Philanthropists and foundations must invest to tackle climate change

23 May 2019
6 min read

UK’s top scientists issue unprecedented appeal to charitable foundations and philanthropists to increase funding for environmental action.

Eleven of the UK’s leading scientists have today issued an open letter to the philanthropic community, calling on them to allocate grant funding and investment capital to help to address climate change and prevent ecological collapse.

The letter calls on CEOs and Chairs of the top 100 UK foundations, and the top 100 high net worth families, to mobilise their resources to support climate action. Signatories include Professor Chris Rapley CBE, Professor of Climate Science at University College London, and Professor Joanna Haigh, Emeritus Professor of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment.

Despite some growth in recent years, environmental philanthropy still represents less than 3% of total giving by UK foundations. Only £105m out of £4bn trust and foundation giving goes towards the environment, and a high proportion of this focuses on conservation, rather than climate change and supporting the transition to a net zero carbon economy.

In the first direct plea to funders issued by the UK’s scientific community, co-ordinated by Angela Terry, Founder and CEO of Climate Alliance, the open letter states:

As scientists across disciplines, we are writing to you to ask that you look at, reflect upon and then act with all possible resources to respond to the extraordinary ecological collapse that is happening now.

The work that is being led to counter these threats is desperately under-funded and we are writing to request that you consider an extraordinary increase in your funding to these causes for this critical ten-year period.

We are writing to implore you to urgently consider significant investment to prevent further ecological catastrophe – whether through your endowments, grant giving or personal wealth.

There are many ways you could do this … from civil society and social movements, to green investment in research and innovation, to strategic litigation and public education, the communities working in this field are largely starved of the funding they need.
The UK’s leadership role in the climate crisis in indubitable. If we can transition to a truly sustainable model it will influence and inform others around the world. 

We have written to you understanding that you will be stretched with the fantastic work you are already supporting. We still hope that you find space to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and respond in kind to prevent infinitely greater social need in the future.

The appeal comes in the wake of a growing body of evidence on the impact of climate change and the urgency of the crisis. Last year’s IPCC report advised that we have 12 years to cut global emissions by 45% or face an existential threat, while this month’s UN report on biodiversity, revealed that human activity is threatening the existence of over a million plant and animal species.

Professor Joanna Haigh CBE, award-winning physicist, lead author of the 2001 IPCC report, and contributor to all subsequent reports, said:

“I signed this letter because climate change is already damaging human lives and livelihoods across the globe, in addition to its increasingly apparent impact on the natural world, and action across all sectors is urgently needed to minimise the damage. Philanthropic giving could contribute in a very significant way to addressing the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities as well as supporting innovative approaches to mitigating its effects.”

Public opinion is also evolving; only 30% of the British public think charities should be allowed to invest in fossil fuel companies, 46% think they should not be allowed. Another poll indicated that 80% of the public are concerned about climate change – the highest proportion since records began (35% very concerned; 45% fairly concerned). Professor Chris Rapley CBE, Winner of the Edinburgh Science Medal 2008, said:

“As the disruption to Earth’s natural systems accelerates, we need to do much more to connect scientific knowledge with societal action. 
The critical nature of this challenge, combined with inadequate resources to address it, puts at risk our wellbeing and that of all future generations. 
But by marshalling and delivering new funding at scale, the UK’s incredible civil society, charity and research sectors could transform the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. 
Our community of scientists has not previously appealed in such a direct way to the country’s wealthiest, but these are unprecedented times and we need to find new ways to convert knowledge to action.”

Sophie Marple, who founded the Gower St Foundation, said:

“Our foundation never previously focused on climate change but I’ve been shocked, given the enormity of the threat, how under-resourced the space is. We feel a duty to act and will
commit a significant portion of our funding to critical environmental work moving forward. As this letter from scientists shows us, there’s no longer any space for separation between ‘environmental’ and ‘social’ philanthropy.”

Angela Terry, CEO and Founder of the Climate Alliance, said:

“The world is facing a perfect storm of challenges that together threaten the future of our society. But the work being led by the scientific community to counter these threats is desperately under-funded.

Together, the foundations and individuals we have written to today have the power to change the course of history for us and for future generations. This is why we are calling on
them to mobilise their resources, whether through endowments, personal wealth or grant giving, to halt our ecological crisis.”

Additional quotes:

Kristina Johansson, who founded the Solberga Foundation, said:

“In the last year our family foundation made the decision to focus most of our funding on climate justice work – we see climate change as so inherently linked to inequality that social
justice funders need to be involved in supporting a just transition to a low carbon society.”

Jen Hooke, CEO of the Thirty Percy Foundation, said:

“As a charitable foundation that exists for public benefit, we’ve decided we must invest in ways consistent with our purpose and with a just transition to a post carbon society. With the
IPCC report last year and Greta Thunberg’s incredible leadership, we’re finding more and more foundations are excited to connect and explore how our sector can be at the forefront of meeting this challenge.”

The letters were signed by eleven leading UK scientists:

Professor Myles Allen, Head of the Climate Dynamics Group, Oxford University.
Professor Achim Dobermann, Director and Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research.
Professor Nick Eyre, Professor of Energy and Climate Policy, Oxford University, Jackson Senior Research Fellow in Energy at the ECI and Oriel College, and Director of the UK Centre for Research on Energy Demand.
Professor Piers Forster, Professor of Physical Climate Change and Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate, University of Leeds.
Professor Joanna Haigh CBE, Emeritus Professor of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London.
Sir David Anthony King, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, 2000-2007; Full-time UK Climate Envoy, 2013-2017.
Professor Matt Leach, Professor of Energy and Environmental Systems, University of Surrey.
Professor Mark Maslin FRGS, FRSA, Professor of Climatology, University College London.
Professor Chris Rapley CBE, Professor of Climate Science, University College London, Winner of the Edinburgh Science Medal 2008.
Professor Julia K. Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics, University of Leeds.
Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, Professor of Environmental Psychology, Cardiff University.

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