Philanthropy and COP21

Labeled an “act of defiance” by U.S. President Barack Obama, the UN climate change talks in Paris commenced November 30 despite ongoing security concerns in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in France’s capital. While proceeding with the conference certainly displays a degree of fortitude in the face of extremist terror, the import of the talks stems from another dangerous security threat – that of irreversible climate change.

Leaders from 190 nations are gathered for the two week conference – also known as COP21 – which aims to nail down pledges from each participating country to cut carbon emissions in order to avert the global catastrophe of temperatures rising by more than 2°C. Some scientists, however, remain skeptical that any action emerging from COP21 will be enough.

A U.K.-based organization called Carbon Brief offers a helpful list of known pledges. To name a few:

  • The EU pledges to cut emissions by 40 percent compared to the 1990 level by 2030
  • The United States pledges to cut emissions by 28 percent compared to the 2005 level by 2025
  • Russia pledges to cut emissions by 25 to 30 percent relative to its 1990 baseline by an undisclosed benchmark

Whatever the finalized pledges may be at the end of the summit, there will be no enforcement apparatus to ensure that nations follow through with their commitments. A UN panel will monitor nations’ progress, but will possess little power to discipline or alter the course of nations acting in bad faith.

Environmental nonprofits will be on scene in Paris to make their case for bold action on behalf of climate justice. is sponsoring an event lobbying for divestment from fossil fuels – a hot topic in the world of philanthropy. Proponents of the strategy hold that by removing valuable foundation assets and other institutional investments from polluting industries, philanthropists and everyday professionals can hasten the elimination of dirty energy – an end that economists say is ultimately inevitable anyway.

In a previous piece, Key Elements Group LLC explored the ongoing campaign cosponsored by and The Guardian to encourage The Gates Foundation and The Wellcome Trust to divest from fossil fuels. In response to the campaign, Bill Gates dismissed the merits of divestment, a stance he has since reiterated in the lead-up to the summit in France. Instead, Gates champions a carbon tax.

According to proponents, a carbon tax – long favored by economists – would simultaneously deincentivize burning fossil fuels while generating the resources necessary to develop alternative forms of energy. Marrying government, the private sector, and nonprofit intermediaries, this strategy would also involve contributions to nations that face a disadvantage further developing without the fossil fuel expenditure that enabled developed nations to reach their advanced state.

The debate may present a false binary; the two strategies together would probably be more effective than either one in isolation.

The fact that all major players – including the United States and China – are at the table is a step in the right direction. The consensus on the risks of climate change is now more established than ever, and the governmental will on display in Paris is welcome. Nonprofit professionals and advocates for the social good, however, still need to keep pushing the envelope in order to win a more secure future for the earth’s inhabitants.

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