Clean Energy Insights

Less than 2 percent of philanthropy goes toward our biggest threat — climate change

6 minute read

As featured in the Hill

Today is Giving Tuesday. After taking time to connect with loved ones and reflect on all that we’re grateful for over Thanksgiving, today we give back — by a massive thunderclap of donations to charity.

Some predict that we’ll collectively reach in our pockets and donate over $3 billion today. That’s incredible. But where will that money go, exactly?

According to Charity Navigator, the causes that receive the most philanthropic dollars are health, human services and education. That makes sense. We all want to be healthy, to provide food, shelter and family support to those less fortunate, and provide the youth with a bright future. 

The climate oversight

However, there’s a glaring omission in our collective thought process here. According to ClimateWorks Foundation, mitigating climate change receives less than 2 percent of all charitable contributions globally. Here in the U.S. climate receives less than 1 percent of all charitable giving, according to a recent McKinsey report. We give 20 percent tips to our baristas and servers, but can’t muster more than 1 percent of our giving to protect the planet that sustains our very existence? 

As a reminder, climate change is “the single biggest health threat facing humanity” according to the WHO, threatening our very survival as a species, as well as the overall functioning of the biosphere. And the window we have to act to avert catastrophic levels of warming is only a handful of years. When the UN released its most recent scientific report on the state of climate change, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called it “a code red for humanity.”

In order to address the climate crisis like the emergency that it is, it seems that we have the order of our philanthropic giving priorities in reverse. We should be giving 99 percent of our charitable contributions to addressing the climate crisis, and 1 percent to everything else, instead of the other way around. 

What good is donating to health care organizations when fossil fuel air pollution kills 10 million people a year? How effective can we be in battling hunger when climate change will turn some of the world’s largest food-producing regions into deserts? How can we hope to improve our children’s futures if we ignore that on average we now experience a $1 billion weather disaster every 18 days, which will only get worse if climate change is left unabated? What hopes for a peaceful world will we have when millions are forced to flee their countries due to climate change-induced droughts and famines, causing ensuing conflicts over scarce resources? 

The importance of individual giving

When it comes to the climate crisis, one of our biggest challenges is figuring out how we can play a role in the solution as ordinary citizens. It can seem like such a massive problem, how could little old me possibly make a difference?

But here’s another interesting statistic. In the U.S., 80 percent of all charitable contributions come from individual giving. That’s right. While we might often think about foundations and corporations as the big donors, it’s actually us.

And that’s pretty empowering.

At the recent UN  COP26 climate conference, we saw world leaders make passionate speeches about protecting our planet, and less passionate commitments to taking action — often hamstrung by politics back home. In fact, just days after President Biden returned from Glasgow, his administration oversaw the largest oil and gas lease in U.S. history.

But we mustn’t despair. Given the increasingly apparent role of money in politics, who among us expected anything else from our world leaders? 

The truth is, despite the lack of progress on the national or international level, most of the progress we’ve seen on climate has come from local governments, businesses and civil society, thanks in no small part to philanthropy. 

Michelle Wu, the newly elected Democratic mayor of Boston, signed an ordinance divesting city funds from all fossil fuel investments in her first days on the job. This is thanks to decades of organizing by the fossil fuel divestment movement fueled by nonprofit grassroots organizations that rely on philanthropy to do their work.

At the state level, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) banned oil and gas drilling in communities. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed a law to make the state 100 percent clean energy powered by 2040. The actions were also the result of decades of organizing, and the philanthropic dollars that made organizing possible. 

The same goes for the fossil fuel pipeline fights that have won decisive victories like stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, climate activists getting seats on the ExxonMobil board, as well as nonprofits leading the clean energy transition. Doing the important work of training the next generation of clean energy leaders, making renewable energy financing accessible to all and being early-stage investors in cleantech startups are all necessary. It is key organizations continue educating communities about electric vehicles, along with fighting for bike lanes and public transit investments in their cities and towns.

Despite the lack of progress from Washington or the UN, we can take comfort knowing that countless groups are building the foundation for the just clean energy transition. And it’s up to us to support them in that work. 

This Giving Tuesday, let’s reverse the trend of giving so little to climate. Give generously to organizations that are working toward equitable climate solutions. As individuals, our philanthropic giving may be one of the most impactful levers we have in the climate fight.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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