Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

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.

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.

12 thoughts on “Philanthropy, groupthink, and climate change

  1. Michael Mielke says:


    You have two major points:

    1. ” the groupthink of big climate funders has helped to give us a US climate movement that is neither driven by evidence nor politically powerful.”

    2. ” 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.


    1. Certainly, philanthropy has failed in its stated mission of reducing emissions. That is incontrovertible.

    2. The failure and groupthink is more profound and fundamental than you state, however.

    a. You wonder why the climate funders groupthink around failure and ineffectiveness, and you start (in this article) with facts. But, philanthropy is immune to facts. Along with the rest of the world.

    The most important reason is that philanthropy, along with Western culture is buried in the “Tinkerbell-Effect. Delusions are another way to state that, however pages 10-19 in this e-book,

    explains why this is so in detail enough so that it can be grasped by most serious readers.

    In essence, philanthropy–along with the rest of us–is operating with the wrong assessment of the crisis, the wrong assumptions and (most critically), the wrong timeline.

    We do not have the time to stop short of comprehensive and pervasive disasters with the approach we are taking. Now, I am not condemning the current administration alone. The condemnation readily extends to the prior adminstrations, Obama’s and Bush, too. explains these successive political failures, as well. Philanthropy has been inept strategically and politically.

    3. Bill Gates respresents a large part of the delusions and contradictions endemic to the climate stability crisis.

    His TED talk, Innovating to Zero, in February of 2010, noted the requirement that energy sources would need to be zero carbon. Then and there, he called for “energy miracles,” and he has been calling for them since.

    In these eight and a half years, none have been demonstrated, not even the fourth generation nuclear he is investing in still.

    Time is up. Miracle technologies will not save the day. As the FACTS say, we will meet disaster without a wholesale scrapping of our current approaches and an embrace of Reality. That embrace needs first to FACE the collective and comprehensive failure.

    Marc, as you conclude, you say, “our future depends on it.”


    We have no future worth living on the pathways we are on now, with the failures of philanthropy continuing as you describe them.

    Its just that the failures are more profound and fundamental than you write here or in your Chronicles article.


  2. factshonesty says:

    I can’t wrap my mind around supporting nuclear power. We know that we are unable to safely dispose of the radioactive waste, we know that if it wasn’t so heavily subsidized it would be completely un-affordable or even a viable energy option via the private market, we know that nukes are NOT safe and especially as our government regulatory agencies are having their budgets slashed resulting in “defacto” deregulation, and we know that largely the Republicans have politicized our regulatory agencies and especially the energy department. How many more Nuke catastrophes do we need before realizing it is not safe? Even the Nuke geeks at MIT recognize it is not affordable and not safe and under the current political system in the US, the safety regs and agencies are woefully inadequate. Credibility is lost with me when someone supports nukes…..the devil is in the details and their are lots of devils with nukes. Having a neighbor who is now a retired nuke safety inspector has really opened my eyes to an industry that has done a masterful job of covering things up….and how the Nuclear Regulatory Agency has been basically hijacked by industry and similar to how our government and SCOTUS view corporations as needing and deserving more rights than actual US Citizens. Embracing nukes in this day and age is foolhardy at best.


    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Again, I must stress that I’m not an expert on nuclear power but burning coal has killed more people, and made many more sick, than generating electricity from nuclear power plants. So “Nuke catastrophes” seems like an overstatement to me. I think the question that environmentalists & their funders need to ask are (1) how, if at all, can we help to make nuclear power safer and cheaper and (2) how, realistically, can we address the climate crisis without it?
      Let’s not forget that every form of energy including wind and solar requires risks and trade-offs.


  3. brianrlcatt says:

    None of this is a surprise as its about the laws of physics as realised in electrical engineering. WE did not need to learn by experience why renewables cannot deliver in most countries, we already understood why they must fail, Subsidies do not change the fundamentals of nature that govern the laws of physics and define the energies involved absolutely.

    As an engineer and physicist who, like many other so qualified, has checked and costed the supposed solutions to optimising enrgy supply on the policy measures of adequacy, sustainability, affordabiiity and CO2 reduction I fail to see why we need to learn from mistakes.

    It was always very clear that the low density intermittent energy available from renewables was inadequate to meet the demands of a developed nation’s grid, or would involve such huge quantities of resources and land to construct it would be economically and environmentally unaffordable, Perhaps most telling is that renewables on the grid as currently operated are subsidy parasites on the fossil generation that support;s their inadequacies unpaid, and without which they are both inadequate and massively more expensive, more than 10 times more LCOE, due to the amount of generation required and the storage for its output.

    Renewables (ex hydro) depend on fossil generation on the grid to claim their subsidies that make their excessive profits. Without fossil support renewables must generate a stored surplus to meet demand when they cannot, and the cost of that is c.£200B per TWh of storage, pumped or batteries, this true cost of renewables without their fossil hosts on the grid has yet to be realised,

    I have studied the work of Vaclav Smil, Caesare Marchetti and Jesse Ausubel in this area, also technically able communcators like H.Douglas Lightfoot in Canada and Sir David MacKay FRS in the UK, who was Chief Scientist to the DECC from 2008-2014 and wrote the benchmark book book Renewable Energy – Without the Hot Air. As his untimely death loomed, David was interviewed by former Green activist Mark Lynas, and gave what is perhaps a master class for non physicists on why renewables could not work in the UK. He made two key points, but the whole is worth watching for anyone who believes renewables can deliver what they promise at the huge premium they are paid, but cannot check for themselves, as many engineers have.

    Two telling and absolute quotes “if you can get through the winter on nuclear, you don’t need renewables” – because you met maximum demand when renewables were down to near zero with cheapest nuclear, so why put over subsidised renewables that simply duplicate that generation on the grid? And, finally d that the idea of powering the UK with renewables is “an appalling delusion”. RIP

    When someone asks “Who Knew?”, when the costly failure of renewable energy becomes too much to sustain for bill payers, the answer is so many engineers, who were denied while the subsidies flowed into the pockets of lobbyists and the politicians and civil servants who put them into law in direct denial of the advice of the professional who always knew what worked.

    This was always a climate change protection racket with a snake oil remedy that couldn’t fix the supposed problems, but could make a lot of fast easy money for insiders at pubic expense. No climate is saved by preferring renewables over nuclear, in fact it is made worse by such a choice if CO2 matters, the only long term solution to adequacy, sustainability, affordabiiity and CO2 reduction for most developed countries is nuclear enrgy. But that’s only the engineering and physics facts, not the money and politics,

    CEng, CPhys, MBA.


    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I should have mentioned Vaclav Smil and David Mackay when listing the experts who question the wisdom and practicality of the 100% renewables path. Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, by Mackay, is well worth reading. There’s a 10-page summary of the book here.


  4. Kieran Suckling says:

    The Rockefeller Family Fund assessment was publicly released when complete and publicly discussed at great length at that time. That was years before the Podesta Wikileaks hack.


  5. Stuart says:


    Thank-you for your excellent post.

    I believe the press and news media is partially responsible for the lack of scrutiny non for profits are receiving. There seems to be a presumption that since non for profits aren’t interested in a profit motivation or being elected to office their work and pronouncements don’t require the same level of scrutiny of an Exxon or a politician running for office. The potential for bias, incompetence, and selfish motivation are not just the province of for profit organizations and politicians, they can appear anywhere.

    1 billion people lack access to electricity. 2 billion more have inadequate access to electricity. The world population is expected to increase by 2 -3 billion people by the end of this century. 6 billion people in underdeveloped communities will want the same access to housing, air conditioning, cars and air transport that the 1 billion people in the developed communities have.

    These simple facts above should be enough for journalist and bloggers to push back on proclamations by anyone suggesting that conservation, wind and solar can meet our energy demands alone.



  6. bcpaulos says:


    Since when is philanthropy accountable? Who would it be accountable to, except its donors? Would you like a government oversight body regulating foundations? I surely hope not.

    As for transparency, there is a temptation for foundations to hide their actions so as not to telegraph their strategies, just like the other side does through C4s and PACs. I’m in favor of disclosure across the board, for corporations, rich individuals, and foundations alike, for philanthropy and political contributions. Until we have that, what do you expect?

    And on your first point, I agree, you are not an expert. Those groups and people you mention don’t build power plants, so they can say whatever they like without consequence. Wind and solar don’t need storage until they are at much higher penetration levels, which we haven’t reached anywhere except on islands. And find me a foundation that is demanding 100% renewable energy as the only path. Are there any?

    – Ben Paulos


  7. bcpaulos says:


    I enjoy your writing, and that you take philanthropy seriously. I worked at Energy Foundation for many years and we were very, very serious about our work.

    You are correct that energy philanthropy should be scrutinized, but if you are going to walk into that bar you are going to need a bit more preparation. Being outraged that nuclear power hasn’t been funded by the major foundations puts you on the wrong track.

    You, like many others outside of the energy world, look at nuclear power as an ideological issue rather than a technical and economic issue. It doesn’t matter if you “like” nuclear power if it costs $10 billion to build a new plant, and Wall Street won’t finance it, insurers won’t cover it, and regulators won’t approve it.

    I wrote this piece a couple years ago to explain that:

    In short, foundations don’t fund nuclear work because it would be a waste of money. The expensive death of the VC Summer plant in South Carolina is yet another validation of that choice.

    Support for efficiency and renewables is not a lifestyle choice for foundations. It is based on the fact that those technologies can (and did) advance rapidly in cost and performance, and can scale up rapidly. If you haven’t noticed, electricity demand stopped growing in the US ten years ago, thanks in large part to efficiency gains. Appliance standards, with research and advocacy funded by big foundations to a handful of mainstream groups doing little to no grassroots organizing — all of your sins in a row — were a major contributor to that, while saving consumers billions of dollars and cutting carbon by millions of tons.

    Wind and solar are now the cheapest forms of new power generation worldwide. They can be built rapidly and in many locations, and they are going to get even cheaper in coming years. They are already dominating in some regions — like those red states from Texas to North Dakota — with more to come.

    I look forward to reading the Nisbet paper, but it sounds like more armchair quarterbacking made without a sufficient understanding of energy technologies, economics, and policies.

    – Ben Paulos

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ben. I don’t agree with you re nuclear, but I’m no expert. More to the point, neither do the IPCC, IEA, Chu, Hansen, etc. Yes, solar and wind are growing fast but off a tiny base and with little progress around energy storage, so far. More important, there’s enough uncertainty around the 100% renewables path that it’s terribly risky for climate funders and green groups to hew to that goal with religious devotion. The movement needs more diversity, in the broadest sense of the word.

      My bigger point is that climate funders and green groups lack accountability and transparency about what has worked and what has not. Are there ways, I wonder, for climate funders to engage in lively, public debate about their strategies and tactics and what can be learned from their past setbacks?


      1. nemobis says:

        A lively, public debate is difficult when one side dismisses the other side’s arguments with words such as “religious devotion”.

        I’m no expert either, but I read before I write. EDF was downgraded by Fitch, Moody’s and S&P, and its CFO resigned, even after receiving £30 billion in subsidies at present value. The deal is so bad for UK too, that studies find the only rational explanation is a military and geopolitical interest.–PR_355702


      2. Marc Gunther says:

        I should not have used the words “religious devotion.”


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