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How philanthropy can drive people-centred climate action

By Kat Wilcox on May 25, 2022

Originally published on

In all of the critical talk about fossil fuels and low carbon technologies, it is easy for philanthropists to forget that people are central to the climate change issue. People cause it, people suffer from it, people make policy good and bad, and to see real progress people have to be persuaded to prioritise climate change among their many other pressing concerns. 

Solar engineer, Orissa, India.

People and climate change 

The International Energy Agency’s 2021 Net Zero by 2050 report laid out, in some of the starkest terms to date, that net zero emissions could not and would not be achieved without ‘the active and willing participation of citizens’. This report was followed last month by the IPCC WG3 report on mitigation, stating that an engaged public could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% by 2050. 

Net zero will require a mix of low carbon technology and the active engagement of citizens (e.g. installing solar water heaters),  behavioural changes (e.g. flying less) and demand for policy change and corporate investment. But without public buy-in, governments do not feel the political pressure to urgently increase their ambition in cutting emissions. And so long as corporations have a social license to promote high carbon behaviours, they too have little incentive to commit to the radical emissions reductions necessary. 

We’ve been trapped in a vicious cycle

There are three main reasons why climate action is still dogged by a weak social mandate, as highlighted in our 90 second animated video below introducing our theory of change:

  • Around the world, large segments of society see climate narratives dominated by the ‘other’ or ‘people not like me’, fuelling polarisation and playing into the hands of powerful vested interests trying to undermine action. 
  • In countries where concern is high, those same people feel ‘nothing I can do will ever make enough difference’. Concern is what people feel, but engagement is what they do, what they buy and how they vote. This lack of efficacy stops public concern turning into action and keeps inactive politicians and corporations in business.  
  • There is a significant body of evidence around climate change communication and from other sectors on how to drive public engagement, but this is rarely utilised. Until we mobilise this understanding we can’t build and sustain cross-societal support.

Philanthropy and public engagement on climate change 

On paper (see graph below), public engagement is one of the best funded areas in climate change. But as we dig behind the numbers, it’s worth highlighting three important aspects:

  • Public engagement remains a weakly defined catch-all term, with little common understanding of what effective public engagement looks like, and few dedicated programmes across government or philanthropic investment (in contrast to all other key areas of climate action).
  • The bottom line hides a shocking global disparity: the vast majority of this work is happening only in the United States and Canada. There has been virtually no funding in the global south for research into attitudes and messaging or resourcing for active engagement.
  • In the countries where funding has been available for climate communications (here we largely have to thank philanthropy as little government funding has ever gone to public awareness campaigns on climate change), it has tended to focus on people as instruments of influence. Funding has rarely gone to building deep, broad, sustained public support for climate action, equivalent to the almost universal support we see for health or education. 

How philanthropy can support a social mandate and create a virtuous circle

If we are serious about a 1.5 degrees world, then we need to get serious about public engagement. Philanthropists have a number of roles they can play in championing good public engagement:

  • Educating staff about climate change and giving them the tools they need to talk about it beyond their work and social bubble
  • Supporting projects that focus on tackling polarisation, turning concern into action and building cross-societal support
  • Reflecting if projects are contributing to a social mandate – do these reach new audiences? do they use evidence-based messaging? 
  • Seeking organisations from the global south to carry out public engagement
  • Supporting campaigns and initiatives to call on governments, businesses, and international agencies to recognise their legal obligation to engage citizens
  • Sharing best practice in effective public engagement from other sectors, such as health, education and culture
  • Investing public engagement infrastructure and means of measuring real world impact 

Though there is much work to be done, increasingly philanthropists are stepping up, evidenced by the establishment of the #PhilanthropyForClimate movement. And thanks to organisations like Philea (Philanthropy Europe Association) and others, the idea that all foundations regardless of their mission should engage in fighting climate change is gaining ground.



One response to How philanthropy can drive people-centred climate action

  1. BRIAN MWAKESI LEWELA. says: says:

    This was very informative.Am looking for an organisation which can fund for tree planting inorder to combart climate change challenges in Taita Taveta County,which has 4 sub-counties namely,Wundanyi,Mwatate,Voi and Taveta.
    Kindly assist where to get such funds or grants.

By Kat Wilcox

Kat was our Fundraising Lead from 2020 to 2023. She managed the relationships with our wonderful philanthropic donor and overseas individual giving and academic grants.
Kat studied Environmental Management at Cardiff University before going on to work at the Natural History Museum and then moving into the NGO sector with Christian Aid, SNV and WWF.
She says that she ‘fell into’ fundraising as she looked for any role in the development sector, but quickly came to love it because of the privileged position it inhabits between all the techy know-how for creating positive change and all the brilliant people who want to support that change.

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