216 posts categorized "Environment"

Learning from trust-based philanthropy and participatory grantmaking: A commentary by Kim Moore Bailey and Laura Rodriguez

August 15, 2022

Women_high_fives_GettyImagesIn 2021, Justice Outside’s Rising Leaders Fellowship program brought together 20 early-career nonprofit professionals, most of them Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), to get hands-on experience with philanthropy. Fellows had the opportunity to design a $40,000 grantmaking program and decide to whom they would award grants and how they would distribute those funds across the selected grantees. They were invited to examine all the “rules” they knew about philanthropy.

Funded by the Environmental Education Funders Collaborative (EEFC), a network for Bay Area funders, the Rising Leaders Fellowship offered an opportunity for young people—who are often on the receiving end of grants—to reimagine and have agency in grantmaking. Supported by Justice Outside, they discussed wealth disparities generated by capitalism and white supremacy culture; and how trust-based philanthropy and participatory grantmaking can be antidotes to inequities in philanthropy.

What’s more important than what they learned, however, is what they can teach us....

Read the full commentary by Kim Moore Bailey and Laura Rodriguez, president and CEO and chief program officer, respectively, of Justice Outside.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Supporting BIPOC-led climate work creatively: A commentary by Kim Moore Bailey, Danielle Levoit, and Michele Perch

July 18, 2022

Delaware-River-Watershed_Thomas Kloc_GettyImages-1348223576Foundations across the United States have increased funding for racial equity and social justice over the last few years, but more needs to be done to support the organizations at the forefront of this work. A 2021 report by the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE) found that, in 2018, the latest year for which complete grants data is available, just 6 percent of total philanthropic dollars supported racial equity work and only 1 percent supported racial justice initiatives. Similarly, in research by Echoing Green and the Bridgespan Group, an analysis of approximately 1,000 early-stage organizations found Black-led entities reporting 24 percent less in revenues and 76 percent less in unrestricted net assets than their white-led counterparts. There is a growing awareness of disparities like these; in fact, the PRE report noted a five-fold increase in the number of funders investing in racial equity and racial justice in the U.S. over the past 10 years. But even with increased support, the level of investment remains low as a percentage of overall philanthropic dollars and has not translated into commensurate resources for Black, Indigenous, and people of color-led (BIPOC) organizations. So how, as a philanthropic community, do we address this critical gap?

To truly advance equity in philanthropy, foundations must continue to increase financial investment, and the sector must also do more through new partnerships, approaches and grantmaking innovations to create opportunities that can deepen philanthropic impact. This will support BIPOC-led organizations in driving meaningful work anchored in social change.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) and the William Penn Foundation (WPF) recently embarked on an innovative partnership with Justice Outside to advance racial justice and equity in environmental conservation and, more broadly, to rethink how our foundations can better support BIPOC-led initiatives....

Read the full commentary by Kim Moore Bailey, Danielle Levoit, and Michele Perch. Bailey is president and CEO of Justice Outside, Levoit is a program officer for the environment at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and Perch is a program officer for watershed protection at the William Penn Foundation.

(Photo credit: Thomas Kloc/Getty Images)

How to build global victories from the ground up: A commentary by Nicky Davies, Carroll Muffett, and Christie Keith

July 04, 2022

Plastic_pollution_pexels-catherine-sheila-2409022In March, United Nations member states agreed to create an ambitious global treaty to reduce plastic pollution. A treaty of this magnitude—which will consider the full life cycle of plastic, from fossil fuel extraction, to plastic production, to its disposal—is a turning point in the fight against plastic pollution and climate change. As organizers and funders in the plastic pollution movement, we are thrilled about the promise of this treaty.

How did we arrive at this moment? Our groups organized more broadly and more deeply than the plastics industry ever anticipated. The strategy that produced this momentous win offers valuable lessons for funders on how to build global victories from the ground up, and what’s essential for the long-term fight against heavy industry opposition.

Fund from the bottom up and support local, diverse leaders.

The movement started with a commitment to supporting many local leaders from diverse groups and countries working together to understand what is needed in their own regions to win. This strategy works because there is incredible power in a movement that is led from the front lines by people who are experiencing harms firsthand....

Read the full commentary by Nicky Davies, Carroll Muffett, and Christie Keith. Davies is executive director of the Plastic Solutions Fund, Muffett is president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, and Keith is U.S. executive director and international coordinator of GAIA, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

(Photo credit: Catherine Sheila via pexels)

Organize, mobilize, and train the most affected residents: A Q&A with Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice

May 13, 2022

Headshot_Peggy_Shepard_WEACT_for_Environmental_Justice_Allie-HollowayPeggy Shepard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice and has a long history of organizing and engaging Northern Manhattan residents in community-based planning and campaigns to address environmental protection and environmental health policy locally and nationally. She is a national leader in advancing environmental policy from the perspective of environmental justice in urban communities. Previously, she was named co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council as well as chair of the New York City Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and was the first female chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She serves on the executive committee of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the board of advisors of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

Shepard has been awarded the Jane Jacobs Medal from the Rockefeller Foundation for Lifetime Achievement, the 10th Annual Heinz Award for the Environment, the William K. Reilly Award for Environmental Leadership, the Knight of the National Order of Merit from the French Republic, the Dean’s Distinguished Service Award from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and honorary doctorates from Smith College and Lawrence University.

PND asked Shepard about the importance of organizing to build healthy communities, sustainable policies that would bring about change, the root causes of environmental racism, the benefits of science and community partnership, nonprofit climate change strategies, the legislative response to environmental justice, and the need for climate migrants from South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to receive equal attention to the impact of climate change migration in their regions.

Philanthropy News Digest: The lack of power and representation in political and economic systems makes it difficult for communities of color to build climate resilience. What is the importance of organizing low-income people of color to build healthy communities for themselves, and how does your background inform the support communities need in advocating for the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment?

Peggy Shepard: I discovered the power of a well-organized community early on in my career. I had the opportunity to experience the communities that had resources and strong advocacy and those that did not, such as the community in which I lived. I was a Democratic district leader in West Harlem when the North River Sewage Treatment Plant was built in our neighborhood after originally being rejected by other communities that were whiter and more affluent.

Once the plant started operating, the odors and emissions were unbearable. At that time, the facility had open sewage pools, so the odor of raw sewage filled the air in West Harlem. It was so bad that residents had to keep their windows shut, even on hot days. Even motorists along the West Side Highway would roll up their windows as they drove by.

A core group of us began to organize people and develop a plan of action. We learned that the emissions coming out of its smokestacks failed to comply with federal clean air standards and that the air pollution was having an adverse impact on people’s health. We began to share this information with people throughout the community and invited them to join our campaign to force the city to address these issues. It took longer than we expected, but after we sued the New York City Department of Environmental Conservation in 1992, the city committed $55 million to retrofit the facility, and our lawsuit was settled for a $1.1 million West Harlem Environmental Benefits Fund. We decided to create West Harlem Environmental Action, aka WE ACT for Environmental Justice, to institutionalize advocacy in underserved communities of color with low income.

Our theory of change is to organize, mobilize, and train the most affected residents to engage in environmental decision making. We are a base-building organization where our members provide direction to and engage with our campaigns through membership meetings, trainings, and working groups on Climate Justice, Healthy Homes, and Worker Training. As a result, they are able to testify at legislative hearings, lead rallies, and attend lobby days to educate their elected officials. With their support, WE ACT has been successful in contributing significantly to the passage of a dozen or more bills at the New York City Council and the New York State legislature, laws that protect the health of children from toxins, and that support decarbonization and electrification. WE ACT started a 501(c)(4), WE ACT 4 Change, to engage our members and community residents in civic and political engagement through trainings, briefings, and candidate forums. Community-based planning has been a hallmark of WE ACT, and we mobilized 400 of our members and community residents to engage in developing the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan, which prioritized energy security and democracy. We maintain an active and well-organized membership who inform and support our work at the city, state, and federal levels....

Read the full Q&A with Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

Writing checks isn’t enough: A commentary by Jill Soffer

May 10, 2022

Gas_turbine_power_plant_fossil_fuels_GettyImages_ThossapholI am a climate philanthropist. I write checks to environmental nonprofits and sit on several boards. I grew up playing in the woods of western Massachusetts; now I hike the Rockies. Season by season I’m sadly witnessing the damage wrought by drought and fires, and, like so many others, I hope to protect this planet from the worsening climate crisis.

I’ve learned that writing checks isn’t enough.

In 2020, when I learned about Enbridge’s Line 3, the tar sands pipeline being pushed through northern Minnesota, I eagerly wrote checks to support the Ojibwe water protectors working to stop it. These brave people were camping on the pipeline route in the freezing winter, lying down in front of bulldozers, praying, singing, and getting arrested. I was more than glad to help. But I soon learned the sad truth: While I was writing checks to stop Line 3, my bank, Bank of America, was loaning Enbridge billions of dollars to build it. My money was funding the very projects we need to prevent.

Frustrated, I called my bank and had a respectful conversation with the chief sustainability officer. One person’s phone call didn’t change anything; a few weeks later the credit facility for Enbridge was completed. I also thought of divesting—moving my money out of these banks. The divestment movement is powerful. But I’m not Harvard or a public pension fund—my divestment would be neither newsworthy nor financially impactful enough for my bank to notice. Were I to divest, I would forgo any leverage I have.

So I decided not to divest but to engage, and this shareholder season, a huge opportunity to stop these projects awaits....

Read the full commentary by Jill Soffer, founder of Our Part and Banking for Climate.

(Photo credit: Getty Images/Thossaphol)

The consequences of climate change: A commentary by Kathy Stevens

May 05, 2022

Cricket_Photo by Janet Holmes_Catskill Animal Sanctuary At Catskill Animal Sanctuary, we’re deeply connected to the 150 acres that have been our home for the past 21 years: warm pastures where contented cows sunbathe, ponds where ducks swim for hours, fields for horses to run and roll in, and graceful willows dipping their branches low for goats to nibble on.

Each year, Earth Day invites us all to reflect on our relationship to the land—particularly as we see the impact of human activity on our beloved planet. And at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, the evidence is all around us.

Our vanishing trees

The consequences of climate change are being felt across the globe, with climate refugees (often already vulnerable people) at the forefront of this emergency. While we are more geographically fortunate than many, we, too, are experiencing changes at our Hudson Valley refuge that can’t be chalked up to the vicissitudes of “weather”....

Read the full commentary by Kathy Stevens, founder and executive director of Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

(Photo credit: Janet Holmes)

Indigenous Peoples’ rights and sovereignty: A Q& A with Carla F. Fredericks, CEO, Christensen Fund

March 23, 2022

Headshot_carla_fredericks_christensen_fundFounded in 1957, the San Francisco-based Christensen Fund works to support Indigenous peoples in advancing their inherent rights, dignity, and self-determination. In 2020 the foundation implemented a new grantmaking strategy that centers its work on “supporting and strengthening Indigenous peoples’ efforts to secure and exercise their rights to their land, territories, resources, and sovereign systems of governance.” The shift from a regional approach to a rights-based one in support of the global Indigenous Peoples’ Movement is rooted in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Carla F. Fredericks joined the foundation as CEO in January 2021. An enrolled citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, Fredericks is an expert in sustainable economic development, finance, human rights, Indigenous peoples law, and federal Indian law. She has provided core support to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, serving as counsel to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in bringing their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline to international financial institutions, assisting the Maya peoples of Southern Belize in implementing the affirmation of their land rights, and developing a model for Indigenous-driven consent processes and remedy. As a faculty member of the University of Colorado Law School, in 2017 she relaunched First Peoples Worldwide—an interdisciplinary program that engages investors, companies, financial institutions, and policy makers with Indigenous peoples to promote implementation of Indigenous rights. Fredericks also serves as board chair of the Mashantucket Pequot (Western) Endowment Trust, and is a member of the Indigenous Peoples Advisory Group to the Decolonizing Wealth Project.

PND asked Fredericks about the foundation’s right-based grantmaking strategy, the intersection of Indigenous people’s rights and climate action, and her work to integrate human rights into financial frameworks.

Philanthropy News Digest: You joined the Christensen Fund just as it shifted from a regional grantmaking strategy to a rights-based one. What does a rights-based approach look like, in concrete terms?

Carla F. Fredericks: Taking a rights-based approach means that we support and defend Indigenous Peoples inherent human rights, in and of themselves. Indigenous Peoples are too often seen as a means to an end to carry out solutions ordained by non-native people in power—especially in environmental and climate spaces. But Indigenous Peoples’ rights and sovereignty need to be restored and defended because these communities are inherently worthy of the same rights and protections that all people deserve.

Our approach centers Indigenous Peoples as rights holders first and foremost. It is rooted in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which is the global standard that both asserts and recognizes Indigenous worldviews and values and establishes a universal framework for recognition of their rights. UNDRIP is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Part of the goal of growing the recognition and use of UNDRIP by both Indigenous Peoples and states is to move Indigenous Peoples’ rights toward the status of customary, international, and/or domestic law. Our ultimate goal as a foundation is always to improve Indigenous Peoples’ lived realities in every way. This includes ensuring that Indigenous communities know their rights and protections under UNDRIP, and supporting them in defending these rights and protections. Rooting our strategy in UNDRIP is our contribution to the essential global work of ensuring that nation-states recognize and adhere to Indigenous Peoples’ rights, dignity, and sovereignty in order to improve their daily lives beyond just considering the well-being of the land and seascapes they steward.

In concrete terms, this looks like practicing trust-based grantmaking that advances self-determination and is not prescriptive. We’ve moved all of our grantmaking to general operating, multiyear support and have thrown significant financial support behind Indigenous-led funding mechanisms that fund Indigenous communities....

Read the full Q&A with Carla F. Fredericks, CEO of the Christensen Fund.

Climate change adaptation networks and collaboratives: A commentary by Melissa Ocana

February 02, 2022

New_orleans_hurricane_katrina_David_Mark_pixabayClimate adaptation networks drive resilience and transformation

The challenges local governments and nonprofits face today are almost absurdly daunting. Setting aside the perennial struggle to reconcile ever-growing needs and ever-shrinking budgets, the pandemic has devastated community health and local economies. Then there’s the massive, long-term challenge that exacerbates everything: the unprecedented storms, floods, fires, droughts, and heat waves of a changing climate.

Yet some local government and nonprofit staff charged with preparing for the effects of climate change have found hope—and help—in an unlikely source: their peers in other cities, near and far, in their region, and across the country. And philanthropy is playing an important role in nurturing these connections.

Networks offer a solution

Today, climate change adaptation networks and collaboratives are sprouting across the country, bringing people together for coordinated action and learning to protect human and natural communities.

Climate change is a complex and all-encompassing challenge, which requires innovative, multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral, and cross-government solutions. Climate adaptation networks foster connections among people who might not otherwise cross paths, and serve as structures for building capacity and expertise that enable more effective responses to climate change, from planning to implementing projects on the ground. By investing in these nascent efforts, funders can target their support to the frontline professionals best positioned to build resilience and transformation in response to climate impacts....

Read the full commentary by Melissa Ocana, the climate adaptation coordinator at the University of Massachusetts Extension and founder of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP)-affiliated Network of Networks Group.

(Photo credit: David Mark via pixabay)

Going beyond community engagement, building community power: A commentary by Aditi Vaidya

January 14, 2022

Hands_collaboration_trust_GettyImages_Prostock-StudioWhy does the country’s largest foundation dedicated to health and health equity care about community power? I get that question a lot when discussing our support of Lead Local, a collaboration funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to advance our understanding of the role community power plays in catalyzing, creating, and sustaining conditions for healthy, equitable communities.

In its nearly fifty-year history, RWJF has long valued and invested in efforts focused on community engagement to improve health. Through our own analysis and evaluation, we’ve come to recognize that community engagement is critical but in and of itself not enough to create systemic and enduring change. We’ve learned that community power can be designed to specifically target the root and structural causes of health inequities — racism, sexism, and classism within the structures and systems that govern our lives. We know what the social determinants of health are, and now we also know that community power-building strategies developed and led by those communities most impacted by structural inequities are critical to addressing all determinants.

RWJF funded Lead Local nearly three years ago to learn what the sector could teach funders like us that are committed to dismantling structural barriers to health such as powerlessness, housing segregation, and lack of access to quality jobs, food, or medical care....

Read the full commentary by Aditi Vaidya, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

(Photo credit: GettyImages/Prostock-Studio)

'Philanthropic capital must play a bigger role in driving the systems shift we need': A commentary by Leslie Johnston

November 13, 2021

Blah_blah_blah_sign_-_Fridays_for_Future_pre-COP26_Milano_Mænsard vokserAll hands on deck: Philanthropy's extraordinary moment

Pressure is on here in Glasgow. Governments are rebalancing commitments so that they are on the right trajectory for alignment with the 2015 Paris agreement's targets. Business and industry are stepping up to do their part in everything from reducing deforestation to tackling methane emissions. And the finance sector is raising its ambition, as we saw with Mark Carney's announcement that $130 trillion in financial assets — 40 percent of the global total — have pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. I have heard from many COP-weary delegates that there is something different about this one. Pledges abound, and there does seem to be (finally) a sense of urgency.

Yet even after this flurry of announcements, there is no certainty that emissions will actually be lower by 2030. The updated United Nations synthesis report on nationally determined contributions continues to show emissions increasing, rather than halving, by 2030. It is also unclear whether we — collectively — are doing enough to address climate injustice and the deepening inequality in our societies. And critical voices are not at the table, with widespread criticism over a lack of representation from the Global South. Once the delegates leave Glasgow, there is also no certainty over how effectively companies, investors, and governments will be held to account for their commitments.

And that's where we need more philanthropic funders to come in. Philanthropy is society's risk capital, enabling business, finance, and industry to move faster. Yet despite our being in a crisis situation, philanthropic foundations still dedicate a minuscule percentage — an estimated 2 percent — of their approximately $750 billion in global giving to climate mitigation. This must change....

Read the full commentary by Leslie Johnston, CEO of Laudes Foundation in Zug, Switzerland.

Addressing global hunger — the equity challenge of our lifetime: A commentary by Barron Segar

November 11, 2021

Woman in traditional african clothes holding black beans_GettyImages_beingbonnyWhy global food security is the equity challenge of our lifetime

For more than half a century, the global food system operated with a singular mantra: Produce more food.  At the time of the Green Revolution in the 1950s, much of the world was in the throes of hunger as a result of the Second World War. The industrial agriculture model pioneered in places like the United States — monocultures of improved crop varietals fueled in their growth by chemical fertilizers — was unleashed on the world.

That system did its intended job well, driving global hunger numbers down. But today, its legacy has created new challenges of its own, including land degradation and an explosion of noncommunicable diseases resulting from diets rich in carbohydrates but low in important micronutrients. 

Today, too many people are at the mercy of, not willing participants in, the global food system. In a world that produces almost $90 trillion in wealth each year, some forty-two million people in dozens of countries face the looming prospect of famine. As many as eight hundred and eleven million people go to bed hungry each night, and a third of humanity does not have access to adequate food....

Read the full commentary by Barron Segar, president and CEO of World Food Program USA.

(Photo credit: GettyImages/beingbonny)

An urgent wake-up call for global biodiversity: A commentary by Jim Angell and Lee Crockett

November 08, 2021

Sharks_underwater_GettyImages_vchalPreserving ocean biodiversity begins with sharks

In 2014, the first and most comprehensive survey ever conducted of world shark populations concluded that, as a result of overfishing, habitat destruction, illegal trade, and climate change, 16 percent of the ocean's most magnificent, charismatic creatures were threatened by extinction.

This year comes a grim update: The percentage of the shark population "threatened with extinction" has doubled, to 32.6 percent.

The projections are based on real deaths — more than 100 million sharks are killed each year — that are driven by human-made decisions that imperil the health of not only our oceans and its fish but our entire planet.

These new findings are an urgent wake-up call for the United Nations' biodiversity conference, which began virtually this month and ends with in-person sessions in China next April. A cornerstone of the summit is the vital target 3, which asks every country that is party to the convention to conserve 30 percent of its land and waters by 2030. Seventy countries already have pledged to meet this target, including the United States with an executive order in January....

Read the full commentary by Jim Angell, a board member of the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation and a founding member of the cboard, and Lee Crockett, executive director of the Shark Conservation Fund.

'The greatest opportunity to develop jobs in a generation': An interview with Paula DiPerna, Special Advisor, CDP North America

November 03, 2021

Headshot_paula_dipernaAuthor Paula DiPerna is a strategic global environmental and philanthropic policy advisor who has consulted with numerous environmentally focused nonprofit organizations, including WorkingNation, with which she is collaborating on a report that examines green jobs potential and workforce needs. She also serves currently as special advisor for CDP North America, and previously served as president of the Joyce Foundation, president of the Chicago Climate Exchange, and vice president for international affairs at the Cousteau Society. DiPerna founded the Jobs and Environment Initiative, which examined how public policy on economic development and environmental conservation could work more closely together to generate employment and livelihoods in all the regions of the U.S.

PND spoke with DiPerna about green job markets, diversity, and how growth in green jobs could affect the U.S. and global economies.

Philanthropy News Digest: Where are the green jobs in the United States currently, and how is that market changing?

Paula DiPerna: First we must define what is a green job. Most of the world, including philanthropy and the environmental movement, have not agreed on a basic point: If we believe the climate science, if we believe that water efficiency and energy efficiency are essential, and if we believe that infrastructure improvement is essential, then almost every job is a green job.

You cannot redo, recreate, and redesign the global economy without environmental considerations any longer. In that sense, the plumber, the electrician, the drywall installer — all these jobs will eventually be considered green. Which means it's impossible to talk about the scale without talking about a redefinition.

Read the full interview with Paula DiPerna.

[Review] 'Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future'

July 19, 2021

Book_cover_elizabethkolbert_under_a_white_skyIn her sobering yet captivating book, Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Elizabeth Kolbert examines the ongoing human attempt to control nature, a vicious cycle that often results in the creation of more problems. A staff writer at the New Yorker since 1999, where her work has been focused mainly on environmentalism, Kolbert is the best-selling author of The Sixth Extinction, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015. In that book, she curated a powerfully moving collection of first-hand accounts detailing the disappearance of multiple species. She brings that methodology to her new book, again using personal experience to drive her narrative — the narrative that "a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural."

As in her previous work, Kolbert skillfully shows us how our actions are negatively affecting the planet, rather than just telling us that they are. She travels across continents to witness those human-made changes for herself and describes the devastation, sparing no details. Again and again, she shows humans attempting to create solutions to ecological problems created by solutions to earlier problems. We see this clearly in the first section of the book, "Down the River," which she opens by recounting her time visiting the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The problem began years ago, when the river was rerouted to better dispose of human waste — talk about living in the "Anthropocene" epoch. Then arose the problem of aquatic weeds in the river basin, so plant-eating Asian Carp were introduced, only to become a notorious invasive species capable of outpopulating the ecosystem's native organisms across the Great Lakes. The Asian Carp became such a threat only because the earlier alterations to the river and its sediment allowed for easy admission into these waters. And the solution has been to electrify the waterway, another example of our relentless need to "fix," at any cost and with no awareness of our surroundings.

Kolbert offers another example of a well-intentioned "solution" that has only made matters worse. In the Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, which she describes as one of "the fastest-disappearing places on earth," the cause is once again human intervention, as our need to control the flooding of the Mississippi River has prevented coastal lands from being able to renew themselves. And, of course, the solution is more intervention — to the point where "the Louisiana delta is often referred to by hydrologists as a 'coupled human and natural system.'"

This theme — the merging of nature and the unnatural — is emphasized further in the next section of the book, "Into The Wild."Here, we see a range of attempts to save species and ecosystems from invasive human impacts. A group of scientists in Death Valley work around the clock to preserve the Devils Hole pupfish, possibly the rarest fish on the planet, by maintaining an exact, but entirely unnatural, replica of their habitat. Pupfish are now a "conservation-reliant" species, meaning we've sent them to the brink of extinction but are now trying to bring them back. Kolbert then brings us along on her travels to the east coast of Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached, to witness the creation of "super-corals," those that can — or scientists hope they can — withstand warmer temperatures and more acidic waters. This has been coined "assisted evolution," another term that accurately describes the era in which we are living. Kolbert's first-hand accounts show how we have forced our way into natural processes — those that were doing perfectly fine without us but are now reliant on our assistance.

The seeming absurdity of our solutions is apparent yet again in the concept of "geoengineering," the large-scale interventions in Earth's natural systems that we are pursuing to combat climate change. It is to this phenomenon that Kolbert dedicates the final section of her book, "Up in the Air." She acknowledges how frightening geoengineering is: It might not work, and it will most likely be implemented when it is so late that it is the only hope. However, such "negative emissions technologies" just might save us. We may soon be relying on companies that inject carbon dioxide underground so that it eventually turns to rock. Or we may be spraying light-reflective particles into the atmosphere to manage some of the incoming solar radiation, a process which would turn the sky from blue to white — and where Kolbert gets her title. But again, Kolbert admits her fear: this is all an unknown.

Kolbert also sheds light on how the environment is faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. She calls the immediate lockdown "a vast, unsupervised experiment," one where our energy usage changed almost instantaneously. It is assumed by many that this was a positive change; with everyone at home, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide should be down. However, "in May 2020, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere set a record of 417.1 parts per million." Even with declining emissions, it is clear that once CO2 has been emitted, it lingers in the atmosphere. This adds a frightening piece to the puzzle, because even if we were to completely halt all greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations will continue to rise — for who knows how long.

Through this series of experiences and forewarnings, Kolbert points out how deeply we have embedded ourselves in every natural process. Species are now dependent on us to survive, islands will soon be inundated, and we are not far from bleaching the sky white. Clearly, we are well beyond the point of being able to preserve a "natural" nature. However, what Kolbert also suggests is that while there is no scenario in which our involvement in nature completely stops, learning how to live in a way that doesn't drive species to extinction or reroute rivers would be a good starting point. Perhaps there is no world in which humankind's will to control nature to suit its needs changes, the book seems to suggest, but we must collectively become aware that all species have a contributive impact — impacts that we also rely on.

For now we are stuck at this midpoint, where problems are being generated by the second. Still, Kolbert points out, "people are ingenious. They come up with crazy, big ideas, and sometimes these actually work." While it is this "ingenuity" that got us here in the first place, maybe all it will take is one great idea to get us on the path to this peaceful coexistence. Of course, this reviewer is left with slivers of skepticism, as anyone pondering the vastness of these problems might be. I like to remain optimistic, however; I believe that the mindset with which we move forward is just as important as the capabilities we bring with us. If we truly believe that we can overcome the problems that we created, I am hopeful that we will succeed.

Izzy Nesci, an intern in the Insights department at Candid, is an environmental studies and sustainability major at Barnard College.

[Review] 'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need'

July 12, 2021

Book_cover_how to avoid a climate disaster_philantopicWe are toast. Climate change is here, and things are not getting better. In the United States alone we are seeing unprecedented wildfires in California, mind-numbing heat in the Pacific Northwest, a mega-drought stretching from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast, and the Colorado River running dry, just to mention a few recent headlines. And that list only hints at the immediate — to say nothing of the future — challenges to our ability to grow food, earn a living, and raise our families. We have known this for decades, and while we have made tentative steps toward solving some problems (clean air, clean water, CAFE standards), we have yet to engage climate change as the existential threat it truly is. In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Bill Gates wants to shake us out of our complacency. If we as individuals, as a nation, as a global community, don't get to work fast, we are, like I said, toast.

It's noteworthy that Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote this book in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where his decades of work in global health (think polio and malaria) and his avuncular be-sweatered persona helped him play a vital role as a reliable explainer in the face of the U.S. federal government's inaction. His clear and persuasive language suggested: Here is someone who understands what is going on and what needs to be done to get to the other side. So too in his book, Gates proffers a diagnosis and possible roadmap to slow global warming (it's too late to stop it) and mitigate the worst of what this change will mean for the estimated ten billion people who will share the planet come 2100.

To summarize the dilemma in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: Every year humans put fifty-one billion tons of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) into the earth's atmosphere and, as a result, the earth is heating up faster and faster and becoming less and less livable. If we don't get to zero emissions by 2050, the scientists tell us, it's game over, and the ecosystems we have benefited from and relied upon for millennia will irrevocably collapse. It is not a question of if, but of when; not a question of reduced crop yield, but of any yield at all; not a question of whether sea levels will rise, but of how soon and how high.

In the late eighteenth century, Thomas Malthus (he of the Malthusian dilemma) feared that overpopulation would outstrip his native England's ability to feed its people, resulting in the collapse of order, economy, and civilization. Over the past two centuries, while hunger, starvation, and famine have forever been at the door, we have always set that pessimism aside. Through science and innovation, that is, people using science and leveraging great ideas in new ways — from chemical fertilizer to hardier, more productive grains, to removing toxins from industrial exhaust — we have, despite our worst fears, somehow figured out how to feed, sustain, and improve ourselves. For Gates the time is now or never to get to work in unprecedented fashion. Being the third richest person in the world with unlimited resources, comfort, and access may have something to do with it, but Gates is an unabashed optimist; the challenge of climate change is massive, but so too is his unbridled insistence that we have it in our power — to use Thomas Paine's phrase — "to begin the world again."

The good news, Gates tells us, is that we know what to do, and in many respects, we already have the science and innovation at the ready to march into that brave new world. The arguments made here echo basic economics: Consumers (people and nations) will move toward better choices if the cost of going green (what he refers to as the "Green Premium") is low enough. To entice ever-reluctant consumers to get off fossil fuels, we need lots and lots of clean, renewably sourced, no-carbon electricity, and we need it tomorrow. And even if we had all that clean energy today, we would still need to ramp up the capacity of our electric grid at more than three times the current rate and sustain that growth for the next thirty years. We need to accelerate the transition to all-electric transportation and revamp how we heat and cool our homes. We need to eat less meat and find ways for the meat we do eat to be produced while releasing less methane. We also need to find a way to capture greenhouse gases from the industrial and construction sectors. The list is long.

Many of these problems have solutions, while others, like how to capture carbon dioxide released from concrete — a staggering 8 percent of the global total of all greenhouse gases — are still waiting for a seismic technological fix. But Gates — late to the game on climate change — is buoyant about the prospects of his own efforts, as well as the collaborations he is encouraging on the global stage. For himself, Gates admits that this book exists awkwardly between his hopes for the future and his personal business interests. He is bullish on clean nuclear energy and plant-based burgers, two areas where he has investments. He's also bullish on the Breakthrough Energy coalition he helped foster around the 2015 Paris climate conference, as well as the multilateral Mission Innovation group, which is funding research on clean energy. All that is to the good.

The challenge is not that there are no green shoots of hopefulness, but that good vibes alone will not get us to zero by 2050. Gates praises the $6.4 billion in funding from Mission Innovation, but what is that investment relative to the size of what needs to be done? For Gates, the fact that the Paris Climate Agreement happened at all is a sign that collaboration on this issue is possible serving as a point of departure — especially now that the U.S. has rejoined the accords as the world heads toward a new round of climate talks in November. But the scale of the problem overshadows these efforts.

Our problem is a lack of will — political, economic, and cultural — to make the investments we need to avoid an actual cataclysm. It is good to learn that Gates divested from fossil fuel companies years ago — for moral reasons, if not because he thought doing so would make a difference. And kudos for using renewable fuels on his private jet, even though their Green Premium is more than double the cost of typical fuels. But relatively small specific gestures will not change the geometry of this very large puzzle: "We won't get to zero unless we get this right," Gates warns. To do that, we need a massive unprecedented investment of time, talent, and treasure on all fronts, the likes of which human society has never seen. This is not a moon shot; it is a moon shot every year for the next thirty years. And that makes the current fight over federal infrastructure funding look like a squabble over the Oxford comma.

Gates is notably unpolitical here — he repeatedly mentions the climate change movement being led by "young people" without saying the name Greta Thunberg; he leans in on the imperative of investments that do right by America and the world's poor without mentioning the Green New Deal. And perhaps that is because he knows that some among his audience, that is, those he actually needs to persuade, would sooner throw his book — and their own future — into the fire than align themselves with their cultural foes.  

It's a bit of puzzle as to why this call to arms against climate disaster is being published as an old-school hardcover book — that is, using trees. (This book was read for review as an ebook.) In 2021 a book is an equally curious choice of medium, considering the opportunities and media platforms available for sharing and exponentially leveraging the book's core message. Why no website, no teaching materials, no collaborations, no sustained online engagement? If the goal was to get the book into as many hands as possible — especially into the hands of those who disagree — why not just release it, for free, on the Gates Notes blog? But no matter the medium or the messenger, it is essential to repeat often and loudly its most-American of messages: We can do this — we must do this — because failure is not an option.

Daniel X Matz is foundation web development manager at Candid.

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."


    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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