Opinion
July 24, 2015

3 Important Steps Philanthropies Are Taking to Curb Climate Change

The Washington Post/Getty Images

The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign is trying to retire the remaining 323 coal power plants in the United States to cut down on pollution.

With Congress at a stalemate and national politics growing increasingly polarized, the role of philanthropy in combating climate change is more critical than ever.

Nimble where politics is clunky, responsive where government is deadlocked, and targeted where Congress is logrolling, philanthropies are catalyzing lasting, positive change on climate, perhaps the most pressing social, environmental, and economic policy challenge of our time.

One example of a philanthropy-backed climate-change effort that has made great progress despite lagging public policy is the Beyond Coal campaign, which just announced the retirement of the nation’s 200th coal plant.

Launched by the Sierra Club in 2002 and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and a host of other grant makers, Beyond Coal brings together local activists to fight pollution from coal-fired power plants in their communities. The campaign aims to close America’s dirtiest coal plants and replace them with cleaner energy through a blend of grass-roots organizing and carefully aimed lawsuits.

By working alongside local activists and community groups, we have achieved extraordinary results — and with dramatic improvements for both health and climate. The 200 coal plants retired by this effort are the primary reason the United States leads the world in carbon-pollution reduction over the last decade. And as a result of this work, research shows 6,500 fewer people are dying prematurely from diseases caused by burning coal for power. Moreover, as these polluting coal plants are shuttered, we are ushering in clean-energy technology and infrastructure nationwide.

Increasingly affordable renewable energy, paired with a groundswell of Americans demanding cleaner air, is fundamentally shifting the dynamics in our favor in the fight against climate change.

The success of the Beyond Coal campaign offers a model for the critical impact philanthropies and nonprofits can have at the local level, effectively sidestepping political barriers and capitalizing on public support and market forces. Here’s what foundations can do:

Use data to identify winning strategies. A hard look at the data shows that to tackle climate change causing pollution, we have to transition away from coal. Coal burning is the leading contributor of global-warming pollution and a leading source of respiratory illness. The Sierra Club collected available data on all the coal boilers in the United States to identify the plants that are most polluting, face the most community opposition, and present the worst deal for ratepayers. That enabled the Sierra Club and other organizations to concentrate resources where they would be most effective.

Invest in strategic partners to build on models that are already working. The Sierra Club had already been working on the ground for years and built a proven local model to reduce pollution from coal plants. The model engaged local partner organizations in the Sierra Club’s efforts, like the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which was critical to winning the retirements of Chicago’s highly polluting coal plants. In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies committed $50 million to turbocharge our efforts and expand the Beyond Coal model to 45 states.

Amplify one another’s impact. When Michael Bloomberg announced that he would double down on this winning strategy with another $30 million investment for the spring of 2015, the Hewlett, MacArthur, and other foundations together matched that sum. The influx of resources enabled the Sierra Club to increase its already-ambitious goal to retiring half the U.S. coal fleet by 2017. That commitment from a coalition of grant makers supporting a broad range of groups sent a clear signal to decision makers — both those on Capitol Hill and those in the capital markets — that coal is on the way out. 

Of course, we still have a long way to go. The threats of climate change are growing more urgent, and the 323 remaining coal plants in the United States exacerbate the problem.

Philanthropy can help. This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue the first rules limiting carbon pollution from power plants, and we know the rules will face a pitched battle in Congress and the courts. Grant makers are critical to support the local and national organizing efforts, advocacy, and litigation that will get the rules across the finish line.

Foundations are also doing great work at the local, state, federal, and international levels to help catalyze the clean-energy market, driving down the costs of zero-carbon energy as we continue to bring polluting coal plants offline.

It’s critical that we celebrate and build on our successes and progress. The Sierra Club’s 200 coal-plant retirements have built a cleaner, better future for our environment and economy — and we’ll continue working until coal’s harmful impact on our planet, and on American lives, is a thing of the past.

Antha Williams is the head of the environment program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has contributed $80 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.