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Rapson: COP26 reminds us that every foundation, administration can have meaningful impact on climate change

Environment, From the President

We will all read and see coverage over the next few weeks about the vitally important conversations – and hopefully, decisions – that emerge from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. For those who may not be familiar, the UK is currently hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) from Oct. 31 – Nov. 12.

I’d like to add a few comments at the edges.

First, President Biden set the tone – and hopefully, the stage – in exactly the right terms.

He noted upon arriving: “To state the obvious, we meet with the eyes of history upon us and with profound questions before us. Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us, or will we condemn future generations to suffer? This is the decade that will determine the answer.”

Following on his promise to act, the Biden administration announced Tuesday that for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency intends to limit the methane coming from roughly 1 million existing oil and gas rigs across the United States. This announcement shows the U.S. is serious about mitigating climate change.

Second, the urgency of action, beyond rhetoric, appears to have taken hold.

Conference attendees have heard – and will continue to hear – from the United States a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half in the next decade. The infrastructure and Build Back Better bills would deploy $555 billion to accelerate this country’s investment in green infrastructure, renewable energy sources, and electric vehicles, among others. Once the legislation has passed, this signifies a commitment from this country’s private sector to provide technical and financial assistance to the adaptation challenges being felt by vulnerable communities.

Third, the political and financial complexities of climate finance will take center stage.

The question is likely to be called on whether “developed” nations are capable and prepared to actualize their commitment to mobilize $100 billion per year to help “developing” countries reduce emissions and adapt to new climate realities. As hard as it is, and will be, to agree on the dramatic reduction in emissions necessary to avoid the dreaded 2-degree Celsius increase (to say nothing of the 1.5-degree ceiling articulated in the Paris Climate Accord), it may be equally difficult to agree on investments on that scale. Throw the wrenches of China’s and Russia’s absence into the mix, and you have the makings of an unseemly and exasperating policy cul-de-sac.

Fourth, Kresge’s strategies are deeply consonant with the United States’ rhetoric, its legislative package and its future commitments.

Our Environment Program has developed a deeply intentional and highly strategic approach to infusing community-based equity into the decision and resource-allocation processes shaping the nation’s climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Over a decade, the team has built a portfolio of investments unique among national philanthropy in its elevation of the imperative of equipping low-wealth communities of color to participate meaningfully in the climate-related decisions that affect their lives.

Fifth, this extraordinary moment underscores the wisdom of integrating climate into all aspects of Kresge’s operations.

We’ve had many compelling and essential – but complex and nuanced – conversations about how Kresge as a whole – beyond the work of our Environment Program – can best contribute in multiple dimensions to addressing the climate change crisis. This is a conversation and path of action that will work collaboratively to evolve over time rather than crystalize in an instant, as it requires all our departments and program teams to think outside the well-defined edges of comfortable practice. Yet ultimately, this work will contribute to what we stand for as an organization.

To accelerate our efforts, we are asking ourselves these questions internally, and we encourage other funders to do the same:

  1. What steps can we take that will incorporate an environmental stewardship ethic into the Foundation’s operating code – how does it become a gateway principle of all our operations? How might it affect facilities, purchasing processes, portfolio investments and other operational aspects of our philanthropic machinery? How can the aggregation of these efforts become more than the sum of its parts?
  2. How will our Environment Program continue to fortify and expand its leadership role in the field of climate change practice and policy – what existing practices need to be reinforced? What new approaches need to be cultivated?
  3. How do all of our program teams contribute to sharpening the focus and impact of our Environment Program’s distinctive approach to infusing equity, justice and resident agency into our work in communities – how can each of our programs ask the “climate question,” interrogating how their strategies and investments contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions and to more effective adaptation to the inevitable effects of climate change, all seen through the lens of equity and justice?
  4. In turn, how can the Environment team’s strategies and investments become more deeply embedded into our programs – how can we deepen an already robust practice of jointly-developed initiatives like SPARCC and Climate Change, Health & Equity? How can the Environment team’s efforts reinforce the objectives and methods of our place-based programs?

It’s hard to think that any one of us, or any Foundation, or even any presidential administration can have meaningful impact on an existential challenge of such scale and complexity. But we have to think that. As our Environment team frequently reminds, every action that bends the curve, even slightly, is an action in the right direction. We all need to pay attention to what the assembled nations agree to do – and then pay even closer attention to whether they do it.