The grab-a-paintbrush approach to climate change

Pioneer funders of climate projects are focusing more on individuals than institutions to ensure “applied hope,” not despair.

A worker tends a community-supported rooftop garden in Brussels, Belgium.

Much of the world’s conversation about climate change rests on a premise of victimization. Big carbon-emitting nations are imperiling developing nations. Fossil fuel companies dupe governments and consumers. Today’s generation is harming tomorrow’s generation by its carbon addiction.

Yet another conversation is happening that shies away from grievance to what Amory Lovins, a longtime apostle of energy innovation, calls “applied hope.” This is a pragmatic conviction that individuals “acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about ... expressed and created moment by moment through our choices.”

This approach can be as deceptively simple as a can of paint. In Indonesia, for example, the San Francisco-based ClimateWorks Foundation has funded local projects to paint corrugated roofs with white reflective paint to cool homes and schools. In one factory, the paint reduced inside temperatures by 20 degrees Fahrenheit on the warmest days. That kind of cooling, scaled across the world’s hotter urban regions, represents massive potential savings in energy costs.

The project by ClimateWorks represents a big shift among philanthropy organizations. After decades of lobbying governments or backing ambitious high-tech solutions to mitigate climate change, these environmental leaders are refocusing on grassroots adaptations geared to individual energy users.

“I saw firsthand how the big climate funders were directing the vast majority of their grants,” said Erin Rogers, co-director of the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “It was a very siloed approach, a very insider, technocratic, policy-driven approach that I think we’ve all come to see is failing.” Climate change, she said, needs “solutions that are people-centered, more connected.”

Climate change philanthropy is suddenly flush with cash. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos created a $10 billion Earth Fund in 2020 and has already doled out more in grants in less than two years than ClimateWorks has in nearly two decades. Other billionaires and their foundations – such as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Mr. Bezos’ former wife, MacKenzie Scott; and the Musk Foundation – have dedicated fortunes to promoting green energy and biodiversity. Nine funders pledged $5 billion toward addressing climate change at United Nations meetings last fall.

As this money is spent, its value may be measured less by the policies or technologies it promotes than by the extent to which it lifts individuals above the enormity of the challenge of climate change to a recognition of their ability to embrace new ways of thinking and acting.

“Sometimes a problem can’t be solved not because it’s too big, but because it was framed so narrowly that its boundaries don’t encompass the options, degrees of freedom, and synergies needed to solve it,” Dr. Lovins, a Stanford University professor, wrote in a recent tweet. 

A shift like the one in climate philanthropy toward individual empowerment and a people-centered approach represents a new type of freedom, one that may yet help communities and governments act with new creativity and resolve.

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