More Donors Need to Support Innovative Climate Solutions

The Nathan Cummings Foundation


More Donors Need to Support Innovative Climate Solutions

Chronicle of Philanthropy

February 20, 2011
More Donors Need to Support Innovative Climate Solutions
By Lance Lindblom and Peter Teague

In the wake of serial disappointments, a new consensus is beginning to emerge that may guide climate and energy policy into a new and more constructive phase, with philanthropy poised to play a key role.

Environmental groups-and the foundations that support them-spent the past decade pressing a single approach to global-warming policy.

The problem was defined narrowly-if accurately-as the emission of too much heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere from the burning of oil, coal, and gas.

The solution was to reduce those emissions by making conventional energy expensive enough to change how individuals and corporations consume energy and, most important, to drive massive levels of private investment into energy efficiency and clean-energy alternatives.

The events of the past two years, however, with the failure of the environmentalists' strategy in the U.S. Senate and the collapse of international climate talks in Copenhagen, made it clear that substantially raising the price of fossil fuels is not a viable option.

Recognizing the need to rethink the problem and to open the conversation to a larger set of solutions, philanthropy has begun to support the development of new approaches focused on making clean energy cheap in absolute terms.

We have been challenged to move beyond the idea that global warming is simply a pollution problem and to see its economic, social, technological, and national-security aspects. What has become clear is the central role energy innovation will play in stabilizing the climate. What has also become clear is the need to involve more foundations and individual donors with diverse interests and philanthropic missions.

A solution on the same scale as the problem-meaning nothing less than the transformation of the world's energy economy-will also offer a way forward as we seek to curb global poverty, improve human health, and ease the tensions caused by the world's dependence on oil.

Even as we move away from thinking in terms of a single all-encompassing climate strategy, one idea has the potential to shape a new consensus and change the game.

Instead of trying to reduce the emissions that cause global warming by making the burning of fossil fuels prohibitively expensive, the strategy is to make direct public investments in the technological platforms that will make clean energy cheap and abundant.

This strategy is gaining momentum. The president made the need for increased federal investments in clean energy one of the first items of business in his State of the Union address.

Corporate leaders, scholars, and philanthropists are joining the call for action. Bill Gates recently advocated such an approach when he and other high-tech executives called for tripling federal spending on energy research and development. Other experts, such as the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, the former chief executive of Intel, Andrew Grove, and dozens of Nobel Laureates have advocated for much larger public investments in energy innovation.

The necessary revenue can be raised in many ways. A small increase in energy prices (a nickel on a gallon of gas), for example, would be enough to raise $25-billion to $30-billion a year. By creating the kind of public-private partnerships that brought us a revolution in agricultural productivity, scores of medical innovations, and a whole set of "dual use" military innovations that transformed the U.S. economy in the 20th century (aviation, radios, microchips, computing, the Internet, and more), investment at this scale should be enough to catalyze significant levels of clean-energy innovation, attract substantial private investment, and create the context for widespread adoption of new technologies.

Unlike legislation that stalled in the Senate last year, this approach has the advantage of bipartisan appeal.

Think tanks and political leaders from across the political spectrum have endorsed the idea, including President Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, and the American Enterprise Institute on the right; the Brookings Institution in the center; and Sen. John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and the Breakthrough Institute on the left. The conservative columnist George Will recently wrote that "stoking that fire" of innovation is "more than ever, a proper federal function."

The strategy doesn't require complete agreement on the problem. Conservatives who have expressed doubt about the science of global warming are concerned about competing with massive Chinese investments in clean-energy technologies and the growing threat to American competitiveness.

Another set of experts is focused on the national-security benefits of affordable clean energy and easing America's addiction to fossil fuels.

Still others want to see a level of investment that would create jobs and jump-start a robust economic recovery.

Each of those benefits adds to the political calculus that makes investments in clean energy a more attractive prospect than significantly increasing the price of conventional energy.

Perhaps most important, the focus on a "clean-energy quest"-as opposed to a primary focus on reducing emissions-offers an important set of advantages for the billions of people who do not have access to modern energy. According to the United Nations Development Programme:

"Energy is central to sustainable development and poverty-reduction efforts. It affects all aspects of development-social, economic, and environmental-including livelihoods, access to water, agricultural productivity, health, population levels, education, and gender-related issues. None of the Millennium Development Goals can be met without major improvement in the quality and quantity of energy services in developing countries."

Given that the bulk of the anticipated increase in greenhouse-gas emissions in this century will come from rapidly developing economies, universal access to clean energy becomes the sine qua non of fighting global warming and ending poverty for people in the world's poorest regions.

Large-scale public investments in the technologies we need-and don't yet have-will be a key factor in whether we succeed in alleviating poverty, promoting international security, creating jobs, and promoting economic competitiveness-not just in averting catastrophic global warming.

Philanthropy once contributed to narrowing the climate conversation to a single choice; it's now time to support an open process of discussion and change, to recognize that there is more than one credible approach, that what we need is an ecosystem of good ideas rather than a single complex and universal policy framework based on a narrow understanding of the problem.

Policymakers can be expected to look to new experts, many of whom have received small investments from grant makers-and need more.

These new climate thinkers have emerged from organizations including the United Nations and the think tanks like American Enterprise, Brookings, and Breakthrough. They are being joined by Bjorn Lomborg (author of The Skeptical Environmentalist) on the right and Al Gore on the left. They are all acknowledging that new public investment should be the highest priority to make clean energy cheap.

Grant makers need to take the long view. The world is warming, and we don't have time to waste on inadequate or unworkable solutions. Our job is not to win today's policy battle but to provide the resources necessary to change the context in which tomorrow's is held.

Something new, positive, and potentially game changing is emerging. We should do what we can to encourage it, providing support, not with an eye on the limits of today's politics but with the clear intention of creating a new political landscape in which effective action is not just possible but probable.

Lance Lindblom is chief executive of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in New York, where Peter Teague is director of the ecological innovation program.