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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).]

COP21 Gets A Spark Of Nuclear Energy From Breakthrough Energy Coalition

Clean Technica

December 3, 2015

by Tina Casey

 

The Intertubes have been buzzing with news of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, the latest venture by US billionaire and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Introduced earlier this week at the COP21 Paris climate talks as a companion to the equally newsworthy Mission Innovation initiative, the new coalition harnesses the dollar power of the Earth’s billionaires to accelerate the clean energy revolution.

If your definition of clean energy includes nuclear energy, then you have a lot to cheer about because that seems to be a main focus of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition’s interest.

Bill Gates Breakthrough nuclear energyImage: via Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition

To be clear, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition* defines its mission quite broadly. It identifies the problem like this:

The existing system of basic research, clean energy investment, regulatory frameworks, and subsidies fails to sufficiently mobilize investment in truly transformative energy solutions for the future. We can’t wait for the system to change through normal cycles.

…and it describes one part of the solution:

The foundation of this program must be large funding commitments for basic and applied research, and here governments play the key role.

That’s where Mission Innovation comes in, by the way. As described yesterday by CleanTechnica, Mission Innovation launched at COP21 with the aim of ramping up government investment in clean energy.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition aims squarely at the missing piece, which would be the task of attracting private dollars to propel high-risk, high return research across the notorious “Valley of Death” that lies between the laboratory and the marketplace:

This [Valley of Death] collective failure can be addressed, in part, by a dramatically scaled-up public research pipeline, linked to a different kind of private investor with a long term commitment to new technologies who is willing to put truly patient flexible risk capital to work. These investors will certainly be motivated partly by the possibility of making big returns over the long-term, but also by the criticality of an energy transition.

The Bill Gates Nuclear Energy Angle

In contrast to the generalities in the Breakthrough mission statement, Gates dropped a hint about his expectations for the organization in a blog post of November 29, timed to COP21:

The renewable technologies we have today, like wind and solar, have made a lot of progress and could be one path to a zero-carbon energy future. But given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths—and that means we also need to invent new approaches.

You can find another hint in the membership list of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. So far the only university to join is the University of California, which runs our Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Among many other clean tech endeavors, Berkeley Lab is known for its nuclear energy research facilities:

The Nuclear Science Division conducts basic research aimed at understanding the structure and interactions of nuclei and the forces of nature as manifested in nuclear matter – topics that align the Division with the national program as elucidated in the 2007 U.S. Nuclear Science Long Range Plan.

 

The Division has major programs in low energy nuclear science, including nuclear structure physics, studies of the heaviest elements, exotic nuclei and light radioactive beams, weak interactions, and nuclear reactions; relativistic heavy ion physics; nuclear theory; nuclear astrophysics and neutrino properties; data evaluation; and advanced instrumentation. The Division also operates the 88-Inch Cyclotron. The 88-Inch Cyclotron is the home of the Berkeley Accelerator Space Effects Facility (BASEF) and supports a local research program in nuclear science.

Not for nothing, but did you know that Bill Gates is a co-founder and current Chairman of the innovative nuclear energy company TerraPower? The Washington State-based company launched in 2006 and although the US is unlikely to prove fertile ground for nuclear energy investment in the near future, TerraPower is already well on its way to putting down stakes in China.

Clean Tech, High Tech, And Nuclear Energy

Both Gates and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are honest about their primary intention, which is to make a profit. In that regard it’s worth noting that members of the coalition stand to profit both directly through a return on their new clean energy investments, and indirectly by enabling them to continue growing the market for their primary products in a carbon-constrained world.

Industries represented by the Breakthrough membership include computer software and hardware (Microsoft, SAP, Hewlett-Packard), telecommunications (Tata Industries), and e-commerce including shipping and logistics (Amazon and Alibaba).

If you can spot more affiliations drop us a note in the comment thread.

The “Other” Nuclear Energy

Before we leave, let’s note that our Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a hotbed of research into nuclear fusion — basically, generating energy by squeezing particles together rather than blowing them apart — so we’re interested to see if Livermore will hop aboard the Breakthrough coalition, too.

Livermore is the home of the National Ignition Facility and if you want to see this crazy place in action, catch the “Energy on the Edge” episode of National Geographic’s ongoing Breakthrough (no relation to the Breakthrough coalition) series this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard time on the National Geographic Channel. The episode includes a heartstopping sequence of an actual test firing.

 

[Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own.]

*Breakthrough Energy Coalition founding members: Mukesh Ambani, John Arnold, Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Tabal, Richard Branson, Ray Dalio, Aliko Dangote, John Doerr, Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, Chris Hohn, Vinod Khosla, Jack Ma, Patrice Motsepe, Xavier Niel, Hasso Plattner, Julian Robertson, Neil Shen, Nat Simons, Laura Baxter-Simons, Masayoshi Son, George Soros, Tom Steyer, Ratan Tata, Meg Whitman, Ms. Zhang Xin, Mr. Pan Shiyi, Mark Zuckerberg, Dr. Priscilla Chan and the investment office of the University of California.

 

A Fixed Mentality

The San Franciscan

December 1, 2015

by Jay Taber

Gates Energy

US President Barack Obama, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and heads of state attend the ‘Mission Innovation: Accelerating the Clean Energy Revolution’ meeting at COP21. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition includes Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and Virgin Group head Richard Branson [Photograph: Ian Langsdon/AFP/Getty Images][Source]

In 2014 the Energy Foundation/Fund in San Francisco (assets $100 Million) granted four million to Sierra Club Foundation, a couple million to Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as $665,000 to Earth Justice (Sierra Club), $565,000 to Environmental Defense Fund, and $335,000 to CERES. Smaller grants went to Seattle area groups: $30,000 to Washington Environmental Council, $15,000 to Sightline Institute (a climate think tank that promotes Bill Gates) and $7,500 to Re-Sources.

 

Laying the groundwork for a fixed mentality behind the ‘clean energy’ Ponzi scheme led by Gates, these beneficiaries become its cheerleaders. Spreading money around to media, environmental groups and think tanks that supply them with ideas ensures compliance with the Ponzi agenda.

Compromising celebrities with strong environmental creds ensures they will maintain silence about elite fraud. The hush money Ford, Rockefeller, Gates and Buffett invested in this is augmented by oil companies and financial institutions that benefit from the fraud.

Following the money is challenging, since they routinely launder it through private and public foundations, as well as brokerages that make small grants. This way, no one examines the source of the money or the agenda that controls its use, let alone the overall actual purpose, as opposed to the stated purpose.

The payoff for this financial elite investment is potentially well above the bank bailouts of 2008-2009, that devastated the US economy. The climate bail out funds from public treasuries worldwide could easily eclipse that.

 

 

 

[Jay Thomas Taber (O’Neal) derives from the most prominent tribe in Irish history, nEoghan Ua Niall, the chief family in Northern Ireland between the 4th and the 17th centuries. Jay’s ancestors were some of the last great leaders of Gaelic Ireland. His grandmother’s grandfather’s grandfather emigrated from Belfast to South Carolina in 1768. Jay is an associate scholar of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, a correspondent to Forum for Global Exchange, and a contributing editor of Fourth World Journal. Since 1994, he has served as communications director at Public Good Project, a volunteer network of researchers, analysts and activists engaged in defending democracy. As a consultant, he has assisted indigenous peoples in the European Court of Human Rights and at the United Nations. Email: tbarj [at] yahoo.com Website: www.jaytaber.com]

Exploiting Feminism for Profit

Media Diversified

November 6, 2015

by Maya Goodfellow

Last week while flicking through TV channels an advert caught my attention. I was momentarily pleased to watch as a young girl was enchanted by clips of famous women – from feminist activist Emmeline Pankhurst to iconic singer Billie Holiday – while Fleur East’s version of Girl on Fire played in the background. But as the feature came to a close, I was jolted back into reality; this was an advert, a multimillion-pound advert for Virgin Media, to be precise. The billion pound conglomerate is now using women and girls to sell broadband. Exploiting feminism for profit.

I can’t celebrate seeing feminism exploited in the ad breaks by a company that has been built by taking millions from the taxpayer. Virgin ushers publicly run assets into the private sector then languishes on subsidies from the public purse while making a huge profit. This is not an outlandish statement; it’s what has happened in the past. Take a look at their involvement in the privatisation of our railways and you’ll see a pattern: Virgin takes state subsidies, distributes massive payouts for their shareholders, while the quality of service declines.

It doesn’t stop there. Virgin Media sits alongside Virgin Care Ltd, which is slowly creeping further into the NHS in the form of backdoor privatisation. Although the company’s foray into feminist territory might seem like a reason to celebrate, a win for women it really represents neoliberal capitalism’s attempt to co-opt the message of feminism. All in the name of profit.

Neoliberal capitalism, which is built on the disenfranchisement of women and people of colour, is attempting to contain radical discourse within its walls. In doing so it neutralises the potential for system change. Richard Branson, the billionaire businessperson who owns Virgin, is flourishing under the current system. Though he likes to cultivate a benevolent image, he isn’t doing anything that would seriously challenge the system out of which he does so well. It’s far better and easier for him to give the impression that he cares while making symbolic tweaks to unequal structures.

This is going on all around us; it’s how capitalism stayed relatively steady on its feet after the 2008 financial crash. It’s a dangerous process that inhibits the possibility for real change: it takes in the collective effort of intersectional feminism and spits out individualistic gender equality and antiracism in its most feeble form.

We’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon from one of neoliberalism’s cheerleaders, in the form of David Cameron’s recent jaunt into the world of antiracism. From his Conservative party conference speech this year to a recent article in the Guardian, the Prime Minister has proclaimed himself a champion of race equality.

But our PM has conveniently failed to touch upon the number of ways his Government is systematically disenfranchising black and minority ethnic people: through their aggressive cuts agenda, which disproportionately affect people of colour; their decision to continue protecting an unfair employment market, that leaves BAME young people worse off; and the role they play in sustaining racist – in particular Islamophobic – narratives, have we already forgotten when Cameron described migrants as a “swarm”?

Cameron and Branson are bringing antiracism and feminism – two struggles that are actually interwoven – into Margaret Thatcher’s arena of individualism. Helping the the few to appease the masses.

There is a big difference between certain women succeeding in a society that exploits the poorest and most vulnerable and a movement that reconstructs a system to create a fairer society. Similarly, there’s a vast chasm separating the recently announced name-blind university applications and deconstructing institutionally racist structures that see people of colour as lesser, structures that have been maintained since the era of colonialism.

None of this is to say that accepting these steps forward within the current system is a failure. We can recognise the benefits of quotas in the workplace (incidentally a policy Virgin say they’re all for) but challenge why this is not enforced across all companies and certainly with not enough attention paid to race.

But while we’re realising the shift in public discourse – usually a problematic shift where race is pushed to the back of the conversation – we have to remember that the real alterations won’t come by accepting these small steps from individuals. You can do both; as American scholar Kimerlé Crenshaw said: “I believe that women in power is absolutely essential, and that women in power is absolutely not enough”.

Or as writer Reni Eddo-Lodge put it, equality is a transitional demand; we must remember we don’t want to be assimilated into the status quo. For real change we have to reconstruct the system. We need liberation. But that goes against the interests of the people (often white men) who stand to benefit from the world the way it is. That’s why business tycoons and rightwing politicians saying they care about gender and race discrimination don’t convince me.

It’s as if Branson’s and Cameron’s media strategists are sitting in a room realising that some people want liberation from gender and race discrimination, and thinking of ways to give the illusion that they want the same thing too. Giving that impression is good for the brand.

 

[Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow]