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Do Philanthropists Actually Love the Planet?

Books & Ideas | La Vie des Idées


December 11, 2018

by Edouard Morena

 

“Philanthropic foundations are now publicly acknowledged and celebrated as essential actors in the climate struggle. But for what results? As Edouard Morena shows, these foundations actually perpetuate the dominant economic order—an order that many hold accountable for the deepening climate crisis.”

 

Dossier: Who Will Save the Planet? Capitalism, climate change and philanthropy – A collaboration between the US magazine Public Books and La Vie des idées/Books&Ideas.

 

Beyond the calls for urgent action and pledges to commit more resources to the fight against climate change, a noteworthy feature of the first One Planet Summit, held in Paris on December 12, 2017, was the importance given to philanthropists and philanthropic foundations. Far from simply occupying a secondary or supporting role there, foundations were publicly acknowledged and celebrated as essential actors in the climate struggle alongside governments (especially cities and local governments), businesses, investors, and civil society organizations. Bloomberg Philanthropies funded and orchestrated the event.

On the morning of the summit, President Macron hosted a meeting at the Élysée Palace with a group of leading philanthropists, including Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson, where he insisted on philanthropy’s unique role as catalyst of climate action. He also called upon the group

“to convene a task force to target and expand philanthropy’s role in the accelerated delivery of the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, including through the development of partnerships with governments and public finance agencies.”

The group of 15 or so individuals that attended the Élysée meeting were representative of a small group of well-endowed private foundations that dominate the climate philanthropy landscape. [1] In 2012, according to one report, the combined spending of the OakHewlettPackardSea ChangeRockefeller, and Energy foundations made up approximately 70 percent of the estimated 350 to 450 million philanthropic dollars allocated annually to climate mitigation. These “big players” share common characteristics. In line with the liberal tradition, they view themselves as neutral agents acting in the general interest and present climate change as a “solvable problem” requiring pragmatic, nonideological, bipartisan, and scientifically grounded solutions.

Yet upon closer scrutiny, their funding priorities and approaches to philanthropy reflect a distinctive and ideologically charged worldview, one premised on a belief that the market knows best and that individual self-interest is the best rationale for saving the climate. For most of these large climate funders, environmental protection and a liberal economic order are not only compatible but mutually reinforcing. Behind their altruistic, pragmatist veneer lies a genuine desire to solve the climate crisis while simultaneously perpetuating the dominant economic order, an order that many observers hold responsible for the deepening climate crisis.

Continuity and Change

Philanthropy has a long history of involvement in the climate debate. In the 1980s, established liberal foundations such as the Rockefeller, Ford, and Alton Jones foundations and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund funded scientific research on “global environmental change” and helped to establish the global processes and multilateral institutions that continue to underpin the international climate regime: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Guided by the belief that, given the right multilateral institutions, along with adequate resources and information, a global and mutually beneficial solution could be reached, they supported the formation of a “global civil society” space through funding to NGOs and think tanks (e.g., World Resources InstituteClimate Action Network), support for research and communications, and the convening of international symposiums.

Over the course of the late 1990s and early 2000s, various contextual factors led some of the leading climate funders to abandon the climate debate, others to reassess and adapt their strategies of engagement. These factors included the US federal government’s reluctance to commit to ambitious mitigation targets, conservative-backed climate denialism’s effective scaremongering tactics and attacks against climate science, and growing reservations about the UNFCCC’s ability to actually deliver an ambitious and legally binding agreement in the post-Kyoto context.

This period also coincided with the arrival of a new brand of philanthropists and foundations that would go on to reshape the climate funding landscape. While retaining core liberal principles and values, they promoted a distinctive theory of change when it comes to philanthropic giving in the climate field.

A number of these newcomers were products of the technology and financial boom of the period. This was the case of the Schmidt Family Foundation, launched in 2006 by the CEO of Google, and the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation, launched in 2000 by the cofounder of Intel. Other newcomers include the Sea Change Foundation and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, both of whose founders made their fortunes in finance. For these new foundations, a number of which were based in the San Francisco Bay Area, philanthropic engagement in the climate debate represented a means of distinguishing and legitimizing themselves in the public sphere and within US elite liberal circles. These circles were traditionally dominated by East Coast elites whose fortunes originated in the industrial boom of the early 20th century and whose names were often associated with older, well-established liberal foundations like Ford and Rockefeller.

This new brand of “philanthrocapitalists” or “venture philanthropists” mobilize “their business acumen, ambition, and ‘strategic’ mindset” to solve the climate challenge. [2] foundations also set up the International Policies and Politics Initiative, in 2013, to “highlight opportunities for philanthropic collaboration, joint strategy development, resource pooling, and grant-making alignments in the arena of international policies and politics of climate change” [3] and create the conditions for a global climate agreement in Paris.

Through their joint efforts, the most active climate funders sought to create an environment conducive to a societal shift toward a low-carbon economy. From the outset, investors and businesses—and not states—were viewed as the key stakeholders in this process.

Priority was given to policies, initiatives, and projects that sent positive signals to the markets and created incentives for financial and business actors to invest in the green economy. Efforts were also deployed in the field of research and development, to support the large-scale deployment of new, clean technologies and industrial processes. A few months ago, major climate funders such as the Hewlett and MacArthur foundations have decided, for instance, to support research on and the deployment of controversial carbon capture and storage technologies.

A Veneer of Respectability

Despite their comparatively limited resources—climate philanthropy represents less than 0.1 percent of total climate finance—foundations’ combined efforts over the past 30 years have had a significant impact on the international climate debate. As I have argued elsewhere [4] they played an active and influential role in the lead-up to the Paris COP.

As the ECF wrote shortly after the Paris Conference, “although we should be careful not to overstate our role, it is important to recognize that the climate philanthropy community’s activities prior to and at the COP helped to lay the basis for the outcome.” [5] As the 2017 One Planet Summit illustrates, world leaders and other key players in the international climate debate also recognize the central importance of philanthropic foundations.

Has their influential role contributed to curbing climate change? According to the UN, the years from 2015 to 2018 have been the four hottest on record. While climate philanthropy cannot be blamed for rising temperatures, its efforts to curb climate change must be critically scrutinized. We must hold it accountable for its role in developing and promoting the voluntary, market-based, and bottom-up approach that presently dominates the international climate agenda and that has clearly not delivered the required results. As Marc Gunther wrote in a recent op-ed, “if philanthropy is to be judged by its outcomes—and how else should it be judged?—climate philanthropy has failed.”

How then can we explain the fact that, isolated voices such as Gunther’s notwithstanding, relatively few people have raised questions about climate philanthropy’s role and responsibility in the ongoing—and deepening—climate crisis? I believe that three main reasons can be advanced to explain this.

The first reason relates to the fact that many prominent climate NGOs and networks—Climate Action NetworkFriends of the Earth350.org—partially or entirely rely on philanthropic money to function. The limited available resources, especially for organizations active at the international level, and particular nature of the climate philanthropy landscape—dominated by a handful of well-endowed and closely aligned foundations—means that climate funders have a strong influence on the civil society space.

In Europe, for instance, the ECF—which channels and redistributes funds from a number of prominent climate funders—acts as an unavoidable access point for anyone wishing to seriously engage in the climate debate. From a prospective grantee perspective, “the ability to shop at one source—rather than making the same pitch three or more times,” as Mark Dowie observed about the US-based Energy Foundation, can be advantageous. [6]However, by channeling a large proportion of available climate funds, there is also a risk of concentrating power in a single organization and, hence, toward a single approach—to the detriment of groups that offer alternative visions or wish to pursue alternative strategies. The ECF and other large climate funders become de facto reference points and, given their domineering position, difficult ones to openly challenge.

The second reason relates to businesses’ and governments’—especially in high-emitting countries—reluctance to take decisive action on climate change. With the blessing of many governments and international organizations, foundations increasingly appear the only ones capable of breaking the “climate deadlock.” From a criticizable weakness, their lack of accountability and legitimacy becomes a unique and commendable asset.

This idea is promoted by funders themselves. As George Polk, the former chairman of the executive committee of ECFpoints out,

“One advantage foundations have in the policy arena is being shielded both from the political cycles that interrupt policy continuity and coherence and from the market barriers that get in the way of readily available solutions like energy efficiency upgrades in buildings. This means that foundations can often build bridges over tricky waters that governments and firms hesitate to cross.”

The third reason relates to liberal foundations’ broader function in US and global politics. As Inderjeet Parmar has convincingly argued in Foundations of the American Century, liberal foundations have traditionally played an influential role in transforming America from an “isolationist” nation into a global superpower, and in promoting and anchoring liberal ideals both domestically and internationally. [7] The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, by undermining the Party-led UNFCCCprocess, has further strengthened their position in this regard and, by extension, within the climate debate. Trump’s isolationist stance has prompted liberal philanthropists and foundations, as the Bloomberg example illustrates, to step up their efforts in a climate debate that historically forms a symbolic battleground in the war opposing liberals and conservatives.

Climate funders act not only as defenders of the climate but also as guardians of the liberal order, a US-inspired liberal order that is currently being challenged by Trump and other hard-line conservatives across the globe.

Our House Is Burning

It is in this increasingly unstable US and global political context, and in the face of a worsening climate crisis, that philanthropic foundations are increasingly looked to and celebrated as “climate champions.” As we have shown, the consensus surrounding climate philanthropy masks a longstanding, active, and ideologically motivated involvement in the climate debate. Such a consensus also downplays foundations’ errors and responsibilities. To paraphrase former French president Jacques Chirac in 2002, our house is indeed burning down, only now we stare, uncritically, at philanthropists.

Further reading

Mark Dowie, American Foundations : An Investigative HistoryMITPress, 2001 
Marc Abélès, Les Nouveaux Riches : Un Ethnologue dans la Sylicon Valley, Odile Jacob, 2002

List of Philanthropic Foundations

The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation
ClimateWorks 
The Energy Foundation
The Ford Foundation
The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation
The W. Alton Jones Foundation
The David & Lucile Packard Foundation
The Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation
The Oak Foundation
Rockfeller Brothers Fund
The Rockfeller Foundation
The Schmidt Family Foundation
The Sea Change Foundation

 

[Edouard Morena is Lecturer in French politics and history at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). Over the past six years, he has been researching non-state actors’ involvement in international environmental and development processes – and in particular the role of philanthropic foundations. He is the author of The Price of Climate Action: Philanthropic Foundations in the International Climate Debate (Palgrave, 2016) and co-editor (with Stefan Aykut and Jean Foyer) of Globalising the Climate: COP21 and the Climatization of Global Debates (Routledge, 2017).]

Where’s the Democracy in the Environmental Movement?

The Media Co-op

September 10, 2033

by Dru Oja Jay

Struggles against tar sands and fracking in Canada are missing an ASSE or a SNCC

The signing of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Greenpeace activists and volunteers didn't know this was the framework they were organizing in. Greenpeace Forest Campaigner Richard Brooks, Stephen Kallick of the Pew Environment Group, and Avrim Lazar, Forest Products Association of Canada.The signing of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Greenpeace activists and volunteers didn’t know this was the framework they were organizing in. Greenpeace Forest Campaigner Richard Brooks, Stephen Kallick of the Pew Environment Group, and Avrim Lazar, Forest Products Association of Canada.

With tar sands, fracking and mining all on the rise, there’s never been a more important time for a strong environmental movement in Canada. Surveying the landscape of organizations, one thing is missing: democracy. Which is to say, meaningful informed participation among equal participants.

The images are familiar. People gathered together, making pivotal decisions about their collective direction in community halls, church basements, and conference rooms. Heated debates, pivotal votes, historic gatherings and galvanizing speeches. These are symbols of something that is basic to what it means for people to band together to fight powerful forces and change things.

Movements often have an organization that embodies their spirit. The US civil rights movement in the 1960s was driven forward by the Southern Christian Leadership Congress and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The anti-nuclear direct action in the 1970s had the Movement for a New Society (MNS), and the “antiglobalization” movement of the 1990s and 2000s was an interwoven web of spokescouncil meetings and coalitions. Quebec’s epic student strikes in 2005 and 2012 were initiated by the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ).

These and many other movement organizations made historic decisions democratically. They chose their leaders, or chose to have spokespersons instead. They debated, analyzed and decided on strategies and actions. It may not have been perfectly equal, but everyone agreed on the intention.

Today’s environmental movement in Canada is different. There are a few small, member-based, grassroots groups, but there is nothing on the scale of SNCC, MNS or ASSÉ. These groups organize local events and actions, but lack the scale to set the direction for national or even provincial campaigns. The only national-level groups are Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations (ENGOs).

ENGOs are somewhat diverse politically, ranging from the David Suzuki Foundation, whose chair moonlights as a consultant for Shell Oil, to the Indigenous Tar Sands campaign, which fights for Indigenous sovereignty as the best way to stop environmental destruction. But almost all of them have a two things in common: their staff-driven structures depend on foundation funding, and none of them hold meetings where a membership meaningfully and democratically sets the agenda or selects leadership.

(The Council of Canadians is the only exception to both; it is member funded and holds an annual meeting of members. Greenpeace has some financial independence with an authoritarian structure. Organizations like the Sierra Club hold elections, but are dependent on grant money for their operations.)

Instead, strategies for Canada’s environmental movement are formulated at island retreats, in boardrooms, and on staff conference calls. You won’t find any public record of these decisions, and if you do, someone will likely get in trouble. Local activists and community members are enlisted to be a part of campaigns, often at the last minute, but are shut out of the larger discussions.

So, who makes the decisions for Canada’s environmental movement? The lack of transparency makes it impossible to know for sure, but the handful of foundations that ENGOs rely on for funding have considerable sway.

A leaked 2008 strategy paper for the “Tar Sands Coalition” illustrates the power dynamic. Michael Marx, who was the director at the time, authored the document. In it, he declared that the “coalition,” which sets the overall strategy for anti-tar sands activism by ENGOs, “shall remain invisible to the outside.”  “Foundations investing most heavily in the campaign,” Marx explained, “have a vested interest in exercising some control over the process.” And that’s why they created an invisible coalition of ENGOs who depend on them for funding.

That coalition exists today, and continues to hold secret meetings to decide on the future direction of anti-tar sands work. At a week-long retreat attended by ENGO reps last fall, participants agreed to not talk about what was decided at the meeting, or to speak about the individual who is in charge of the “coalition,” who controls the distribution of a few million per year in foundation funding.

Because contemporary ENGOs rely on foundation money for all of their operations, they are forced to accept absurd levels of non-transparency, and are susceptible to a high level of foundation control of their activities. (Some fight for their independence more than others, but those who do must compete with more obsequious ENGOs for funding.)

This is not to say that ENGO staff, many of whom are idealistic, highly competent people, don’t have any influence. It is to say that activists, members of the public and residents of directly affected communities have no direct influence at all if they’re not occupying staff positions. In their quest for “exercising some control,” funders are continuously driving a wedge between ENGO staff members and all other movement participants.

It wasn’t always this way. The environmental movement made far and away its largest gains before foundation funding entered on to the scene. Starting in the 1960s, environmental activism became an massive phenonenon, with 20 million people participating in Earth Day 1970. Hundreds of groups sprang up. Many of the larger ones, as Naomi Klein recently put it, had “elite roots.” But grassroots, community-based groups came up with the most impressive victories.

The movement was powerful enough to make then-President Richard Nixon — of all people — enthusiastically sign the largest pieces of environmental legislation the US has seen before or since. Logging companies, nuclear energy advocates and polluters were on the run from hundreds of dedicated volunteers and small organizations.

In the 1980s, foundations like Pew Charitable Trusts began to funnel resources to the most moderate and authoritarian environmental groups, balooning their capacity in relation to lean, local volunteer-based groups. The effect was to reign in activism by demanding less and less while spending more and more. Environmentalists started talking about landing jobs instead of participating in a movement.

In the 1990s, the foundations — led by Pew — landed in Canada. Many groups already had top-down, non-transparent leadership structures. Some, notably Greenpeace, had recently made the decision to adopt a more authoritarian style.

But there were some holdouts. Groups with large, active memberships like the BC Sierra Club, were pulled in with the promise of funds. As Mehdi Najari, a former BC Sierra Club board member told me recently, the BC Sierra Club barely had two staff in the 1980s, but regularly packed out auditoriums across the province during public meetings. Thousands across BC were participating on a volunteer basis.

In 1991, in the wake of an NDP victory in British Columbia, Canadian ENGOs got their first taste of foundation cash. “There was this idea that all that was missing was money,” said Najari. “They went and got big places, big staff,” and NGOs didn’t have to mobilize their members anymore. “Their money was coming from a different channel, they were less and less active.”

It didn’t take much. Najari says the first payment to BC Environmental groups was a little over $600,000, though it later inflated to millions. “For corporations, this is pennies; by spending that amount of money, they could totally change the dynamics of environmentalism in BC.”

Democracy in member-based groups gave way to grant-dependence. Some groups simply used their top-down structures to mold themselves into the image foundations desired. Foundations created entirely new groups like ForestEthics, separate from any membership or popular mandate.

Corporate collaboration became the order of the day. The new game plan was a two step campaigning model. Step one: mobilize a noisy public campaign with lots of volunteer energy to stop destructive activity carried out by corporations. Step two: stop this campaign in its tracks, and enter into negotiations with those corporations behind closed doors.

The result was deals like the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement and the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA). In both cases, activists involved in the campaign had no idea what the overall strategy was, and were surprised when foundation-coordinated groups yanked funding for organizing and entered negotiations.

While one might imagine that there is some upside to centrally-controlled campaigning, the results are not promising.

Both agreements were trumpeted as quantum leaps for conservation, but in fact represented very limited gains. Ten years in, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement (which infuriated local activists for its low-ball conservation requirements when it was signed, prompting Rainforest Action Network to withdraw its name) is still not being fully implemented. Four years after its signing, the CBFA is in disarray after Greenpeace and Canopy withdrew. Greenpeace is being sued for $7 million by forestry giant Resolute.

This limited vision is built in to foundation funding. Some foundations like Pew have strong ties to oil companies and have a track record of investing in the same corporations they supposedly are working on stopping. Some, like Rockefeller Brothers Fund, have historic ties to oil companies. Some, like Hewlett, position themselves with green energy. But with very few exceptions, they are run by powerful people with deep social and financial stakes in maintaining the aspects of the status quo which benefit their class.

Greener capitalism is the overall goal. Large foundations seek to legitimize capitalism by giving it a friendlier face. (Some radical foundations exist, but they are much smaller.) As one might expect, maintaining an economic system that gobbles up resources and generates ever-increasing consumption while also trying to be more environmentally friendly usually amounts to doing very little indeed.

Because of these underlying interests, foundation-run projects often fail to meet even modest conservation goals. As Naomi Klein recently noted, “if the environmental movement was going to decide to fight [neoliberalism], they would have had to give up their elite status. And weren’t willing to give up their elite status.” Corporate collaboration, she concludes, has been a “disastrously losing strategy.”

Though it is so often in direct opposition to foundation funding, democracy has many benefits. When thousands of people are involved in debating and deciding on strategies, the sense of ownership and investment they feel marks the difference between holding a banner and being a part of a process of societal transformation.

And because people draw on numerous sources and their own experience, their conclusions often exceed what leaders see as realistic. As Gary Snyder put it in 1978, “without knowing it, little old ladies in tennis shoes who work to save whooping cranes are enemies of the state, along with other more flamboyant figures.”

Direct experience, whether with whooping cranes or a refinery next door, can transform people and unleash creativity within movements — and if we’re lucky, within society at large.

Working at the pace of volunteers instead of full-time staff also opens the door to a more diverse set of participants. Elders, parents and students can be a part of the mix, bringing their unique energies and wisdom.

The model of environmentalism which is currently dominant makes widespread participation and empowerment into a liability. It relies on tight control over activities to execute campaigns where the creativity is in-house or farmed out to an advertising firm for top dollar. It’s a self-fulfilling mentality. If your goal is to control the activities of hundreds of volunteers to get a predetermined result, then those volunteers being empowered, opinionated and self-organized is a liability. (The oft-forgotten history of union-busting in ENGOs highlights this attitude.)

The most important benefit of democracy is the ability to change direction and leadership collectively. Right now, Canada’s environmental movement is a large collection of individuals. Each participant has their own thoughts and opinion on the overall direction of the movement, but none of us has a venue to express that opinion collectively or do something about it collectively. It’s a fundamentally disempowering situation.

Every other movement has had to deal with a wide array of organizations who are in some way at odds with the core of activists pushing things forward. The Civil Rights movement had the legally-oriented NAACP opposing direct action tactics. ASSÉ had to fight FEUQ during both student strikes while it fought the Quebec government at the same time. Having moderate groups around who try to slow things down and blunt the edges is nothing new.

But Canada’s environmental movement is in a more exclusive club: movements which have no independent democratic venue which includes activists and volunteers. Where is our ASSÉ? Where is our SNCC?

We have nothing like them.

This, I should say, is not a new problem. 16 Greenpeace founders signed a letter declaring that “Greenpeace’s leaders are paid too much, have lost their focus and must become more democratic.” That was in 1996.

The struggle for a democratic movement is a long haul, but the need which drives it is nonetheless pressing. The shadowy foundation-controlled Tar Sands “Coalition” has launched the “Tar Sands Solutions Network,” a name that strongly hints at future corporate collaboration deals coming down the pipe. While many of the individuals receiving the funding are surely against this. Indeed, one prominent tar sands campaigner has been quoted as saying he’ll quit if corporate dealmaking comes to the tar sands. But is that enough to change direction?

Only time, and silent struggles within the coalition, will tell. That is, unless an independent, democratic alternative emerges.

An unfortunate side effect of foundation money coming to Canada every year is that it makes starting truly democratic grassroots efforts much more difficult. The expectations of staff pay and resources are much higher, and talented organizers tend to get picked off and hired by ENGOs. Often, they take their social networks with them.

But it is possible.

The most successful movements in history thrived without foundation money. Without them, the world would look very different today. The first step is a developing a recognition of the need for a democratic venue where movement participants can make decisions independent of foundations. The second is finding the will to build it.

 

[Dru Oja Jay is a Montreal-based writer and organizer. He is co-author, with Nikolas Barry-Shaw, of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism.]

 

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