Billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have made eye-catching pledges aimed at addressing climate change — but that may be giving people a skewed impression of how much charitable giving actually targets the climate crisis.
Last year, just 2% of philanthropic giving worldwide went toward mitigating the climate emergency that’s increasingly bringing floods, droughts and wildfires to people’s doorsteps, according to a new report from the ClimateWorks Foundation, a San Francisco-based “global platform for philanthropy” that has distributed more than $1 billion to 500 grantees in 40 countries since 2008.
Globally, individuals and foundations donated an estimated $750 billion to all causes in 2020, of which $6 billion to $10 billion was focused on climate change solutions, the report found. That’s up from the roughly $5 to $9 billion that was dedicated to climate change in 2019, out of $730 billion in overall giving.
The year-over-year increase in donations for climate change was encouraging, but funding is “not growing fast enough,” the authors noted.
“The climate emergency isn’t slowing down. While we saw positive trends across climate change mitigation philanthropy in 2020, greater and more sustained levels of giving are needed to match the massive scale of the challenge,” said Surabi Menon, the vice president of Global Intelligence at ClimateWorks Foundation.
“Every fraction of a degree of warming matters and every delay costs lives,” Menon said.
How philanthropy could target climate change
Donors could be putting their dollars toward “proven solutions” such as forest protection, transitioning to electric vehicles, and clean energy, the report authors noted. “There is no shortage of climate solutions in which to invest,” Menon said.
Philanthropy can also play an important role because, unlike the public sector, it can more easily support “high-risk, early-stage, or politically sensitive work that other sources of capital can’t or won’t fund,” the report said.
Why climate change is ‘underfunded’
Environmental causes don’t generally rank high on people’s donation lists. In the U.S. in 2020, donations to environmental groups accounted for 3% of total giving. The categories that received the biggest shares of donations in 2020 were religion (28% of contributions), education (15%) and human services (14%), according to Giving USA, an annual estimate of charitable giving.
Previous research suggests that among the wealthiest donors, climate change hasn’t been a top priority. They reported donating the most money to education; health; and arts, culture and sports, according to a 2020 report from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and Campden Wealth. “Despite increasing global concern for climate change, the environment receives a scant 8% of the giving portfolios in this survey,” the authors of that report said.
“Climate change mitigation has historically been underfunded as the climate crisis has too often been viewed as a distant threat,” Menon told MarketWatch in email. But as more people experience the effects of climate change in their everyday lives and scientists have issued more urgent warnings, there’s growing interest in supporting climate action, Menon said.
“The climate is changing faster than predicted, and our window to keep the planet within a safe range of warming is narrowing rapidly,” she said.
‘Large-scale players’ can’t achieve meaningful results
Some of the world’s wealthiest people are among those displaying newfound interest in tackling climate change. Amazon
founder Jeff Bezos announced in 2020 that his Bezos Earth Fund would spend $10 billion in 10 years to address the problem. It handed out $791 million in grants last year. Bezos recently announced that $1 billion of the fund will be dedicated to conserving 30% of Earth’s land and water. Bezos is currently worth about $192.2 billion, according to Forbes.
Earlier this year, Tesla
co-founder Elon Musk, whose current estimated net worth is around $204.4 billion, announced a $100 million prize that will be awarded to whoever comes up with the best technology to permanently remove Earth-warming carbon from the atmosphere.
Last month, Laurene Powell Jobs — the widow of Apple
co-founder Steve Jobs, who is worth an estimated $16.7 billion — pledged to spend $3.5 billion over the next decade, with a focus on “underserved communities who are most impacted by climate change,” Axios reported.
Those big pledges from high-profile donors suggest accelerating urgency around addressing climate change, but they’re far from a solution, the report authors noted.
“While the growing number of major philanthropic commitments is a positive development, we should not simply rely on a constant influx of new large-scale players in order to achieve meaningful results,” the report said.