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Foundations and Climate Change: 5 Questions for…Robert Searle, Partner, Bridgespan Group

June 13, 2013

Headshot_robt_searleIn recent years, the debate over climate change has centered on greenhouse gas emissions, which have been linked by scientists to rising global temperatures. But after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on coastal areas of New York and New Jersey, underscoring the importance -- and vulnerability -- of critical infrastructure systems, many policy makers and environmentalists began to shift their attention to climate change adaptation strategies.

To help advance the debate, the Bridgespan Group has released a report, How Philanthropy Can Help Communities Advance Climate Change Adaptation (12 pages, PDF), that examines the funding environment for these strategies and offers a number of suggestions for foundations looking to support adaptation efforts in a post-Sandy context. Recently, PND spoke with Bob Searle, a partner in Bridgespan's Boston office and co-author of the report, about the impact of Sandy on the climate change debate, the tradeoffs between mitigation and adaptation, and some of the things foundations can do to advance the debate.

Philanthropy News Digest: The climate effects of a warming planet had been predicted long before An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006. Why has it taken so long for the discussion about climate change to get serious?

Robert Searle: I think there are two primary reasons, and they are interconnected. The first is that all science involves an element of uncertainty, and climate science is no exception. There are elements of the climate situation that are quite certain. For example, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing, and that increase has led to a general warming of the planet. There are other aspects that are less certain and open to interpretation and judgment; for example, whether human activity is the major cause of these changes, and what the environmental and social impact of climate change will be.

And this is where the second reason comes in: The biggest source of greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuel, and the global economy is based on fossil fuels. In other words, there are incredibly strong vested interests in not making the explicit connection between man-made greenhouse gases and the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Those vested interests will naturally seize on any element of uncertainty to argue against change that will threaten economic development, especially when the economy is already shaky.

One mistake that the environmental community has made is to allow itself to be painted as anti-people and anti-economic development on the climate issue. There was a great article in the Fall 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled "Climate Science as Culture War," by Andrew Hoffman, that speaks to some of these points.

PND: Has Hurricane Sandy changed the way shore communities in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut plan for and invest in infrastructure projects?

RS: It seems like it's starting to. Just this week, Mayor Bloomberg announced a $19.5 billion plan to invest in infrastructure to protect New York City from future storms and sea-level rise. However, he didn't identify any funding streams for the initiatives, and infrastructure investments happen over a long period of time, so it's unclear how much things will really change, especially in the short term. So while the mindset of people seems to have changed, it's not clear how much action that will translate into.

PND: In terms of their response to climate change, should foundations be pushing an agenda of adaptation, an agenda of mitigation, or both?

RS: The answer for an individual foundation probably depends on its particular strategy, but there's clearly a need to work on both mitigation and adaptation. If you believe the majority of climate scientists, increased concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere could lead to devastating consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable populations on the planet, human and otherwise. So it doesn't make sense to abandon efforts to curb emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, there is plenty of evidence that the effects of climate change are already being felt. And a lot of these effects are happening faster than climate models predicted a decade ago, so ignoring those impacts doesn't make much sense. As we mention in our paper, low-income and other disadvantaged populations are less able to cope with the consequences of climate change, so foundations that care about these populations certainly have a role to play in adaptation.

We also think there are a couple of aspects to the adaptation issue relative to mitigation that make it attractive for foundations. The first is the opportunity to leverage public dollars. If foundations can help influence how public money that is already budgeted gets spent so that the investments take into account the effects of climate change, that's a lot of leverage for the foundation and a big win for society.

The second aspect is the nature of adaptation investments relative to mitigation. In general, adaptation is incremental and doesn't require massive changes to things like the global economy. So it's likely to be an easier lift than making headway on mitigation, at least in the near term.

PND: In the report, a number of foundations leaders were quoted as saying that pursuing an adaptation agenda felt like giving up on mitigation. Is it too late for mitigation?

RS: We hope not. But just in case, we aren't investing in any beachfront property.

PND: What can small, grassroots environmental organizations and foundations that traditionally don't fund public policy or advocacy do to make a difference?

RS: Based on our research, we think there are important roles for grassroots organizations to play, and they don't necessarily require hard-core advocacy or public policy work. One example in our paper is UPROSE, which is a community-based organization in Brooklyn. UPROSE has been engaged with climate change adaptation with local officials and nonprofit and business leaders. It has participated in several local planning processes, such as working with the New York City Department of Transportation on adaptation measures such as permeable pavement and bio swales -- landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water.

Similarly, there are important roles for foundations at the local and national levels that don't come close to the public policy or advocacy arena. Advocacy, at least in the form of public pressure, is important, but there are many other levers that need pulling. Our paper outlines five agenda items for philanthropy: One, support local science by local scientists; two, invest in neutral conveners; three, support community advocacy for change; four, build the field to share adaptation strategies; and five, reframe the dialogue around people and social benefits.

The first three strategies lend themselves to local or place-based funders, while the last two are more appropriate for national funders. So on the topic of climate adaptation, there are opportunities for all kinds of foundations to make a difference.

-- Matt Sinclair

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My evolving project of of Transfinancial Economics would be of great relevance to the above

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