May 20, 2013

How Philanthropy Can Help Communities Advance Climate Change Adaptation

Hurricane Sandy elevated nascent interest in climate adaptation and underscored the need for communities to plan for and invest in infrastructure projects that consider the impacts of climate change. It is within this context that philanthropy has a powerful role to play, by helping catalyze and nurture adaptation projects.

By: Karim Al-Khafaji
Photo: iStockphoto/Andrii Gatash

Executive Summary

The climate change discussion amongst policy makers and environmentalists long has centered on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions linked to rising global temperatures. Philanthropy followed their lead, placing big bets on mitigation efforts.

Hurricane Sandy changed the conversation. The most devastating storm in memory to hit coastal New York and New Jersey underscored the need to elevate nascent interest in climate change adaptation to the public policy center stage. In short, how can communities plan for and invest in infrastructure projects today to take into consideration the likely impacts of climate change in the future.

Infrastructure upgrades benefit everyone, but some projects take into consideration the special needs of disadvantaged populations—those who otherwise lack the resources needed to prepare and recover from climate change hazards. It’s within this context that philanthropy can play a powerful role in catalyzing and nurturing projects that adapt communities to inevitable climate change.

In The Bridgespan Group’s discussions with leaders of pioneering adaptation efforts, we’ve identified five investment models philanthropic funders can follow. In time, additional models may take shape, but these five reflect the current range of starting points that emerged from our research.

  • Support local science by local scientists: Local science can scale global issues to community circumstances and be more persuasive than work conducted by far-off experts.
  • Invest in neutral conveners: A credible and trusted convener can help reach across political and socioeconomic divides to bring diverse stakeholders to the table and keep them there.
  • Support community advocacy for change: Grassroots organizations that can mobilize local residents can help to set an agenda and build political will to overcome the status quo.
  • Build the field to share adaptation strategies: Building a field of practice around climate adaptation will accelerate the progress of local actors through shared knowledge and resources.
  • Re-frame the dialogue around people and social benefits: Climate has long been narrowly-construed as an environmental interest, but climate adaptation raises fundamental questions of fairness and equity for impacted communities. Philanthropy can help flip the debate from the polarizing politics of climate science to a productive discussion of resilience and reinvestment in our communities

These five philanthropic investment approaches provide a framework for action and offer opportunities for philanthropy to lead the way in protecting people and property in harm’s way of future catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy.

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