Updated November 2013
This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.
In a nutshell
What is the problem?
Unmitigated anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change is likely to have extremely negative effects across a wide variety of outcomes—including hunger, flooding, destruction caused by extreme weather, human health, and the economy—over the next century.
What are possible interventions?
Philanthropists could pursue many different avenues to try to prevent or adapt to climate change. We are not confident in our assessment of the likely returns to any of them.
Who else is working on it?
Some major foundations, such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, are heavily involved in efforts to limit climate change. Overall American philanthropic funding for climate change activities appears to be on the order of several hundred million dollars per year, while U.S. federal government funding for climate change activities is around $8 billion per year, mostly (~$6 billion/year) on developing technology to reduce emissions.
1. What is the problem?
To assess the magnitude of climate change impacts, we have dealt separately with the most likely impacts and unlikely but potentially extremely harmful impacts, because they present different issues and may call for different approaches.
- In attempting to assess the most likely impacts of unmitigated climate change, we focused on reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (The IPCC, along with Al Gore, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its work on synthesizing the research on climate change. We believe it to represent the most authoritative consensus view of current science regarding climate change.)We summarize our reading of the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report on this page. Briefly, we find that unmitigated climate change would have extraordinarily negative humanitarian impacts across all of the outcomes we looked at: hunger, water stress, flooding, extreme weather, health, biodiversity, and the economy. Successfully mitigating these negative impacts would carry vast humanitarian benefits.When looking at the range of possible futures outlined in the report, the bulk of the variation (in humanitarian terms) comes from variation in the level of assumed economic growth and adaptation, rather than variation in the amount of climate change. Of the outcomes we examined, only biodiversity is expected to be unambiguously worse off in the future as a result of both climate change and economic growth. More here.
- Because of some of the dynamics of climate change, extreme but unlikely climate changes contribute disproportionately to the total expected harm of climate change. We summarize our understanding of these dynamics and give some examples of how extreme climate changes could be particularly catastrophic on this page. Many of these potentially extreme outcomes are not well-captured by the models described in our main page on climate impacts (which is based primarily on the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report), suggesting that that page likely underestimates the total expected damages from climate change. Our page on extreme risks also discusses some of the approaches to dealing with extreme climate change that may be different from the overall approaches to climate change discussed on the rest of this page. More here.
2. What are possible interventions?
Philanthropic funding could be used for many different activities aiming to reduce the negative impacts of climate change, including, amongst other opportunities:
- encouraging the adoption of policies to mitigate global warming (e.g. by lobbying for a tax on emissions of greenhouse gasses, domestically or internationally)
- investment in research and development and scaling of clean technology (e.g. by developing cheaper solar panels)
- preparation and adaptation to limit the negative impacts of climate change (e.g. by funding research on drought-resistant crops)
- research on geoengineering to determine efficacy and likely side-effects of efforts to limit the warming effects of emissions (e.g. by conducting additional climate model tests); see our page on this topic here.
We are not confident in our assessments of the likely returns to any of these types activities.
We plan to eventually do more research on the returns to past philanthropic engagements with these strategies.
3. Who else is working on this?
We’re not aware of an authoritative source for tracking overall engagement or funding flows in climate change. We have identified several sources that provide estimates of the amount of nonprofit or foundation funding devoted to addressing climate change:
- According to the Foundation Center, U.S. foundations granted roughly $900 million to climate change issues in 2008, with more than half of the funding coming from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.1 Based on this source, 2008 appears to have been an outlier because of a one-off transfer from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to the ClimateWorks Foundation.
- Matthew Nisbet, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., estimated that U.S. environmental groups spent $394 million in 2009 on climate and energy efforts, while the opposing coalition of conservative groups and industry associations spent $259 million in the area.2
- A 2012 report by the Environmental Grantmakers Association indicated that roughly 21% of all environmental grants made by U.S. foundations in 2009, totaling about $330 million, went towards climate change and energy issues.3
We do not have a good sense of the methodology for any of these reports, and even the most recent ones describe the situation in 2009, so they may already be meaningfully out of date. Based on these reports and an off-the-record conversation, we would estimate that typical annual philanthropic spending on climate change mitigation in the U.S. is likely in the range of a few hundred million dollars.
Of course, philanthropic funding (and American philanthropic funding at that) makes up only a portion of all of the funding globally devoted to addressing climate change. We have not seen any estimates of global funding levels across sectors, but U.S. federal government reports seem to indicate that they spend roughly $8 billion a year on climate change efforts, mostly (~$6 billion/year) on developing technology to reduce emissions.4
Across these different funding sources, we don’t have much sense of what activities (at a very granular level) the funds have been spent on. Of the four very broad strategies of climate change philanthropy that are described above, our impressions are that:
- Most philanthropic funding focused on climate change goes towards the strategy of encouraging government adoption of policies to mitigate climate change, with the ClimateWorks Foundation playing a particular notable role with around $150 million in spending in 2011.5
- A large portion of U.S. government funding (>$5 billion/year) and large amounts of private (for-profit) capital are invested in development of lower-emissions technology; we don’t have a sense of how much philanthropic funding is spent here.6
- Some philanthropic funding goes towards climate change adaptation, but we don’t know how much.
- Geoengineering research receives relatively little funding, from either government or philanthropic sources.7
4. Questions for further investigation
Our research in this area has been relatively limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.
Amongst other topics, our further research on this cause might address:
- Have there been significant strides in scientific understanding of the likely impacts of climate change since the last IPCC report in 2007?
- How much philanthropic funding and effort goes into climate change globally? How reliable are the estimates from U.S. sources?
- What have the returns to past philanthropic involvement in climate change efforts been? How have they varied by type of activity?
- Are there particularly “low-hanging fruit” in any of the areas of activity described above (e.g. adaptation, geoengineering research) that current levels of philanthropic engagement haven’t found?
Climate Works. 2011. – Source
Environmental Grantmakers Association. 2012. Tracking the Field, Volume 3: Exploring Environmental Grantmaking. Summary available at – Source
Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research. – Source
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007. – Source
Lawrence, Steven. 2010. – Source (PDF). The Foundation Center.
Leggett, Jane A. 2012. – Source (PDF). Congressional Research Service.
Nisbet, Matthew C. 2011. – Source (PDF). Washington, D.C.: American University School of Communication.
United States Government Accountability Office. 2010. – Source (PDF).