A Snowball’s Chance

One might be tempted to say that the issue of climate change is snowballing – growing to the point that governments, the development community, and the private sector are finally starting to get serious about the disastrous effects of a carbon-fueled, consumption-based model of economic development. But of course, a snowball is a lousy idiom for a warming world.

Government and business leaders at the COP21 climate conference in Paris teased us for weeks with grand announcements about investments and initiatives that will allow all humans to improve their lot in life, but with a smaller carbon footprint. These included “Mission Innovation,” a commitment by 20 nations to double investment in clean energy research and development. Concurrently, a posse of tech billionaires formed the (for-profit) Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which will fund promising technologies from Mission Innovation research. India upped the ante with the announcement of a $1 trillion “International Solar Alliance.”  And the World Bank released a $16 billion “business plan” to support climate resilience efforts in Africa (though funding sources are unclear). Then on Saturday, these announcements were capped with a breakthrough agreement that, by most assessments, was a giant step toward a lower-carbon future.

The climate deal and related initiatives are gaining the support of an ever wider array of governments, companies, and development organizations. And it’s about time: the economic and social costs of climate change are more evident every year.  Extreme weather, drought, and rising sea levels negatively impact agriculture, health, education, infrastructure, social services, and many other areas of public and private investment. This means philanthropies will have to pay close attention to climate change, even if they don’t focus squarely on the issue through dedicated programs. Philanthropies can protect their investment in all impact areas by raising awareness of the link between climate change and a carbon-and-consumption based lifestyle. They can also support local education and capacity-building programs that offer climate-resilience strategies and technologies like clean cook stoves which reduce pollution and improve health. Finally, philanthropies can keep signatories of grand initiatives honest, advocating for meeting targets and delivering on promises. COP21 comes close on the heels of the SDGs, another recent milestone agreement that prominently features environmental issues. They are the product of different processes, and serve different purposes, but it would be a mistake for the development community to align with the SDGs while leaving the COP21 commitments to governments and the private sector. The challenge of climate change will require a coherent and unified response, or snowballs will only exist in idioms.

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