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Surprise! Billionaires aren’t solving climate change
A new report shows "disappointing" philanthropic giving to climate causes in 2022
When billionaires announce grand philanthropic donations for the planet, they tend to get heaps of positive attention.
Who can forget the wave of press coverage that followed Jeff Bezos’ announcement of the $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund; Elon Musk’s unveiling of a $100 million prize for “best carbon capture;” or Kim Kardashians’ recent announcement that she’s donating a portion of sales from her Skims Ultimate Nipple Bra to an environmental nonprofit.
(On the View, Whoopi Goldberg said she was “so proud of this girl" for donating money to climate change. And we are too, Whoopi. We are too.)
It is always good to see money going toward climate solutions. But one thing we notice about these media cycles is that they tend to miss a critical point: that billionaires should be giving money to fight climate change, because they are doing a lot to cause it.
Not only do billionaires personally emit one million times more greenhouse gases per year than the average person on Earth; their money often comes from high-emitting corporations that foster a global culture of excessive consumerism. (We’re looking at you, Bezos).
In addition, these media cycles also often fail to take into account that billionaires commonly use philanthropy as a way to publicly boost their own reputations, while they privately argue against heightened government regulation. As the Guardian reported, philanthropy can provide polluters “with a moral cover to act in quite exploitative and socially damaging ways.”
So when it comes to evaluating the generosity of billionaire philanthropy for the planet, we believe it’s not enough to simply look at the dollar amount being given. We must also ask: are they giving enough to actually offset the harm they cause?
And a new report suggests they are most likely not.
$13 billion—and still nowhere near enough
According to a philanthropy report released today by the nonprofit ClimateWorks, rich people and foundations around the world donated $8 to $13 billion to climate change mitigation in 2022.
While that number may seem large on its own, it’s actually quite small in the context of how much rich people and foundations usually donate to charitable causes. Specifically, climate-related giving made up less than 2 percent of the $811 billion in philanthropic giving in 2022, according to the report.
Climate giving also slowed in 2022 compared to previous years. “In the face of a challenging global economy,” the report read, “overall climate giving stayed flat, due in part to a 12 percent increase in foundation funding” while funding from individuals fell.
While a 12 percent increase from foundations seems good on its face, the report notes it represents “significantly slower growth than the 45 percent increase in the previous year.”
The level of climate philanthropy in 2022 “is not commensurate with the urgency of the crisis and the scale of the efforts needed to limit global warming to 1.5° C,” wrote the report’s authors, who said philanthropic giving to climate causes has been at “disappointing” numbers since 2015.
“This is not the direction we should be heading if we are going to have a fighting chance at a liveable future,” said ClimateWorks CEO Helen Mountford.
That level of giving is also not commensurate with the impact that many of the givers are having on the planet. Take Jeff Bezos, who has pledged to donate $10 billion over 10 years to climate change solutions. While that number is far larger amount than other billionaires, so is Bezos’ own contribution to climate change: Right now, up to 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to the products and services we consume—and Amazon is, by far, the world’s most popular place to consume products and services.
And even though $10 billion is a lot for a billionaire to give to climate change, it’s still small in the grand scheme of philanthropic donations.
Think of it this way: for climate philanthropy to have made up exactly 2 percent of global giving in 2022—not less than 2 percent, as it was—“we would have needed $10 billion more in climate giving,” said Helene Desanlis, one of the report authors and director of climate philanthropy at ClimateWorks. That’s another Bezos Earth Fund, just to reach 2 percent.
“This report should be a wake-up call for philanthropy,” Mountford added. “The intensifying climate crisis demands greater ambition, scale, and urgency to safeguard lives. There has been meaningful climate progress, but maintaining the status quo is not enough, and that includes philanthropy.”
How billionaires can actually help
Before we throw the billionaire out with the bathwater, experts in philanthropic funding say they do have a part to play in solving the climate crisis. But solutions must be "funded like we want them to win," said Mountford. And right now, they’re not.
Here’s how much it’s going to actually cost to solve climate change, according to the Climate Policy Initiative: at least $4.3 trillion per year. So far, the International Monetary Fund reports that the world is only spending $630 billion a year in climate finance—a shortfall in the trillions.
Related reading: The climate case against Elon Musk
No one person or foundation could cover that amount for a year, let alone the lifetime it will take to help mitigate the climate crisis. Nor should we expect philanthropists to cover it all—particularly because ideally, in a democracy, voters would get to decide how to solve society’s most complex problems.
But the wealthiest people on Earth can certainly afford to give more than 2 percent of their total donations to stop the climate crisis—especially given their role in continuing it.
The benefits (and drawbacks) of billionaire philanthropy
For this article, I spoke to two experts: Meg Massey, co-author of “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good By Giving Up Control”; and Una Osili, associate dean at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Here are some key points I learned from our conversations:
Billionaires can take risks—and fail. Unlike governments, billionaires can afford to fail—“If you're sitting on billions of dollars and you're not beholden to taxpayers like the government is, then you can take some risks,” said Massey. “And you should take some risks for the good of the planet.” For example, Massey says, someone like Bezos can spend $10 billion to try to develop solar energy at scale—and fail, without answering to the public or losing an election. Whereas, if President Biden spent $10 billion on a clean energy project that failed, “It would be a huge scandal,” said Massey. That flexibility gives billionaires the ability to invest in new or riskier projects.
They are often the first to invest. Individual donations may not be much compared to what a government can spend, but philanthropy can attract larger government or private sector investments. For example, in 2021, Bill Gates pledged $1.5 billion to combat climate change, if the U.S. Congress passed the Infrastructure Act. “It's like everyone’s sitting on the edge of the pool and they’re afraid to jump in,” said Massey. A billionaire’s donation “attracts other funders, whether from the private sector or from the government, who may be interested in solving that problem in that same part of the world.”
They influence the rest of us. Billionaires are considered smarter, more popular, and more politically or socially savvy than the average person. Where they put their money influences others to fund the same charities or causes. They can influence policy makers, and even government spending. “Philanthropists have a platform beyond the checks that they write,” said Osili. “When billionaires or everyday donors use their platform to emphasize why they're giving to a cause, it can also spur a lot of positive action by others.”
But they fund white men more often. There’s a downside to having rich people decide where all that money goes. According to the most exhaustive analysis of climate funding to date, white-led organizations received more than 80 percent of grants, while male-led organizations received about 54 percent of grants. Youth-led organizations received less than 1 percent of funding globally in 2022.
To avoid that, in addition to calling for more funding, ClimateWorks recommends that philanthropists prioritize locally-based organizations and people in frontline communities. “I think that's why a lot of organizations also emphasize bringing more than just your financial resources to people,” said Osili. “They encourage their stakeholders to donate, of course, but they also encourage them to volunteer and to advocate and to use all of their tools instead of all in philanthropy.”
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