Why fund climate justice?

Kristina Johansson, Founder of Solberga Foundation, shares her personal story on becoming a climate activist and establishing a foundation addressing climate crisis. She also reflects on the role philanthropy can play in tackling climate change and the need to trust grassroots movements.

By Kristina Johansson, founder of Solberga Foundation.

“We believe that the social, economic and ecological crisis of our time calls for an unwavering commitment to grassroots social movements to advance transformative solutions and that philanthropy has a crucial role to play.”

I was 16 when I saw the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and became acutely aware of the severity and urgency of the climate crisis. When choosing where I wanted to study for university, I chose Middlebury College, a small liberal arts college in Vermont because of its reputation as an environmental leader. However, soon after arriving, I found out that the same institution that was boasting about its environmental stewardship was investing its endowment in the world’s dirtiest and most destructive coal, oil and natural gas corporations. Infuriated by this hypocrisy, I took action with fellow student activists and we successfully campaigned for the university to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben wrote, “If a [students’] college’s endowment is invested in fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidised by investments that guarantee that they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree.” This exact message resonates today with the youth climate strikers who feel the urgency and the burden of the climate crisis, whilst being frustrated by their governments lack of bold action.

My experience as a young climate activist showed me the incredible power of organised social movements and a few years later I set up my family’s foundation, the Solberga Foundation, a grant making foundation that now funds climate justice movements. We believe that the social, economic and ecological crisis of our time calls for an unwavering commitment to grassroots social movements to advance transformative solutions and that philanthropy has a crucial role to play.

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Kristina and two other student activists at a climate protest in Washington DC in 2012

Why climate?

“If we want to meet the Paris agreement target, we have to halve greenhouse emissions by 2030, which gives us less than 10 years to radically transform our societies, yet we continue to increase our emissions year after year. The good news is, we actually DO know what the solutions are to effectively address this crisis, but we are running out of time to take meaningful action. We need all hands on deck, and that includes the hands of philanthropy.”

The world’s eyes are on the global climate crisis. We know that if the planet warms 1.5°C above pre-industrial average temperatures things will become catastrophic beyond imagination. We are already seeing increasing hurricanes in the U.S., wildfires in Greece, Russia and Turkey, massive drought in Madagascar, flooding in Germany, Belgium and China. Even worse, the climate policies now in place around the world are projected to result in at least 2.9°C warming above pre-industrial levels leading to making many parts of the planet uninhabitable and costing millions of lives.

If we want to meet the Paris agreement target, we have to halve greenhouse emissions by 2030, which gives us less than 10 years to radically transform our societies, yet we continue to increase our emissions year after year. The good news is, we actually DO know what the solutions are to effectively address this crisis, but we are running out of time to take meaningful action. We need all hands on deck, and that includes the hands of philanthropy. 

Climate justice & philanthropy

“Climate justice is a concept for understanding how the causes and effects of climate change relate to concepts of justice, such as equality, historical responsibility and reparative justice. It highlights the adverse impacts of climate change on poor people and countries in the Global South.”

Given the urgency of the crisis, it’s distressing to know that less than 2% of global philanthropy is dedicated to addressing climate change. Within Europe, even less funding – less than 1% – is devoted to grassroots and movement building. Funding for ‘climate justice’ and systemic change is lagging far behind. 

What do I mean by climate justice, and why is it important for philanthropy to act here? Climate justice is a concept for understanding how the causes and effects of climate change relate to concepts of justice, such as equality, historical responsibility and reparative justice. It highlights the adverse impacts of climate change on poor people and countries in the Global South. For example, wealthier countries have a greater responsibility for tackling climate change as they have been the primary beneficiaries of carbon emissions for the last two cen

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Trust the grassroots

Philanthropy can play a critical role in empowering and resourcing grassroots’ leadership, but instead, the philanthropic sector has morphed the charitable sector into something driven by the funders’ wants rather than what communities truly need to act to enable social change . . . . Philanthropy must democratise power and decision making in order to successfully support social movements and it must strive to creatively reimagine how it can operate in authentic partnership with those working on the forefront of social and political change.”

I believe building power from below is our best hope to tackle the climate crisis. At Solberga, we support activists and social movements because they are essential to transforming the landscape of power and political will. Philanthropy can play a critical role in empowering and resourcing grassroots’ leadership, but instead, the philanthropic sector has morphed the charitable sector into something driven by the funders’ wants rather than what communities truly need to act to enable social change. In the case of the climate crisis, it’s communities of colour, low-income communities and indigenous people that are most intimately familiar with the crisis. They are the ones that describe the crisis in clearest terms, as well as point in the direction of solutions. 

Philanthropy’s current top-down approaches aren’t working and if we want to see better results and systemic change, frontline communities have to own, decide, shape, and lead philanthropy. Philanthropy must democratise power and decision making in order to successfully support social movements and it must strive to creatively reimagine how it can operate in authentic partnership with those working on the forefront of social and political change. The good thing is this is already happening with the incredible leadership of funders such as Thousand Currents and the Frida Young Feminist Fund, amongst others, that use participatory and democratic models of decision making to transform the philanthropic status quo. They are also practising trust-based philanthropy and providing long-term, core funding that allows social movements to build power over the long term. We know that social transformation doesn’t happen overnight and philanthropy is uniquely positioned with its ability to take risks and be flexible to fund this transformative work. As a funder and as a climate activist, I feel honoured to get to support and be part of such an incredibly vibrant movement and the brilliant communities committed to solving this crisis and am hopeful to see more funders join the movement.

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Kristina is the founder of the Solberga Foundation, a family foundation that supports transformative grassroots movements for climate justice. Solberga Foundation was established in 2018 in the UK and gives grants globally. For over 10 years Kristina has been engaged in activism for racial, gender and climate justice. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College. She worked for Planned Parenthood and the United Nations Peace Women Program. She co-founded Resource Justice in the UK, a community of young people with wealth committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. She is a proud trustee of the Vagina Museum in London and recently joined the EDGE Funders Alliance board. She is originally from the UK and Sweden and now resides in London. 

Find Kristina on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Kristina will deliver an inspirational speech at the “What if every foundation cared about climate?” event that will focus on how funders and foundations can apply a climate lens to everything they are doing, and what are the opportunities that can emerge from it. 

Kristina will share her personal story on becoming a climate activist and encouraging her family to establish a foundation addressing the climate crisis. She will also cover climate as a cross-cutting issue, the role philanthropy can play in addressing the climate crisis, and the importance of supporting grassroots movements in tackling climate change. Finally, she will invite participants to challenge traditional philanthropy practices and think about actionable ways on how to mobilise resources more effectively. 

Find out more about the  #nextphilanthropy What if? Reimagining philanthropy event series here.

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