Philanthropy’s Leadership Is Essential in the Push for Faster Climate Change Solutions

This Op-Ed originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on September 5, 2018.

Consider this fact: The year 2017 was the most expensive for natural disasters in U.S. history. In California, the most devastating and deadly fire season in recorded history cost state taxpayers nearly $10 billion.

As fires rage across the state for a second year in a row, threatening our first responders and destroying communities, we are on track to exceed last year’s extraordinary toll. Nationally, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria combined with other weather events to cost Americans more than $300 billion — greater than the annual state budgets of California, Oregon, and Washington combined.

It has become an all-too-familiar script. Climate change amplifies a natural disaster, leading to loss of life, a significant societal disruption, and a long, expensive recovery.

The threat of climate change is bearing down on all of us with increasing intensity. Lesser known, but equally important, is the reality that solutions to climate change represent the biggest opportunity to generate economic prosperity and improve quality of life in every corner of the world.

That is evident in a second fact — 2017 was also the year when the cost of wind and solar energy fell below that of coal and was on par with natural gas.

Utilities responded by making nearly half of all new energy generation from renewable sources like wind and solar. In Texas, for example, total wind power exceeded coal for the first time: The state now generates enough wind power to provide electricity to more than 7.4 million homes every year.

The contrasting realities of crisis and opportunity are today’s twin truths of climate change.

On one hand, we are making real progress at a rapidly accelerating clip. And on the other, we have to move with even more urgency and ambition to stave off the worst impact of warming our planet.

Here’s where philanthropy has an opportunity to help lead the fight. We need to move further and faster because, when it comes to climate change, going slowly is the same as failing.

Next Week’s Call to Action

One of the most pivotal meetings of the decade will occur next week, when thousands will gather in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit, the most significant climate conversation since the Paris Agreement. According to the meeting’s organizers, it will be “a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors, and citizens with respect to climate action. It will also be a launch pad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action.”

The summit will be both a call to action and an affirmation of progress. We already know that actions and pledges around the world — such as sharp growth in renewable energy, improvements in vehicle fuel economy, and the 2016 Paris commitment itself — have shifted the projected temperature rise from 5 or 6 degrees Celsius to 3 degrees by the year 2100. In real terms, that shift alone will mean less human suffering from drought and famine, mega-fires, and rising sea levels.

While we have not yet met the ambitious target set in Paris, it represents a significant improvement nonetheless. Moreover, our initial progress has proven humankind now knows the steps to solving what once looked like an intractable progression toward suffering.

This matters because climate change is not a binary question of success or failure; it is a continuum of increasingly bad results — each more awful than the last — that are, quite literally, a matter of degrees. A two-degree shift can reduce suffering for billions of people. If we had another 100 years to tackle climate change, we might be right on track. But we don’t, and we’re not.

More Opportunity Than Risk

At the Packard Foundation, our grant-making and mission-investment priorities reflect those of our founders: improving the lives of children, families, and communities while protecting the earth’s natural systems for future generations.

Ten years ago, we looked closely at the science and forecasts and concluded climate change had the potential to uniquely undermine everything we care about as a foundation, including children, reproductive health, justice, forests, and oceans. In response, we increased our grants focused on climate philanthropy sevenfold.

A decade later, our experience supporting hundreds of groups and thousands of leaders around the world, many of whom will attend next month’s summit, has affirmed what the foundation assumed when we embarked on this journey: The risks of climate change are great, but the opportunities are greater.

Local Responses

Stronger leadership at all levels is clearly needed if we are to win this fight, and at some point that leadership will re-emerge. But in the meantime, in every corner of the globe, community groups, local governments, and innovative businesses with transformational climate strategies are ready for additional resources and investments.

It is unrealistic to expect every foundation, corporation, and nonprofit 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, along with more and more ways to play it.

Whether you are a philanthropist, venture capitalist, government leader, business owner, or advocate, let’s accelerate our investments and ambitions. This is our moment to go big, not only to avoid the worst effects of climate change but to seize the opportunity for a healthy, secure, prosperous, and just future.