Once the United Nations Conference on Climate Change wraps up this weekend, it will become more important than ever that foundations step in and persuade citizens around the world to make sure government leaders follow through on the pledges made in Paris.
We have already seen tremendous partnerships between grant makers and media organizations that set the standard for what needs to happen next. But they pale in comparison to what the energy industry is spending to protect its practices, and that’s why the next phase of action is so crucial.
What philanthropy-powered efforts have already achieved offers lessons worth building on.
New films by Academy Award winners Charles Ferguson and Louis Psihoyos started broadcasting to a global audience as world leaders assembled in Paris. The films are part of an effort to bring widespread attention to the many tragic consequences of climate change — and the enormous opportunity available to turn the tide and halt catastrophic impacts of rising sea level, deforestation, and mass extinction.
"Racing Extinction", the new film by Mr. Psihoyos, aired last week on the Discovery Channel in an unprecedented global broadcast in 220 countries. It rolled out in prime time in each country, beginning in New Zealand and sweeping around the world.
Mr. Psihoyos, who directed "The Cove," highlighting the vicious slaughter of dolphins in Japan, shows in "Racing Extinction" the potential loss of more than half of all living species over the next 100 years.
The philanthropist Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions has spearheaded a robust and inventive campaign to expand awareness of the issues raised by the film and offer people ways of taking action. Viewers are urged to use the hashtag #startwith1thing to talk about how they can slow the rate of extinctions and the pace of climate change by changing their own consumer behavior and speaking out about the dangers of inaction.
Discovery and Vulcan also worked with leading environmental organizations, like Defenders of Wildlife, Oceana, and the Sierra Club, inviting millions of members and supporters to watch the broadcast.
Those outreach efforts seem to have paid off. Discovery reports that U.S. viewership reached 11.5 million total viewers. That audience and more than 6 million viewers in other international markets brought the total global reach to more than 17 milion people for the groundbreaking premiere.
"Time to Choose" is a new film by Charles Ferguson, director of "Inside Job," the story of the role banks and scholars played in the financial collapse of 2008. In his new work, Mr. Ferguson constructs a compact yet complex argument that shows the dangers of deforestation and energy production, along with the pollution from transportation and industrial agriculture that threatens to lead to runaway climate change. The film also demonstrates the extent to which renewable energies like wind and solar power have already reached a point of economic advantage that would permit us to rapidly shift global systems to avert the coming climate disaster.
Bypassing the normal industry practice of limited theatrical release and restricted broadcast, "Time to Choose" was made available to a global audience through streaming media on The Huffington Post, just as people started following the climate meeting in Paris. An accompanying website offers a broad range of options for viewers to get involved with nonprofits and pressure policy makers to take action.
Many other media outlets, often with foundation support, are taking on the issue of climate change, including Climate Desk, a collaborative effort by Mother Jones, Grist, Wired, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and several other influential publications.
Climate Desk is designed to raise the visibility of climate coverage by establishing a dedicated reporting team for stories that are carried by member outlets, and by enabling member organizations to publish each other’s climate stories on a cooperative basis.
But the elder statesman of climate reporting has to be the National Geographic, which has been covering the subject regularly since at least 2004, when it published a cover story on global warming.
Last month’s special issue of the magazine once again focused on climate change and its many manifestations, with features showing how we know climate change is happening, how we can fix it, and how we can live with it. Also included in the issue, with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: a signature National Geographic pull-out map, detailing the fragile ecosystem of Amazonia and the threats associated with deforestation and other resource extraction.
As impressive as these efforts are, they pale in contrast to the enormous efforts made by energy companies to persuade the public that extractive industries are clean and safe. For decades, energy companies have worked to cast doubt on scientific consensus about the role of fossil fuels in creating greenhouse gases that have led to a rapid rise in global temperatures. And the investment has paid dividends in popular confusion and political chicanery, as more and more conservative lawmakers claim that the scientific jury is still out on whether humans are having an impact on climate.
Inside Climate News, the Pulitzer Prize-winning online news organization launched with support from Rockefeller Foundation, recently revealed that Exxon Corporation, a leader in climate-science research in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually became a leader in climate denial, working to manufacture doubt about the scientific consensus its own scientists had reached.
But Exxon is hardly alone. The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity published a special investigation earlier this year showing how industry trade associations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the public — far more than they have spent lobbying federal officials.
According to the center, the American Petroleum Institute spent more than $85 million on public relations and advertising in the year 2012, compared with just $7 million spent on lobbying the federal government.
The payoff for industry is evident in a variety of ways. For one thing, there is a big gap in America between what scientists believe is factually true and what the general public understands to be true. According to the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of scientists say climate change is occurring because of human activity and only 50 percent of the general public believes humans are responsible for climate change.
Just last month, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that corporate investment in think tanks and research publications over the past two decades has resulted in an "ecosystem of influence" that helps to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that human-made carbon dioxide contributes to climate change.
Let’s applaud the documentary films and other journalistic endeavors that are providing more and more evidence to rebut the messages of energy companies and trade associations. Those efforts are effective in warning people in convincing ways about the looming crises of melting polar ice, severe weather, and drought and the social instability that results. But let’s also push environmental nonprofits and grant makers to step up their support and engagement with media makers who are leading the call for global action to reverse climate change. We have no time to waste.
Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders and a regular Chronicle columnist.