Fact: Nuclear power plants generate about 20 percent of all the electric power in the US, more than hydropower (7.5%), wind (6.3%) and solar (1.3%) combined, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Put another way, they account more than half of the low-carbon electricity in the US.
Fact: The IPCC, the International Energy Agency, former energy secretary Steven Chu, climate scientist James Hansen, futurist Stewart Brand, economist Jeffrey Sachs and many other experts say that nuclear power is a vital climate change solution.
Fact: Of 2,509 grants distributed by 19 big US foundations between 2011 and 2015, not a single grant supported work on promoting or reducing the cost of nuclear energy. Not one!
Something’s wrong with this picture, no?
The first two facts are known, or should be, to anyone paying attention to climate change. The third is troubling. It comes from an analysis by Matthew Nisbet, a Northeastern University professor who studies the role of communication, journalism, and advocacy in policy debates. His report, titled Strategic philanthropy in the post-Cap-and-Trade years: Reviewing U.S. climate and energy foundation funding, was released today.
The report illustrates what Nisbet calls a “very strong, long-standing technology bias towards renewables and efficiency” among climate funders. Between 2011 and 2015, nearly a quarter of all funding from the biggest foundations was “dedicated to promoting renewable energy and efficiency-related actions with comparatively little funding devoted to other low-carbon energy technologies,” he writes. This reflects a bias not just against nuclear power but also against carbon-capture and storage technology that might–might–enable countries to burn cleaner coal.
This isn’t, however, a blogpost about nuclear power or carbon capture technology. It’s about climate philanthropy. Specifically, it’s about the way in which the groupthink of big climate funders has helped to give us a US climate movement that is neither driven by evidence nor politically powerful.
It’s also a classic example of how the lack of accountability of foundations can lead to insular thinking and ineffective grant-making.
I’ve been paying attention to the climate movement since the mid-2000s, when I covered business and sustainability for FORTUNE. Progress has been lamentably slow. Last year, I wrote a long, reported essay on climate philanthropy that The Chronicle of Philanthropy published in February under the headline, Opinion: Foundations Are Losing the Fight Against Climate Change. The essay noted that the US climate policy is today moving in the wrong direction, even as global GHG emissions continue to rise, despite the so-called pledges made in the Paris climate accord. “If philanthropy is to be judged by its outcomes — and how else should it be judged? — climate philanthropy has failed,” I wrote.
Learning from failure?
And yet. No foundation, to the best of my knowledge, has published an evaluation of its own climate grant-making, or made public a critique of any of the environmental groups or strategies that it funded. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, funders.) The only exceptions I’m aware of are a pair of reports that were commissioned, commendably, by the Rockefeller Family Fund and an evaluation of the ClimateWorks Foundation that surfaced only after WikiLeaks hacked the email account of John Podesta, who is on the foundation’s board.
Without public accountability and open debate, how can foundations and environmental nonprofits learn from their mistakes?
You’d think that we were winning the fight against climate change.
OK, I’ll climb down from my soapbox to tell you a bit about Matt Nisbet’s study. It begins with a basic premise: Foundations have helped shape the climate movement and their role deserves more scrutiny.
“Far from being passive supporters of actions to address climate change, major U.S. foundations for several decades have played an active role in defining a common roadmap for their grantees and partners,” Nisbet writes. “By framing the challenges, defining the priorities, and promoting specific ideas, philanthropists have actively shaped common ways of thinking that have bound together otherwise disconnected organizations and leaders into shared approaches and strategies.”
What’s more, he writes: “When left-of-center and progressive foundations are covered in the U.S. press, coverage tends to be predominantly positive and uncritical, deepening a lack of public scrutiny relative to their philanthropic activities, successes, and failures.”
Unlike conservative donors, i.e., the Koch brothers, whose work has been analyzed at length, the major donors and big green groups who support climate action have received scant attention. Nisbet’s research looks at big grant-makers including the Energy Foundation, ClimateWorks, Hewlett, Packard, Moore, Ford, MacArthur and Bloomberg; it covers about $556m in grants to support activities in the US, again, during the years between 2011 and 2015.
He summarizes his findings this way:
Foundations have defined climate change primarily as a pollution problem solvable by enacting a price on carbon and by shifting markets in the direction of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency practices. Funding has favored “insider” groups that push for policy action by way of negotiation, coalition building, and compromise, rather than “outsider” groups that specialize in grassroots organizing. Philanthropists have also placed less priority on funding for other low‐carbon energy sources such as nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, or natural gas, nor have they invested in actions intended to boost societal resilience, protect public health, or to address questions of equity and justice.
There’s lots to unpack in those few sentences. [For more, read the study.] Keep in mind that he is looking at the 2011-2015 period. Grant-making has evolved since the 2016 election. While there’s no data to prove it, my impression is that more money is flowing to grass-roots groups, to organizing in low-income communities, to resilience and adaptation and, importantly, to a handful of organizations like the Breakthrough Institute and the Niskanen Center that are trying to build bipartisan support for climate action.
What’s most striking about Nisbet’s analysis is the way climate funding has been concentrated among a relatively small number of organizations and a narrow range of issues. Just 20 organizations received more than half of all the funds distributed by the 19 foundations, he reports. “The consolidation of more than half of all funding among 20 groups is consistent with past critiques that foundations tend to heavily favor larger organizations that specialize in ‘insider’ strategies such as policy analysis, lobbying, and legal action,” he writes.
The Sierra Club was the biggest single recipient with $48.8m in grants, followed by Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection ($20m), The Nature Conservancy ($19.3m), The Partnership Project, which is a coalition of 20 big groups ($17.7), the Natural Resources Defense Council ($14m) and the Environmental Defense Fund ($13.3).
The usual suspects, to put it plainly.
All-in on solar and wind
Even more striking is the focus on renewable energy and energy efficiency, at the expense of other climate solutions, including nuclear power. This has real-world consequences that can be seen, for example, in state energy policy. About 30 states have enacted renewable portfolio standards that require regulated utilities to sell a specified percentage or amount of renewable electricity. But, if the goal is to curb GHG emissions, why set renewable energy standards rather than low-carbon energy standards that would include nuclear? To make matters worse, as Brad Plumer reported in Vox back in 2016, the US keeps shutting down nuclear power plants and replacing them with coal or gas. “We’re basically taking a step backward on climate change,” he wrote.
It may be that climate change can be solved with an all-renewables and efficiency strategy, but wouldn’t it be wise for funders to hedge their bets? As Nisbet writes: “Several expert projections on decarbonizing the world and U.S. economies define an important role for nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage, and scientific debate continues over the technical feasibility of a 100% renewables pathway to decarbonization.” Yet the climate movement is all-in on renewables and fundamentally hostile to nuclear and carbon capture.
Politically, the all-renewables strategy drives polarization, not just between Democrats and Republicans but between liberal and moderate Democrats, Nisbet told me. “It has clearly been successful in moving the Democratic Party and its candidates to the left or the far left on climate change,” he said. “But it seems to have failed at actually winning elections.” The Sierra Club’s political arm won’t endorse candidates who don’t support a 100% renewables strategy. Moderates and Republicans probably think this is nuts.
Again, though, my goal here is not to debate any particular policy or strategy that has been supported by foundations and pursued by environmental groups. It is, instead, to argue that their work desperately needs more scrutiny, criticism and, especially, self-criticism. It’s no exaggeration to say that our future depends on it.