Calling all Philanthropy: It's Our Climate Too

June 2, 2014

Climate change is hot. In the news, that is. Today, the White House released a major new proposal to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report in April, followed by a NASA/UC-Irvine report of “unstoppable” melting of the West Antarctic’s glaciers, triggered talk by journalists, scientists, advocates, policymakers, and even comedians about this urgent issue.

But visibility isn’t enough. So far the climate movement has struggled to build enough public support and political will for real climate solutions. Health and social justice funders and their grantees have an historic opportunity to help turn the tide. Here’s why.

The Stakes Go Beyond Environmentalism

Climate change sounds like – and is – a big global environmental issue. But it is much more than an environmental issue. The increasingly visible impacts of climate changes – like intense storms in some places, devastating droughts in others – are making it clear that every community and sector are affected. Voices and actions in all those quarters are needed to make progress on climate change. Many funders and NGOs already working with affected communities and sectors can help them understand their climate stake and get engaged.

The Messages Must Be More Than Environmental

Climate change hasn’t risen yet to the same level of concern as health or jobs when pollsters ask. It seems abstract, “out there.” Okay, the science may be complicated, but it doesn’t help engage more people if all the messengers focus on things like carbon emissions, parts per million, or faraway polar bears. The reality is that climate change is a health issue and a jobs issue. What if doctors and nurses start talking about climate-linked issues like asthma rates and heat waves, or the health benefits of cleaner energy and air? If mayors and governors start talking about job creation in disaster preparedness, clean energy infrastructure, and weatherization?

These Problems Are Our Problems

A lot of climate response work is about tackling existing health and community needs, like rebuilding public health infrastructure, identifying vulnerable populations, strengthening local food systems, improving transit, and planning for weather-related impacts. City leaders, public health professionals, and community groups are already working on a climate response agenda without thinking of it that way.

Likewise, many “environmental health” or “environmental justice” problems HEFN members are addressing are linked to forces also driving climate change. Fossil fuel interests are at play in toxics, fracking, and local air and water pollution concerns. And these industry dollars are trumping health and justice interests in policies and politics. The philanthropic efforts already organized against other impacts of dirty industry have much to contribute to – and gain from – incorporating climate change impacts into their narratives and strategies.

Their Solutions May Not Be Our Solutions

If the voices and values shaping current decisions are not prioritizing people and places, then different voices and values must get engaged to shape a better future. “All of the above” policies that extend the life of dirty energy in the name of climate action may not represent our best options, just those with more power. To advance values important to HEFN’s community, like public health protection and social justice, then philanthropy must be there too, supporting on the ground efforts and national work. Doctors, nurses, community health workers, public health professionals, hospitals, health centers, young people, mothers, community organizers – the groups prioritizing people, health, and community. Their voices could elevate those values in shaping climate solutions. And they already have experience in reaching the general public and general assemblies. Philanthropy can play a role in helping engage and resource these voices in climate action too.

The Time Is Now

There’s a hero opportunity now in philanthropy to invest in this urgent issue. The rationales are many: to prevent disease, protect vulnerable populations, strengthen community planning, and amplify public interests in public policy. Environmentalists are hard at work supporting state actions on the new EPA rule, national White House climate initiatives, international planning for a big UN Climate Summit and Paris negotiations. If philanthropy wants to see values of health and equity at these tables – and in the fate of our climate ahead – the time is now.

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