This op-ed originally appeared on The Chronicle of Philanthropy website.
Philanthropy's role in fighting climate change has focused mostly on supporting projects to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases on global warming. But Hurricane Sandy's unwelcome arrival last fall underscored the need to put front and center efforts to help people and communities adapt to the weather changes that are already putting lives and businesses in jeopardy.
Just a few days after Sandy barreled through the region, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York tacitly fingered climate change as a culprit and warned of the need to prepare for more of the same.
"It is not prudent to sit here ... and say, it's not going to happen again," said Governor Cuomo. "Once you have that recognition, then what are you doing about it, and what design changes, what construction changes, are you making to deal with it?"
Philanthropists who focus on all kinds of causes—not just the environment—need to think about these issues. After all, the poor and elderly are among those most likely to be hurt by catastrophes caused by climate change.
But what can philanthropy do to help deal with the inevitable?
Interviews we conducted with more than 30 grant makers and environmentalists found few grant makers focused on ways to help communities adapt to effects of climate change. As one foundation official noted, "Going after adaptation feels like giving up on mitigation."
If Sandy dramatically demonstrated why grant makers also need to focus on helping us adapt, the draft of the third National Climate Assessment, released in January, provided the scientific call to action. The report warns of widespread challenges as the country becomes hotter, rainfall becomes both more intense and more erratic, and rising seas and storm surges threaten America's coasts. It's time, the report concludes, for policy makers to begin preparing for a warmer world.
Foundations that want to consider grant making to deal with such issues need to think about how to help governments recalibrate their approach to paying for infrastructure projects, especially city and state officials in areas subject to major storms and flooding. Even though most of the billions of dollars spent annually on such projects come from federal and state governments, local governments make the key decisions about what projects get priority.
Foundations can spark fresh approaches to such spending decisions, as well as push other efforts that will encourage Americans to think about what they need to become more resilient as we all feel the effects of climate change in our own communities. In a very real way, philanthropy can ensure that funds are spent more effectively.
Here are five ways that both local and national grant makers can make a difference:
Support local science by local scientists. In the American cities most often cited for pioneering efforts on climate adaptation, including Chicago, New York, San Diego, and Seattle, high-quality research prepared by local scientific authorities has been a key part of the approaches. When it comes time to debate the risks and benefits of costly projects, such as building a sea wall or managing land use along retreating coastlines, local scientists can figure out how best to apply cutting-edge research. The analysis and recommendations of nearby universities and research institutes may prove more persuasive to policy makers and voters than work by far-off experts.
Provide a neutral forum for everyone who's affected. Lots of players need to get involved in helping communities adapt: government agencies that focus on transportation; environmental and public-works agencies; businesses, community leaders, scientists, and others. Philanthropy is in a good position to reach across political and socioeconomic divides to bring such diverse groups to the table and keep them there for what will inevitably be a long-term effort.
The San Diego Foundation cast itself in that role by holding meetings of local governments, nonprofits, and others. It formed committees of organizations with a stake in preventing damage from climate change, as well as those that could deal with the nitty-gritty issues involving science and construction.
They were instrumental in developing the "Focus 2050" study, published in 2008. It explores implications of climate change for the San Diego region over the next several decades and serves as a guide for community action.
Support community advocacy for change. Powerful interests don't always have much reason to support new efforts to adapt to climate change. For example, developers may resist zoning restrictions or coastal set-back requirements. Such special-interest groups usually know how to use the political process to push their agendas. Other voices, particularly those who represent the poor and elderly, need to be heard. Philanthropy can support grass-roots organizations that help set an agenda for policy makers.
A Kresge Foundation background paper, "Climate Adaptation as an Evolutionary Process," shows how grass-roots advocacy and other efforts supported by foundations can involve citizens to create pressure to act. It urges bringing to the table "community members most vulnerable to climate change, often the disadvantaged and local champions who have trust and connections in the community."
Build and share expertise. National philanthropy has a vital role to play in developing more knowledge about adaptation efforts and sharing them. Local groups will benefit from being able to draw on such knowledge and applying it to their own efforts.
For example, since 2009, the Kresge Foundation has been one of the few national foundations that have focused on ways to adapt to climate change. Its efforts to build knowledge about this topic have focused on strengthening research and developing networks, tools, and information resources to promote informed action. The foundation has been a major sponsor of the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange, which seeks to make it easy for everyone to find information about how to manage natural systems in the face of rapid climate change.
Focus the conversation on the human toll of climate change. Philanthropy has a critical role to play in spotlighting the people who are most vulnerable to the problems caused by climate change. The elderly and the poor are most likely to be hard hit, so communities must grapple with fundamental questions of fairness and equity when they don't act fast enough to prevent the kind of damage that happened after Hurricane Sandy.
Journalists, bloggers, and others could become powerful allies in getting the public to focus on the human effects of climate change.
"Paying attention to the needs of members of the media—reporters, media entrepreneurs, bloggers—with respect to adaptation outreach and education can't be emphasized enough," said Roger Stephenson, an adviser to the nonprofit Clean Air-Cool Planet. Realizing how important journalists are to informing people about climate change, the organization has begun experimenting with ways to connect reporters to up-to-date information on the subject.
All of these approaches go against the conventional wisdom in philanthropy: Attack the causes of a problem, not the symptoms. But it's too late to focus only on efforts to curb climate change; we must recognize that change is here and act now to help people and protect the property most vulnerable to catastrophe. It's time for philanthropy to help to lead the way.
Robert Searle is a partner at the Bridgespan Group, and Karim Al-Khafaji, a former Bridgespan manager, is now an engagement manager at Opower.