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 published emails from the hacked 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. Continue reading