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Can Philanthropy Save the Planet?

October 30, 2019

 Fall is settling in for many of us, including here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For much of the summer, I had dutifully kept my hummingbird feeders full, as well as other feeders with various seed, to accommodate and support the many feathered visitors that call our mountain community home.  
I learned from an early age to appreciate birds. My father, who just turned 93 and lives with me, has been an avid bird watcher his entire life. Nearly every day, he still grabs his binoculars and heads out to the back patio, watching, investigating, and, yes, frequently chirping or squawking, too.
In early October, the non-governmental organization, National Audubon Society, released a new report,  “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink,” that finds that two-thirds of the birds in North America are at risk of extinction due to the rising temperatures of climate change. It is almost as if the globe itself is the proverbial coal mine, but it’s not just the canary that is signaling danger, but nearly 400 different species.
The threat of the loss of species is but one signal of a changing climate. Many others hit our headlines daily. And while some may continue to debate the cause of climate change, it is happening all the same – and billions of dollars are being invested annually to mitigate the impacts.  Philanthropy has been at the forefront of this wave of investment. It led to me ask:  Can philanthropy save the planet?
Many philanthropists are certainly trying to answer that question with a resounding, “Yes!”

 

Take Michael Bloomberg, whose estimated worth was calculated at nearly $51 billion in 2019, making him the 17th richest person in the world. In June of this year and through his philanthropic organization Bloomberg Philanthropies, he launched Beyond Carbon.  Billed as the largest-ever coordinated campaign against climate change in the United States, the initial investment of $500 million is geared toward getting the United States on a path to a 100 percent clean energy economy.  Its initial focus will support state and local efforts in the areas of policies, targets and programs to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  
Indeed, Bloomberg is part of a group of 29 different philanthropists who, in September of 2018, pledged $4 billion in funding focused on climate change mitigation.  Described as the largest commitment ever to address environmental issues, the group includes other luminaries in philanthropy like the Kresge Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Another American philanthropist and candidate for the office of the United States presidency, Tom Steyer, founded the environmental advocacy non-

 

profit and political action committee NextGen Climate (now NextGen America) in 2013. Steyer made billions as a hedge fund manager and has most notably been a dogged critic of the Trump Administration. 
NextGen America was initially designed to build an unprecedented political movement around addressing the impacts of climate change. The organization has since evolved to address other issues but remains true to developing a multi-sectoral political movement by registering voters and by backing climate-friendly legislation and candidates in the U.S. 
Corporate philanthropy has also been active in trying to save the planet. Companies large and small are engaged. From big dollars to environmental causes to replacing plastic straws with paper or bamboo ones, making a statement in environmental philanthropy is core to many companies.  
Take, for example, leading outdoor gear provider Patagonia. Patagonia describes itself as an activist company, and its Web site proclaims that the

 

“Protection and preservation of the environment isn’t what we do after hours.  It’s the reason we’re in business and every day’s work.”
Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard rewrote the company’s mission statement earlier this year and put it succinctly: “Patagonia is in business to save our home plant.” To that end, Patagonia has granted millions of dollars to environmental organizations – one percent of all company’s profits go to philanthropy through their One Percent for the Planet pledge. Since 2002, that has added up to big money—a total of $225 million. 
The company’s current CEO, Rose Marcario, also made headlines in late 2018 when she shifted an additional $10

million into the company’s philanthropy.  The gift was the amount Patagonia received in additional tax cuts at the federal level, a policy change she described as “irresponsible.”
In late September of this year, the co-owners of The Wonderful Company, billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, continued their environmental-focused philanthropy with a $750 million gift to advance climate change research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  The Resnick’s donation is the largest-ever in support of research on climate change. 
The Wonderful Company, privately held by the Resnicks, is behind such brands as POM Wonderful, Wonderful Halos (mandarin oranges), Wonderful Pistachios, the Justin and Landmark wine brands as well as FIJI Water. Stewart Resnick, in an interview with CNBC, said, “We’re in the ultimate sustainability business, which is farming, and we see the changes already. And if we’re going to be helpful, if we can’t solve the sustainability problem, then the other problems don’t mean anything.”
The gift to Caltech builds significantly on earlier philanthropy from the Resnicks totaling $35 million to establish the Resnick Sustainability Institute and to provide fellowships and awards at the school.
Finally, the descriptively named “disaster philanthropy” has been previously covered in this column, for example, in the May issue when we covered the charitable outpouring behind the rebuilding of St -Barths. As the planet warms, so do its waters, and tropical cyclones and hurricanes have steadily intensified.
The singer Rihanna, and her foundation, the Clara Lionel Foundation, is rethinking how disaster philanthropy transforms itself from just responding to the aftermath of disasters to building more resilience in communities to help withstand natural disasters, like the hurricanes battering the Caribbean.
The Barbadian-born megastar’s foundation delivered emergency response grants to the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian and, more recently, provided another $1 million in aid to help with rebuilding efforts.  But the goal of the foundation is also to build smarter, so that buildings, like health clinics, might better withstand powerful storms.  
Even before Dorian leveled large swaths of the Bahamas, the Clara Lionel Foundation launched a pilot project across four Caribbean islands, and created a new climate resilience and emergency response preparedness fund to fund further advances. The goal is to move the Caribbean to the world’s first climate-resilient zone that can be replicated.
While just a small sampling of the tremendous efforts made by philanthropy, these inspiring examples give reasons for hope. Still, can philanthropy save the planet?  Who knows?  But what’s abundantly clear is that many philanthropists are hedging their bets that the answer is “Yes.”

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