The underrated role of philanthropy in the climate fight

Tackling the climate crisis requires an integrated approach, blending the might of state interventions, the private sector’s innovation, and philanthropy’s benevolence

By Ehtesham Shahid

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Published: Wed 25 Oct 2023, 9:49 PM

The clock is ticking. As our planet inches closer to irreversible climate tipping points, the onus of preventing catastrophe falls upon our global climate leaders. Policymakers are in a fervent race against time, crafting strategies to cut emissions, champion green technologies, and reduce pollutants. But can governments do it all?

Enter philanthropy. Beyond the corridors of power and sprawling corporate boardrooms, philanthropic organizations are emerging as powerful allies in the battle against climate change. These entities are bridging the gaps that exist in the system.

Philanthropic foundations fund ground-breaking studies aiming to decipher the complexities of climate change, devise mitigation strategies, and foster innovation. Such research is instrumental in laying down foundational insights that pave the way for broader public and private interventions.

The philanthropic sector is also an invaluable financial pillar, especially for pioneering projects that traditional investors might deem too audacious or nascent. For instance, a start-up focusing on carbon capture technology might struggle to attract conventional investment but could find a willing backer in a philanthropic entity eager to promote sustainable innovations. Charitable organisations can circumvent the bureaucratic red tape, acting promptly to fund initiatives and champion change.

Many philanthropic organisations are active advocates, shaping public opinion and policy. By funding think tanks and research bodies, they foster an environment where sustainable practices are not merely an option but the norm. Their outreach initiatives, spanning educational campaigns to gripping documentaries, drive home the gravity of the climate crisis, galvanizing the public into action.

The tangible impact of these philanthropic endeavours is also evident on the ground. Vulnerable communities, often the first casualties of a warming planet, find allies in these organizations. Whether facilitating adaptation strategies, helping with disaster recovery, or transferring knowledge across borders, philanthropic entities ensure solutions resonate with local nuances.

Institutionalised collaborative spirit

Their long-term commitment is a boon. NGOs and philanthropic organisations remain steadfast, ensuring the climate agenda never fades. It’s heartening to see this collaborative spirit being institutionalised. The recent Business & Philanthropy Climate Forum hosted by the COP28 Presidency exemplifies this synergy. As COP28 President-Designate Dr Sultan Al Jaber remarked, businesses and philanthropists are central to achieving net-zero targets, and such platforms amplify their role.

Philanthropy is not a mere accessory in the climate fight. Their influence is profound, from nurturing innovative technologies, preserving ecosystems, and reshaping consumer behaviours. They’re pushing boundaries, funding initiatives like green bonds and climate funds, which might be too avant-garde for some but are essential in the larger tapestry of climate action.

As we navigate the tumultuous waters of the climate crisis, we must recognise and leverage every ally. With its resources, flexibility, and long-term vision, philanthropy is undeniably one of them. While they can’t single-handedly steer us away from impending climate doom, their concerted efforts with governments, businesses, and civil society can make the journey more hopeful.

Philanthropy has a commendable role in addressing the immense challenges climate change poses. The generous support from affluent donors can bring to life critical environmental projects that might otherwise remain on the drawing board.

Limitations of approach

However, as we laud these endeavours, it is essential to assess the limitations of a philanthropic approach critically. The resources, for instance, can sometimes be disproportionately channelled towards causes favoured by a few high-net-worth individuals, possibly neglecting areas of more pressing need.

Often swayed by short-term public relations goals, corporate philanthropic initiatives may miss the bigger picture, focusing more on immediate wins rather than sustainable, long-term solutions. The voluntary nature of philanthropy means that funding can be erratic, affected by economic downturns or shifting priorities.

This inconsistency can be detrimental to long-term projects that require steady financial support. Unlike elected officials, who are held accountable for their actions, philanthropic organisations operate without the same level of scrutiny, potentially leading to the misuse or misallocation of funds. One cannot ignore the “greenwashing” spectre, where some initiatives appear environmentally conscious but are mere PR exercises with minimal impact.

Add to this the bureaucratic overheads of large philanthropic bodies, the neglect of systemic changes in favour of symptom-based solutions, potential conflicts of interest, and the amplification of power disparities, and it becomes clear that while philanthropy is valuable, it is not without its shortcomings. Some efforts even risk being redundant without proper coordination.

Vital initiatives might face funding challenges as donor interests fluctuate with trends or leadership changes. While philanthropy brings much-needed resources to the climate battlefront, it cannot replace comprehensive governmental and global action.

Tackling the climate crisis requires an integrated approach, blending the might of state interventions, the private sector’s innovation, and philanthropy’s benevolence. Only then can we hope to address the multifaceted challenges of climate change effectively.

Ehtesham Shahid is an Indian editor and researcher based in the UAE. X: @e2sham

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