Philanthropic Opportunities for Climate Adaptation

Why climate adaptation matters, and five powerful pathways for funders to fuel change.

As the presidential debates roll into Florida, foreign policy will be the focus of this evening’s contest. Some might argue that climate change adaptation would be a more relevant topic for those in Boca Raton: South Florida has more people and property at risk due to rising sea levels than any other part of the country. But despite the plea of Florida experts from the scientific and municipal government community to address this issue in the debate, the candidates are not likely to touch on climate change, let alone adaptation.

So if the federal government won’t address climate adaptation, who will?

In his recent Stanford Social Innovation Review post, “Disadvantaged Populations Feel the Heat,” Karim Al-Khafaji outlines the extent of the problems stemming from climate change and the disproportionate impact this will have on disadvantaged populations. Some communities have begun to take action, and to adapt to what is becoming the “new normal” in terms of extreme weather events and the grim prospect of rising sea levels. Chula Vista, California, is one such community. As Bob Searle outlined in his recent post, “A Tree Grows in Chula Vista,” this community has developed a climate adaptation plan, catalyzed by the San Diego Foundation, and is changing the way it invests in infrastructure to protect itself.

How can we foster more Chula Vistas across the country? Philanthropy may be the key, and we believe that there are five powerful pathways for philanthropic funders to invest in climate adaptation:

  • Support local science and local scientists. Scientific information about the observed and potential impacts in a community’s backyard, prepared by locally trusted and credible sources, can sway public opinion and mobilize local government leaders.  A research center at the University of Arizona has helped spur action on climate adaptation in Tucson.
  • Invest in neutral conveners. Climate adaptation is multifaceted and benefits from the involvement of diverse stakeholders, but engaging stakeholders and keeping them at the table requires considerable effort and trust in the community to reach across political and socioeconomic divides. Philanthropy can support “backbone” organizations with their own independent staff to advance the initiative and coordinate participating agencies, thus fostering “collective impact.”  In the most vulnerable communities, might funders take the Strive model (where a backbone organization coordinates agencies to provide cradle to career services for disadvantaged youth) and apply it to adaptation?
  • Build the field of climate adaptation. Climate adaptation is a diffuse problem and requires local solutions that oppose special interests. More than any particular policy or intervention, progress will depend on the development of a strong field with a shared identity, common standards of practice, a robust knowledge base, and influential leaders. The Kresge Foundation and others have already begun to invest in field building, but even more support is needed to develop a strong field.
  • Re-frame adaptation around equity. Recognition that climate adaptation raises fundamental questions of fairness and equity can be a powerful motivator for sparking public discourse and applying pressure to decision-makers. As we have seen in other arenas such as health (where the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has developed a Vulnerable Populations portfolio) and education (in discussing the achievement gap), philanthropy can use its voice—publicly and pointedly—to re-frame discussions around who is likely to be most affected and who benefits from needed investments.
  • Support advocacy. Grassroots organizations are critical partners for mobilizing local residents, setting an agenda, and developing a plan for engaging with local policy makers to push from talk (or silence in many cases) to action on adaptation. Organizations such as UPROSE in Brooklyn, which has deep community ties, can continue to increase grassroots support for adaptation.

As I mentioned, some local and national funders have already begun to invest in these pathways, but it is not enough. In my own city, Boston, we have a climate action plan, but one public housing resident noted: "I love this place, but sometimes I think about 10 years from now. I read a lot, and I've read the reports that this part of Boston will be basically underwater in 30 or 50 years. ... What are our options? Where would we go?" It is our hope that her voice will be heard and philanthropic investments in adaptation will increase (from the 0.2 percent of total climate change investments today) so that disadvantaged communities can be better prepared…just on the off chance that this is not prioritized in tonight’s debate.

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  • BY Roger Stephenson

    ON October 23, 2012 09:38 AM

    Spot on.  Adaptation outreach and education is a long-haul proposition. 

    Clean Air-Cool Planet recently assessed 6 years of our work in a 84 pp report on our community-based climate and energy work. http://www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/for_communities/2012assessment.php.

    Our report (available free) reviews the assumptions we made going into various projects, shares 10 specific initiatives through case studies and shares important lessons and conclusions we’ve drawn from from our experiences. 

    We’re drawing upon our assessment to increase the impact we can have in our adaptation work.  We’ll be concentrating on the local business community as part of our work with the New Hampshire Coastal Adaptation Workgroup, (NHCAW), a ground-breaking collaboration that maximizes impact by combining expertise and resources: 19 organizations, agencies and communities helping coastal communities access and understand current scientific data, maps and planning tools in order to become better prepared for increased flooding and coastal storm surge. Through workshops, information sharing, and joint decision making, NHCAW works to find funding, guide projects, and provide outreach around climate planning to coastal NH communities. 

    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.  With input from journalists we’ve developed a “Journalist Room’ for the NH Storm Smart Coast website (http://nh-journalists.stormsmart.org/) in order to help journalists develop stories and are able to file timely stories that are consistent and accurate.

    Kresge support has been instrumental to our adaptation work, and we’re seeking funds now to engage the private sector. To date, in the regions in which we work, we find that adaptation education and outreach has focused on end users in local government, and has largely been built around the public sector. Despite the best efforts of public officials, there is still a lack of understanding among members of the business community - a constituency which is crucial for, but currently greatly under-represented in, efforts to successfully develop and implement adaptation strategies in coastal communities.

  • BY Chris Addy

    ON October 23, 2012 12:19 PM


    Thanks for your thoughtful post.  I am looking forward to reviewing you assessment and case studies.  Hopefully they can be a valuable contribution to the work so many others are doing.  It sounds like Clean Air Cool Planet may be serving the role of the “backbone” organization we note above in your collaborative, NHCAW.  It is great to see some of Kresge’s investments having an impact on local communities.  Hopefully that can draw other funders into this work.

    A lack of engagement with the business community is a fairly consistent trend we have seen in our work and we have been able to support some clients with efforts to better engage with business leaders.  It is promising to note that organizations like Tennessee SCORE in the education field and some mainstream environmental organizations like EDF, Conservation International, and the Nature Conservancy have managed to engage with businesses pretty deeply.

    I am curious to hear from others.  Do the five pathways noted in the blog post resonate?  What else are you seeing through your work?

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