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With Peoples’ Protests Mounting, Why Are Philanthropists Lagging Behind on Climate Change?

June 2019

People are taking to the streets on climate change around the globe, tired of inaction by public officials and risking arrest to intentionally cause disruption. It’s time to step back, bring out the wide angle lens, and aggressively pursue a paradigm shift to match peoples’ climate actions in the philanthropy sector.

For decades, philanthropic investments have focused on reducing fossil fuel usage—an important and noble mission. However, it’s been at the expense of more systemic solutions, while wasting precious time. In the last decade, billions have been spent on national climate policy in the U.S., with little return. Relying on solutions supported by governmental, corporate, and old-guard donation strategies have mostly failed. Luckily community-driven initiatives and grassroots movements around the world are offering innovative, effective, and paradigm-shifting climate solutions, critical to achieving a 1.5°C future.

Investment in a multiplicity of community-led climate solutions would mean durable and scalable progress on feeding the planet, stopping the fossil fuel industry and deforestation, and advancing public health. Let’s take one example. The Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF) promotes seed saving and agroecology practices that enhance resilience to climate change and draws down carbon into sustainable soil practices. These measures provide biodiversity protection across the country and food security for more than 19,000 rural farmers and their families.

ZIMSOFF is also a leader within La Via Campesina, a movement of 200 million peasant farmers worldwide spreading sustainable agricultural practices across the globe. If investments in these groups were made at scale, it would prevent the same amount of carbon as China would produced till 2050 from entering the atmosphere.

A groundswell of motivated people can act together and have large and lasting impacts. For example, when the Ecuadorian government approved oil drilling in land titled to the Kichwa people of Sarayaku without their permission, community organizing with national and international allies led to the Sarayaku successfully kicking the oil companies out and keeping an estimated 100 million barrels of oil in the ground. By supporting community-driven work in regions that suffer the most from centuries of our extractive economic practices, strategic and appropriate philanthropic investments in movements offers another opportunity to unleash effective climate solutions.

A moratorium on fossil fuel development, for which the protection of Indigenous territories is paramount, would prevent the same amount of carbon from entering the atmosphere as is stored in all the world’s forests.

Research reviewed in the new report, Soil to Sky: Climate Solutions That Work, shows that community-based solutions like agroecology, community governance of renewables, and strengthening property rights on Indigenous lands can sequester hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide, and are essential to achieving a more equitable future. Climate-impacted communities have vital solutions because they are living closest to the problem and because their future depends on self-determination. They know that philanthropy and aid is limited, capricious, and unstable.

Highly industrialized nation-states must face the fact that we can only save the planet from heightened climate catastrophe with help from and collaboration with leaders from the Global South, Indigenous communities, and everyday people with the greatest stake in our planet’s future.

Over the last few decades, the funders with the deepest pockets have invested in shifting national policies, reforming industry sectors, and developing new technologies. They have jump-started carbon trading markets and transformed global energy production. However, these strategies have not prevented rising temperatures, which will make part of our planet uninhabitable if we do not course correct. Of course, there isn’t enough foundation funding in the world to counter the power of the fossil fuel industry and shift the economic drivers of climate change. The underlying drivers of climate change such as resource extraction, economic exploitation, and suppressed human rights are continuing largely unchallenged by larger funders. But there is another way.

How does one make the leap? You invest in those that already have direct relationships with the movements creating on-the-ground change. Intermediaries exist as bridges between large funders and the creative grassroots innovators. They have the track record, the relationships, and the vetting procedures. They have developed appropriate evaluation and accountability measures.

From time immemorial, everyday people often come up with the best solutions to widespread problems. Call it grassroots. Or call it community-based problem-solving. But what we know for sure is that it is high time funders to listen to the people on the streets and no longer “think big,” but think wide – as in a multitude of local, creative, people-led solutions to climate change that bridge the soil to the sky.

Lindley Mease is CLIMA Fund Coordinator at Thousand Currents. A version of this piece originally appeared in Alliance Magazine.

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