Dr Lars Grotewold, Stiftung Mercator, highlights why climate is a cross-cutting challenge which requires urgent action from the entire philanthropic community.
Climate change has long been treated as an environmental problem, and philanthropic giving for climate still is way too small. Dr Lars Grotewold argue that this is dangerously short-sighted as abating climate change is nothing less than the basic prerequisite for solving multiple crises we are facing today. Every foundation, thus, should engage in climate action.
By Dr Lars Grotewold
Climate change is a cross-cutting societal challenge
Climate change is not an environmental problem, and climate action is not about saving the planet. Climate change fundamentally is about us – about humankind’s past, present and future. It has arisen from the way we use energy to move around, heat our homes, use all kinds of electronic equipment. It has arisen from the way we produce goods, the way we eat and work.
If climate change goes unchecked, it will severely impact on every aspect of human life. It will destroy the homes and livelihoods of millions of people, it will have detrimental effects on human health – and it will disproportionately impact communities who are already marginalised. Climate change will massively amplify existing inequalities and create destructive stress for our political, social and economic systems.
“It is crucially important to understand that, unabated, climate change will erode the basis of every philanthropic activity.“
It is crucially important to understand that, unabated, climate change will erode the basis of every philanthropic activity. Because whatever societal problem foundations are trying to change for the better, all our strategies rest on the fundamental assumption of the relative stability of our ecologic, economic, and institutional environments. Only this allows for long-term planning and justification of investments for social change. This very basis is at risk. Abating climate change is thus a task for all of us in the philanthropic community.
Every foundation can – and should – be part of the solution
I am not arguing that every foundation has to establish a dedicated programme on climate action. Rather, my point is to integrate a climate perspective into all existing programmes. Foundations should reflect on how climate impacts their topics of choice and integrate this into their theories of change. Let me give you an example.
There is a very close link between climate and human health. Rising temperatures will have severe health impacts all around the globe. Shifting climate zones will bring about the invasion of species into areas in which they used to be absent. These will become sources of increasing cases of allergies and infectious diseases (including zoonosis like the coronavirus pandemic). We will see growing numbers affected by heat-related illness and much more. A recent study found that already now, more than one third of heat-related deaths is caused by climate change. All of this translates into millionfold human suffering, and in massive costs and stress to the healthcare systems globally. So, if your foundation works on infectious diseases, on children’s health or on the optimisation of the healthcare sector as such – just to name a few angles – do consider that all these issues are massively influenced by climate change. Be aware that climate action is public health protection and, thus, climate action is also part of the solution for the specific health challenge you are working on.
“Whatever you are working on, integrating the risks that climate change will pose to your area of work, and the benefits of addressing climate within the context of your theories of change, will make a huge difference.“
This is just one example to illustrate that whatever you are working on, integrating the risks that climate change will pose to your area of work, and the benefits of addressing climate within the context of your theories of change, will make a huge difference. It will make a huge difference to what you are trying to achieve in your particular field – and the collective action of many different actors from many different fields will make a huge difference for combating climate change.
A new level of cooperation
These kinds of nexus provide ample opportunities for philanthropic cooperation which remains underused. Breaking down the thematic silos that we all tend to work in requires a corresponding mindset from foundation leaders and staff. We need leaders who actively build the bridges into other fields and who make this kind of integrated systems logic part of the DNA of their institution. If you want to get started, the good news is that you don’t have to do so from scratch. There is abundant experience in the field that can be used to learn about the climate challenge and find inspiration and concrete opportunities to start grant-making in the field, provided i.e. by the Climate Leadership Initiative and Active Philanthropy. There are existing networks and platforms that bring together foundations from different fields in order to learn from each other how to link climate with other topics and to advocate for stronger cross-cutting climate action, like the Philanthropy Coalition for Climate.
“We need leaders who actively build the bridges into other fields and who make this kind of integrated systems logic part of the DNA of their institution.”
Let me emphasize that what I am describing here is a two-way learning process. Non-climate funders should get started to identify the crucial linkages between their topics of choice and climate. And climate funders need to understand that we will not win on climate if we neglect those very interlinkages between climate and other societal challenges like health or inequality, to name just two.
Philanthropy is most effective when we work together. The interconnectedness of climate change with multiple societal crises we are facing today requires a step change in philanthropic cooperation because none of these challenges can be solved by silo mentality.
Let’s act – now!
As Larry Kramer, President of the Hewlett Foundation, put it: “If we fail on climate, we fail on everything.” This is utterly true, indeed. For me this means: If we win on climate, we have a chance to solve other societal challenges as well. So, let’s get to work, let’s join forces to win this existential threat – right now and big time!
Dr Lars Grotewold is the Director Climate Action at Stiftung Mercator
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