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Climate Change Lags Behind Other Issues On Charitable Giving Despite Large Donations


Adapting to climate change and avoiding the worst of it is going to cost money. Now some wealthy individuals and foundations say they're chipping in. They've committed more than a billion dollars for research into climate change and adaptation. Here's NPR's Nathan Rott on the role of philanthropy in climate finance.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The donation that made headlines last week was the second largest ever given to an American University - $750 million to the California Institute of Technology for research into climate change and environmental sustainability. As such, it made waves in the climate finance community.

BARBARA BUCHNER: I - of course. I'm like, why didn't they give this to us? But no, like, (laughter) I think it's a great thing.

ROTT: Barbara Buchner is the executive director of the climate finance program at the Climate Policy Initiative, a research nonprofit.

BUCHNER: There is a real need to invest more in research and development in the climate space across different sectors and topics, and I've not really seen kind of a - huge donations like that happening.

ROTT: So the gift, made by California billionaires and agricultural giants Stewart and Lynda Resnick, was a pleasant surprise, but it wasn't the only one. Just days before, at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed more than $300 million to help small-scale food producers who are facing the effects of a changing climate. Buchner sees it as a positive step.

BUCHNER: Hopefully it will be the beginning of a trend.

ROTT: Because thus far, climate change has lagged far behind other issues when it comes to charitable giving. Alicia Seiger is the managing director of the Sustainable Finance Initiative at Stanford University. She says Americans gave more than $400 billion just last year. The amount of that that went specifically to climate research or energy innovation...

ALICIA SEIGER: It's small, small dollars.

ROTT: Philanthropists, Seiger says, still see climate change as a niche environment or conservation issue.

SEIGER: When, in fact, it is the ultimate threat amplifier to all of the other program areas in a foundation - you know, social services, education, health.

ROTT: All areas that will be greatly affected by a changing climate. So why have philanthropists been so hesitant to give? Seiger says it's partly due to how the issue has been politicized.

SEIGER: So, like, if you're a public figure and you want to maintain some sort of image of neutrality, you can give to cancer research. No one's going to judge you for that. But you put a whole bunch of money into climate and you're labeled as a something.

ROTT: Now, that may be evolving. A growing number of Republicans are expressing concern about a changing climate. But the politicization of the issue cuts deep. The Trump administration has tried to slash federal funding around climate research numerous times but has been largely stifled by Congress, which still controls the purse strings. Jonas Peters, the director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech who is helping facilitate and direct the $750 million gift his university got, says that's why philanthropic gifts are so important.

JONAS PETERS: Federal support for research has an ebb and flow to it. We're always in such an environment, but that type of support that a donor, philanthropist, a supporter - whatever you want to call it - provides, it sort of gives you this home base.

ROTT: That institutions can lean on and leverage to do the long-term type of research and innovation that is so desperately needed.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN SHIELDS' "IKEBANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.