Philanthropists and billionaires must walk the talk on climate change

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The climate is warming at an alarming pace and we have little time left to slow it down. Politicians, policy-makers, scientists, advocacy groups and other experts have proposed a myriad of solutions and tactics to help tackle the problem, including President Biden’s infrastructure bill that moves this nation towards carbon-free power generation by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Effective solutions to climate disruption are not cheap. Which is why it is essential that the wealthiest among us give what they can really and truly afford for public investment and prioritize much more of their giving to the climate crisis. 

Out of the $450 billion in U.S. philanthropic giving in 2019, less than 2 percent — about $5 billion to $9 billion — went to climate change mitigation, according to a 2020 ClimateWorks Global Intelligence report. It’s not nearly enough.

Efforts such as the Crisis Charitable Commitment and Give While You Live campaign are encouraging the wealthy to give more now, much more than the historical norm. The nearly 700 billionaires in the United States who have made an almost incomprehensible $1.3 trillion since the COVID-19 pandemic can afford to meet the suggested 5 percent minimum for charitable giving: it would represent just $200 billion of their total $4 trillion wealth. That could solve, or at least ameliorate, a lot of problems. 

Although philanthropy alone won’t solve the challenges of a warming planet, according to the report, it “can help catalyze the trillions of dollars of public sector and private sector funding that are required to enable the necessary transition toward a low-carbon global economy.”

Philanthropy, the report continues, has a singular role to play in tackling this challenge. It “can increase global ambition, support innovative solutions, scale proven mitigation strategies, and drive collaborative actions.”

And we just don’t have much time to get this done, just a few years, according to recent research. Past that point and global warming will become a truly irreversible disaster.

Twenty-nine foundations have signed the Global Climate Action Summit pledge to commit in total $4 billion to combat climate change over five years. This includes the Heising-Simons Foundation, The Gund Foundation and the Grove Foundation, each of which has also pledged to increase their total foundation giving to meet the climate and pandemic-related crises head on. Unfortunately, this “bold commitment” is just a drop in the bucket of what’s needed.

Some of the wealthiest among us are also stepping up to the plate. Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of food corporation Wonderful Company have gifted $750 million to the California Institute of Technology for research on environmental sustainability. That amount represents 8.3 percent of their $9 billion in wealth. Or Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist, who has promised to give away $1 billion, or 16 percent of his wealth, to protect the earth.

Others could do so much more, in particular, Jeff Bezos, whose wealth increased by $75 billion in 2020 alone. Although the world’s wealthiest man and former CEO of Amazon pledged last year to give $10 billion to fight climate change, that is over a 10-year period. In year one he gave less than $1 billion, which accounts for 0.5 percent of his $200 billion net worth. His pledge to reverse climate change could — and should — be $10 billion per year. Not over 10 years. He’s clearly got the money to spare. And such an investment would make a discernible difference in the fight to save the planet. It might also inspire other billionaires to follow suit. The cumulative effect of which, in addition to other public and private sector funding, could be a true game-changer.

What more could we do if organizational and individual philanthropists increased their giving? It’s hard to quantify, but the answer is surely transformative. As the ClimateWorks report noted, “philanthropy can also take risks that the public and private sectors can’t or won’t take. It can support frontline advocacy, emerging but unproven breakthrough technologies, and unique collaborations that bring together voices from the public, private and civil society sectors to solve the climate crisis.” 

Our approach to combating global warming would be more creative, farther reaching and, undoubtedly, more successful if the wealthiest among us pitched in adequately. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope they do.

Alan S. Davis is a board member of the Patriotic Millionaires and founder of The Crisis Charitable Commitment, a campaign to greatly increase the flow of charitable dollars to nonprofits.

Tags Billionaire Climate change Climate change mitigation Climate change policy Jeff Bezos Jeff Bezos Joe Biden Philanthropy

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