focused on curbing climate change, we can prevent global average temperature change from exceeding 2°C.

It’s not too late, but we must act quickly, and we must act together.

In the fight against climate change, foundations can make a lasting difference in ways that other sectors cannot because they share certain special qualities: the freedom to think big, the capacity to tolerate risk, and the ability to invest for the long haul.

We don’t expect every foundation to make climate change its top priority. There are many urgent issues that demand attention. But there is a role for every organization to play in the fight against climate change, no matter where it works or how it works.

Leadership matters in this fight. We hope more foundations, whatever their grant-making priority — promoting civil society, economic development, social justice, or health (to name just a few) — will examine how climate change could impact their missions. Talk to your grantees about their climate concerns. Seek out allies for whom climate mitigation is a focus, and look for ways to learn from them. Attend climate-focused gatherings that might not fall neatly into your current program priorities. Engage your board. Ask hard questions.

There is no single playbook for preventing dangerous climate change. We are all forging solutions in real time. But we can no longer sidestep the threat that a warming planet presents to all the good we seek to achieve in the world.

Left to its current course, the impact of global climate change threatens the long-term success of every other effort foundations support. It is time to act in whatever ways we can. It is time to get going.

Larry D. Kramer is president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Carol S. Larson is president of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Both serve on the board of ClimateWorks.