OPINION: Time for philanthropy to tackle environmental threats, scientists urge

by Jake Hayman | Ten Years' Time
Thursday, 23 May 2019 11:08 GMT

A visitor wears a themed hat at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, London, Britain, May 20, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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The biggest risks humankind has ever faced are being treated as 'someone else’s problem' by all but a few philanthropic funders

Today some of the UK’s leading scientists have taken the unprecedented step of sending a coordinated letter to the country’s largest grant-giving foundations and wealthiest families, imploring them to allocate more philanthropic capital to the critical issues of climate change and biodiversity loss. 

Climate change and biodiversity loss find themselves as in a philanthropic ‘cold spot’. Social funders think they are targets for environmental funders - but most environmental funders are interested in preserving nature walks and animal conservation.

The biggest threats humankind has ever faced are being treated as ‘someone else’s problem’ by all but a few philanthropic funders.

Not only this, but a large number of foundations are actively deriving the money they use for their grant-giving from fossil fuel investments and other extractive activities. They are not just failing to stand up as part of the solution; they are in fact actively invested in perpetuating the problem.

The letter, signed by 11 of the country’s leading scientists, did not call for a particular focus on grant-giving but said: 

“There are many ways you could do this … From civil society and social movements, to green investment in research and innovation, to strategic litigation and public education, the communities working in this field are largely starved of the funding they need. 

“The UKs leadership role in the climate crisis in indubitable. If we can transition to a truly sustainable model it will influence and inform others around the world.

New data from the Environmental Funders Network suggests that climate change funding is allocated just £105m per year out of a pot of more than £4bn in grant funding.

Philanthropist Sophie Marple, who set up the Gower St Foundation, said: “Our foundation never previously focused on climate change but I’ve been shocked, given the enormity of the threat, how under-resourced the space is. We feel a duty to act and will commit a significant portion of our funding to critical environmental work moving forward. As this letter from scientists shows us, there’s no longer any space for separation between ‘environmental’ and ‘social’ philanthropy.’

For those interested in getting involved, there are a myriad of opportunities to fund projects. They range from civil movements such as the youth strikes, to economic modelling to influence investor behaviour from organisations like Carbon Tracker, to research taking place at many universities and consumer-focused work such as that being led by OneHome’s Angela Terry, who was involved in coordinating the letter.

Think tanks - from the ‘centre-right’-leaning Bright Blue to the traditionally ‘leftish’ IPPR and New Economics Foundation - are increasingly focused on this area whilst Client Earth is leading the strategic litigation approach to fighting climate change. This is on top of a number of new and startup organisations coming into the space, and a renewed focus from large environmental charities such as WWF and Greenpeace.

While the major changes may well come from international government-level agreements, those agreements will either be held up by the well-organised fossil fuel industry and climate deniers, or be pushed forward by a movement of people, ideas and organisations that civil society can provide.

There are also critical questions on how we transition to a balanced, low-carbon society and who gains and loses during such a transition. Civil society’s role in ensuring that less affluent and more vulnerable communities are able to lead the change, and do not become further isolated by it, is also critical.