Climate change is important, but calls for philanthropy to do lots more ring hollow

Apr 2, 2020

William E. Simon Foundation president and Manhattan Institute senior fellow James Piereson responds to arguments that foundations should join together in doing more to eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions on an emergency basis.

This article was published as a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on March 31, 2020.


In “Philanthropy Must Stop Fiddling While the World Burns,” published in the January issue, Larry Kramer of the Hewlett Foundation argues that other foundations should join with him in devoting a large share of donations to organizations that are trying to “eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions.” His logic: If we do not slow down global warming from industrial emissions, then all other programs supported by foundations will “fall apart” due to impending civilizational collapse. (Even with this alarming forecast, Kramer says that his foundation will allocate only one-third of its grant funds to climate change.)

Kramer is not alone in the world of philanthropy in declaring a “climate emergency.” In recent weeks Bill and Melinda Gates announced that fighting climate change would be among their key priorities in the years ahead, while Jeff Bezos announced the formation of the Bezos Earth Fund with an initial capitalization of $10 billion. Climate activists have called upon foundations to scale up their funding in this area, even to the extent of spending down their endowments and setting aside other priorities.

Kramer asks if he is wrong to highlight the perils of climate change and to demand vast expenditures to address it. “If so,” he writes, “I wish someone would explain why.” I am glad to accept his challenge, while acknowledging the importance of the issue.

Let’s take a deep breath to consider what science and economics tell us about this complex problem.

Kramer provides a litany of extreme heat and weather claims and projections from computer models that are confounded with thousands of unknowable parameters and interactions: “The damage to our planet is already burdening our political and economic systems, but these stresses will grow exponentially in the coming years—ravaging the lives of our children and their children for many generations unless we act to mitigate climate change now.”

Burn rates

Kramer is not alone in using inflamed rhetoric to describe the climate challenge, even as new scientific data contradict the projected dangers of CO2 and methane emissions. Basic science tells us, as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges, that most of the 1-degree warming in the industrial age has been because of natural causes, mostly in rebound from the “Little Ice Age” running from the 14th through the 19th centuries, rather than to CO2 emissions.

Warming from methane emissions has been greatly exaggerated; in fact, the warming from methane will be about ten times smaller than the already modest warming due to CO2.

Statistical tests on increasingly reliable data show that the world is not “burning” (or drying or storming or flooding) any more than it ever has naturally. The IPCC confirms that there have been no significant increases over the century in hurricane or tornadic activity, in rainfall, or in drought conditions, as some have claimed and others have forecast.

Kramer calls for an end to fossil fuels, but does not mention the obvious fact that renewable technology (wind and solar) is nowhere near ready for the primetime task of powering modern economies. A review of their true costs shows that they are at least four times as expensive an energy source as the abundant and inexpensive natural gas available today from fracking technology. In addition, renewables are not as “clean” as everyone thinks because they rely upon dirty mining in developed nations as solar panels, batteries, and turbines wear out and must be replaced.

Kramer sees a time when “the oceans are all but dead, freshwater supplies have become scarce, crop yields plummet, and prices for food and other essentials soar.” His fears are contradicted by the science of CO2. The oceans are healthy, crop yields are up, and food prices stable in part because of CO2 emissions.

Yes, CO2 is a mild warming gas, but it is a miracle molecule, a plant and phytoplankton food, and a building block of life itself. The United Nations, in its many reports on the subject, acknowledges that “greenhouse gases occur naturally and are essential to the survival of humans and millions of other living things, by keeping some of the sun’s warmth from reflecting back into space and making Earth livable.”

Kramer thinks that cities will “start suffering the remorseless effects of continuing sea rise, and mass migrations that dwarf what we see today.” But the U.N. finds that the rate of sea-level rise is the same today as it was in the period 1920-1950, before there were sufficient CO2 emissions to have a measurable warming effect. And migration is largely a matter of politics and economics, with climate factoring into the situation hardly at all.

“Our children’s future”

Finally, we come to Kramer’s main worry: our children’s future. “Whose social and economic gains do they think will be sacrificed first? It will be, of course, the poor, the elderly, the young, the marginalized.” How, he asks, can we look our children in the eye?

In fact, global economic growth since 1950 that was fueled by cheap and reliable fossil fuels has reduced infant mortality dramatically and increased life expectancy by about 20 years in most countries. The postwar economic miracle in North America, Europe, and Asia could never have occurred absent cheap and abundant energy supplied by fossil fuels. Only in Africa, where about a third of homes have any electricity and almost all factories suffer blackouts, has life expectancy remained flat. Africa needs clean water and solid growth, and that means cheap and reliable energy. In the complex and constrained arena of African development, only fossil fuels can provide that today.

Even with the most extreme assumptions about climate change, the government’s “social cost of carbon” models project that if fossil fuels continue to provide 80 percent of all energy well into the future, the average annual family income in the world will rise 20 times over the next 200 to 300 years. That wealth and income growth will be more than sufficient for families, let alone governments, to afford precautionary steps should those highly unlikely projections come to pass.

Kramer tells us that “the amount of global philanthropy aimed at putting the world on the path to a reasonable climate future is disgraceful—there’s no other word for it.” Well, there is another word for it: understandable. Reasonable people are unlikely to make great economic and political sacrifices, with attendant costs to real people, to forestall a hypothetical and always extended climate crisis in 50, 100, or 200 years. He is free to dedicate his foundation’s resources to the issue, though his declaration of a “climate crisis” rings hollow when we consider that he is prepared to allocate only one-third of those funds to address it.

Foundation funding for advocacy groups seeking a political solution to the climate challenge is never going to bring about the result Kramer and others seek. The record of climate philanthropy thus far is one of dismal failure even on its own terms. Vast sums spent for public advocacy have neither persuaded the public, according to just about every opinion survey, nor achieved serious policy change or emissions reductions commensurate with the modest near-term goals of the various international targets.

It is hard to take seriously philanthropists who support ideological advocacy groups that distort the scientific evidence and try to scare the public, while opposing the only practical existing technologies (fracking for natural gas and nuclear power) proven to reduce both carbon dioxide emissions and true pollutants like sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. If there are other solutions out there, then they are most likely to be found through research, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Contra Mr. Kramer, a more constructive approach will be to abandon inflammatory rhetoric and worst-case projections, while closely monitoring climate developments and working to create a better world for everyone by building upon the knowledge, technology, and resources available today.