What the Heck Happened in New York Last Week? A Climate Philanthropy Roundup

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The busiest week of the year for the climate movement and philanthropy — until November’s annual U.N. Conference of Parties on climate change — concluded last Wednesday, following a frenzy of pledges from the field’s major donors. 

A flood of multimillion-dollar announcements — from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Rockefeller Foundation, the IKEA Foundation and others — offers the latest insight into what climate mega-philanthropy wants to prioritize as floods, fires, heatwaves and other climate-fueled disasters accelerate around the globe.  

The main precipitating event for philanthropy’s deluge of press releases was Climate Week NYC, but its coincidence with the United Nations General Assembly, and this year’s Climate Ambition Summit, hosted by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, means this stretch of the calendar always features some of the year’s biggest protests and largest new announcements.

Climate Week is not without its detractors. Liza Featherstone in the New Republic offers this year’s example: “Climate Week is Pointless. The Protests Inspired by It Aren’t.” Greenwashing, questionable sponsorships, political hypocrisy (but what’s new?) and the fundamental inadequacy of a single week for an existential crisis come to mind. But the week also offers an opportunity for most of the movement to gather, grab the headlines and maybe even make some progress. And for some philanthropies, it’s when they tell the world what they’re going to fund next.

Below is a roundup of some of the most notable funding news, including several commitments in the hundreds of millions. The week also saw the official unveiling of the Youth Climate Justice Fund, whose launch I covered last Thursday. It is telling and disappointing that philanthropy has provided youth climate activists around the globe an almost exponentially smaller amount of funding than is represented in most of these pledges.

In other words, the big numbers below still leave us a very long way short of where we need to be. “We are in many aspects even moving backwards," Guterres said in his closing remarks. Yet he also called it a “Climate Hope Summit.” My hope? These pledges mark the beginning of a new period of much greater ambition and significantly larger checks from philanthropy. We’re long overdue — and the water and the temperatures are rising fast.

Bloomberg doubles down on Beyond Coal

Mike Bloomberg has spent more than $500 million over the past decade-plus on the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to shutter coal plants across the United States. He will now spend that same sum in the coming years to “finish the job” — close the roughly 150 remaining plants, cut gas generation in half and prevent construction of new gas-fired plants. It’s a major renewal of one of the most high-profile and, though there’s room for criticism, successful campaigns in climate philanthropy.

This month also marks the one-year anniversary of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Beyond Petrochemicals campaign — possibly an even more ambitious effort. Oil giants are betting on ramping up plastics production to preserve their profits as the bell tolls on the era of fossil fuels. Bloomberg hopes to throw a wrench in those plans. Kicked off with $85 million, the push claimed credit last week for helping block the construction of five major petrochemical plants in its first 12 months. One example is the years-long fight, led by Goldman Prize winner Sharon Lavigne, over a plastics plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

We’ve critiqued Bloomberg in these pages for his data-centric, metrics-dominated approach to giving. But it’s nice to see a billionaire actually making the kinds of high-dollar pledges that are possible when you’re worth 10 figures or more — and going to bat for hard-hitting climate activism. With an estimated $96 billion fortune, Bloomberg has room to do even more. To put this pledge in perspective, $500 million is roughly the same share of Bloomberg’s reported total wealth as $632 is for the median American. Per his announcement earlier this year, it’s all going to philanthropy anyway. I know there are plenty of intermediaries — focused on youth (see above), a just transition (see below), the Amazon, etc. — that could use a check.

IKEA Foundation backs a just transition in the Global South

The IKEA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the global home goods retailer, committed $20 million to kick off an initiative to advance just transition plans in Indonesia, South Africa and Vietnam. In partnership with ClimateWorks Foundation, the effort aims to help workers in heavy emitting industries retrain and find other livelihoods, using plans co-created with communities. It’s a big need. According to the International Energy Agency, some 32 million people worldwide work in high-carbon industries. As fast as the renewable energy sector is growing, there are myriad reasons why many workers may find themselves down and out amid the transition.

The pledge amounts to “seed funding,” as the foundation calls it, for what is intended as a much larger effort. For now, it amounts to less than 63 cents per worker. It is also intended to complement the many existing philanthropic efforts to mobilize finance for the energy transition. The partners cite the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP), which was launched with $1.5 billion from IKEA Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund. There’s also Mike Bloomberg’s commitment last year for energy transitions in the Global South, totaling $242 million, and even a network for such efforts, Giving to Amplify Earth Action, which just named the queen of Jordan as its co-chair. 

Unlike those others, this new initiative centers workers. In that way, its goals are more similar to the Climate Justice - Just Transition Donor Collaborative, another group funded by IKEA Foundation and involving ClimateWorks, among other partners. On the one hand, this new effort appears to be a lot larger than CJ-JT, which has made over $700,000 in small grants over the past 18 months, according to its website. On the other, it’s only 4% the size of the $500 million foundation pledged for the GEAPP. Let’s hope other philanthropic giants pitch in — to this and other efforts — for those facing joblessness due to the energy transition. After all, there are few more potent opponents of change than those who stand to lose their livelihoods.

Big bucks to convince the bankers

Six grantmakers pledged $340 million over three years to push the nation’s financial institutions toward net-zero commitments. Announced as part of a broader Treasury Department initiative on net-zero financing and investment, the pledge’s partners include some of the biggest names in climate philanthropy: the Bezos Earth Fund, Bloomberg Philanthropies, ClimateWorks Foundation, Hewlett Foundation and Sequoia Climate Foundation. There’s also the new and lesser-known grantmaker Climate Arc. What are they providing the banks? “Continued development of research, data availability, and technical resources.” 

Apparently, the numbers compiled by the IPCC and, say, the warnings of the U.N. secretary-general (last Wednesday: “humanity has opened the gates to hell”) are not enough to convince the bankers. But seriously, it always feels a bit odd to me that hundreds of millions of philanthropic dollars are spent to try to move a sector dominated by some of the wealthiest companies on the planet to, well, ensure it remains inhabitable. Isn’t that in their interest? And can’t they afford to pay for some of this themselves?

Of course, so far, most are not moving that way remotely fast enough. And a successful transition needs the trillions of dollars in assets the banks manage. The deeply experienced people in charge of the nation’s largest climate philanthropies clearly see these big pledges for more research as the most effective way to get there. Like others, I wonder if giving the same amount, if not more, to people waving pitchforks at the manor gates, so to speak, might pay faster and more equitable dividends.

Already all-in on climate, Rockefeller commits another $1 billion

The Rockefeller Foundation will spend an additional $1 billion over the next five years to address climate change, with climate-related grantmaking expected to climb from 25% of its total portfolio during the past five years to more than 75%, president Raj Shah told Axios. The pledge is “new money,” a spokesperson said, and a foundation press release and letter from Shah offer some hints of what’s ahead.

We already knew the foundation was all-in on the global emergency. Last July, it announced that climate change would henceforth be a focus for all its work. That commitment applied not only to its grantmaking, which has recently averaged about $500 million a year, but also to its roughly $6 billion endowment and globe-spanning operations. With the new pledge, Rockefeller will be spending an average of $200 million more per year — equal to all its green grantmaking in 2021. Get those proposals ready.

It’s another instance of Rockefeller setting a high bar for its legacy foundation peers, both in terms of acting on the climate emergency and breaking from its past. Started by the most well-known oil baron in history, John D. Rockefeller, who once controlled more than 90% of all U.S. petroleum production, the foundation was once 100% invested in oil assets. In 2021, it announced it was divesting from fossil fuels. Let’s hope its slower-moving peers follow its lead.

Watch out: More funding dropping ahead

There’s another big announcement coming tomorrow, so stay tuned.