The Doom Effect: In Adapting to Climate Threats, Philanthropy Can Help Reinvent U.S. Politics

Mexico Beach, Fl. October 2018. Terry Kelly/shutterstock

Mexico Beach, Fl. October 2018. Terry Kelly/shutterstock

Is it possible that philanthropy could help create a new, more capable version of American politics by making a deeper commitment to addressing the realities of climate change? I write this looking out at a world transformed by thick smoke from the latest California wildfires; my usual landmarks are gone, I taste and smell burnt trees and houses, familiar faces are obscured by white paper masks. Just down the street, construction has been approved on a massive new wall designed to protect us from rising sea levels. And we’re told that in the next two decades, the snow pack that supplies our region’s fresh water will be reduced by 25 percent even as population rises by 25 percent.

Coping with these changes will take ingenuity, expertise and money, and we don’t have to agree that they have anything to do with global warming before we get to work. The challenges are unprecedented; we need governance structures and financing mechanisms that don’t yet exist, and we will have to develop the right combination of engineering and natural solutions that will be effective place-to-place and across big landscapes.

This will require a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the public and private sectors and an unapologetic recognition of the need for collective action. Building strong communities, restoring ecosystems, and addressing stark inequalities—all key to generating resilience in the face of rapid change—is work that carries us beyond the bounds of market logic and the story of the heroic entrepreneur.

Private investments will be needed, but public resources will be critical in areas where private capital cannot go, where there will be no direct financial return, and needs are at a scale that only government can meet. The necessity of investing in public goods—in sea walls and marshlands, fortified water and sewage systems, in schools, hospitals and roads that will have to be elevated, shored up and moved—is not a sign of market failure, but a recognition of the need for collective responsibility and leadership.

This work places philanthropy in a role for which it is uniquely suited. Between the simplistic—and paralyzing—ideological poles of “government is good/government is bad” is the work of ensuring that government is effective. Philanthropy has a set of tools—grantmaking certainly, but also convening people across sectors, helping communities participate meaningfully in democratic processes, holding the long view—that situate it well for cutting through the ideological noise and engaging leaders and communities in the nuts and bolts of getting things done.

Climate change philanthropy has downplayed and underfunded adaptation as a secondary priority after prevention. But studies suggest that due to atmospheric-oceanic dynamics, surface temperatures could continue to rise for several centuries even if emissions stop today. And a new scientific assessment issued by 13 federal agencies describes the devastating effects of a changing climate on the economy, health and environment, including wildfires here in California, crop failures in the Midwest and disintegrating infrastructure in the South.

Take a step back: The moral frame is the same for prevention and adaptation, to protect people and nature. We need to do both, simultaneously. As we expand the focus from the need to cut emissions to the need to prevent harm, we also expand the possibilities for engaging people where they live, address immediate, concrete concerns and seize opportunities, create jobs, improve quality of life and protect the people and places we love.

I recently joined the Resources Legacy Fund (RLF), an 18-year-old enterprise that has built a track record of combining public, private and philanthropic resources to amplify and accelerate the impact of each. RLF works with a number of funders as well as elected officials and community members on the conservation and social equity aspects of the changes we’re seeing, including sea level rise, wildfires, stormwater runoff and drought. RLF’s experience is that this work engages leaders, communities and constituencies that have not necessarily been involved in climate change prevention efforts, but who recognize the need to respond to and prepare for what is likely to be a set of interconnected and rolling emergencies.

California Proposition 68 offers a good example of RLF’s approach. Applying science, research and polling, RLF (and its partner 501(c)4 organization, Fund for a Better Future) developed a strategy with a collaboration of funders and diverse partners to help the legislature craft a $4.1 billion public investment in state and local parks, land conservation, water projects and climate resilience. RLF made sure that 40 percent of those funds will go to frontline communities hardest hit by drought and other effects of climate change. Voters approved the bond in June, and RLF will be there to ensure that the public’s money is well spent over the long term.

Of course, RLF and its partners are not alone. A handful of funders have taken a lead in this area. For example, the Kresge and Summit Foundations support climate adaptation initiatives around the country and fund the institutions and networks that link local efforts into a national field of practice. The Rockefeller Foundation’s “Resilient by Design” project engaged communities to envision how preparing for uncertainty in the future can improve health and quality of life now. For all of the good work, however, philanthropic commitments made to date are still a small fraction of what will be needed to catalyze the far larger public and private resources that will be required to meet the challenge.

Meeting the challenge has the potential to change our politics. It could switch the frame from global doom and gloom to local aspiration and action. It might move people from the denial or despair that can come with the description of a planetary emergency to empowerment and a sense of agency, as they determine local risks, evaluate adaptation options, and make decisions anchored in local conversations. It can also democratize our efforts; the responsibility of identifying and evaluating options limits the role of experts and puts citizens—including those most at risk—in the decision-making seat.

The closer we are to the ground, the more the work of climate change prevention and adaptation overlap and can nurture more collaborative politics. Smart land use planning and building codes can reduce vulnerability to climate hazards and slow climate change, while sustaining the construction industry, including employment in construction and attendant sectors—exactly the sort of crosscutting incentive that could bridge a local political divide.

The same is true for effective reforestation efforts, marine ecosystem management and a range of climate-sensitive agricultural practices. To take one specific example, residents of rural forest communities are being employed in U.S. Forest Service-driven projects to better manage forests for climate adaptation and to minimize mega-fire occurrences. These projects improve local economies while also improving adaptability and resilience.

Prosperous, well-governed, democratic communities have more resources and capacity to devote to protecting themselves from current hazards and adapting to deal with new ones. This is why any successful climate agenda will go well beyond the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and may not be thought of as a climate agenda at all.

This approach is both practical and trend setting. It refutes the notion that the public should sit passively while market forces solve the big problems. It restores the idea that we can take action through government in a way no private actor can, investing in infrastructure at scale and in creating conditions conducive to more fair and equitable outcomes. And it asserts agency and self-determination in defining local and national responses to serious global problems. Simply asking the key question, unrestricted by ideology or partisanship—“what support do individuals and communities need to safeguard human and environmental well-being?”—would help ensure that the search for political alternatives includes people facing the reality of change, working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also building and shoring up communities and natural systems.

Moving beyond climate experts and activists to include a broader set of constituencies will also draw new funders. They will, in turn, help provide the resources needed to create a politics capable of progress at the scale and pace we need.

Focusing on issues that are concrete and immediate won’t end disagreements or partisanship. But it could move us beyond the stalemate where one side denies there’s a problem, to a competition of ideas about how to address it. That looks like the beginning of a better, more effective politics.

Peter Teague is Vice President of the Resources Legacy Fund