Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

June 5, 2013

Philanthropic efforts can affect how governments address climate change

Special to Philanthropy Journal

Robert Searle

Memorial Day marked a bitter sweet occasion for New Jersey and New York residents still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. Highlighting the rebuilding now in full swing, President Obama toured the Jersey shore with Governor Chris Christie, a hopeful sign as the summer tourist season gets underway. Yet, much remains to be done to rebuild shattered homes and damaged infrastructure—and to prepare for the future.

Sandy marked a tipping point in public recognition that climate change is real. Its effects are being felt now, and those effects are likely to increase going forward.  A recent study released by Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Mailman School of Public Health predicts up to a 20 percent rise in heat-related deaths in Manhattan by 2020.  These types of impacts are going to be felt more acutely by the poor and disadvantaged, whose communities are inherently less resilient when faced with challenges, including climate-related events  

A federal draft report issued in January, makes the case for climate change and aims to guide government decision makers at all levels to take action. But part of adapting means recalibrating governments’ approach to billions in annual spending on infrastructure projects. 

Fortunately, the local nature of climate adaptation—whether infrastructure related or  a change in building and zoning regulations—opens the door for philanthropy to play a catalytic role in helping local and state governments figure out how to address the issue. The Bridgespan Group’s research and conversations with leaders in the field has surfaced five pathways for philanthropic funders to invest in climate adaptation in ways that can support or spark sound government action:

     ● Support local science and local scientists. Scientific information about a community’s backyard, prepared by locally trusted and credible sources, can sway public opinion and mobilize local government leaders. A research center at the University of Arizona has helped spur action on climate adaptation in Tucson.
     ● Invest in neutral conveners. Engaging and keeping diverse stakeholders at the table requires considerable effort and trust to reach across political and socioeconomic divides. Philanthropy can support “backbone” organizations with their own independent staff to advance an initiative and coordinate participating agencies, thus fostering “collective impact.”
     ● Build the field of climate adaptation. Climate adaptation is a diffuse problem and requires local solutions that challenge special interests. Progress will depend on the development of a strong field with common standards of practice, a deep knowledge base, and influential leaders. The Kresge Foundation and others have already begun to invest in field building.
     ● Re-frame adaptation around equity. Climate adaptation raises fundamental questions of fairness and equity that spark public discourse and apply pressure to decision-makers. Philanthropy can use its voice to re-frame discussions around who is likely to be most affected and who benefits from needed investments.
     ● Support advocacy. Grassroots organizations are critical partners for mobilizing local residents, setting an agenda, and developing an action plan on adaptation. Organizations such as UPROSE in Brooklyn, which has deep community ties, can assist in developing grassroots support for adaptation.
Some local and national funders have already begun to invest in these pathways, but much more needs to be done. Why wait for another Hurricane Sandy to begin the hard work of investing in climate change adaptation?
Robert Searle is a partner in Boston with The Bridgespan Group and co-author of How Philanthropy Can Help Communities Advance Climate Change Adaptation.

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