If you’re reading this, chances are you care a lot about fighting climate change, and that’s great. The climate emergency threatens all of humanity. Our global response to it has been totally inadequate. Since 2000, carbon dioxide emissions have actually risen 12 percent. We need to reverse that trend — and fast.
The trouble is, it can be genuinely hard to figure out how to direct your money wisely if you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There’s a glut of environmental organizations out there — but how do you know which are the most impactful?
Below is a list of seven of the most high-impact, cost-effective, and evidence-based organizations. We’re not including bigger-name groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, or the Natural Resources Defense Council, because most big organizations are already relatively well-funded (those three, for example, recently got $100 million each from the Bezos Earth Fund). The groups we list below seem to be doing something especially promising in the light of certain criteria: importance, tractability, and neglectedness.
Important targets for change are ones that drive a big portion of global emissions. Tractable problems are ones where we can actually make progress right now. And neglected problems are ones that aren’t already getting a big influx of cash from other sources like the government or philanthropy, and so could really use money from smaller donors.
Founders Pledge, an organization that guides entrepreneurs committed to donating a portion of their proceeds to effective charities, and Giving Green, a climate charity evaluator, used these same criteria to assess climate organizations. Their research informed much of the list below. As in the Founders Pledge and Giving Green recommendations, we’ve chosen to look at groups focused on mitigation (tackling the root causes of climate change by reducing emissions) rather than adaptation (decreasing the suffering from the impacts of climate change). Both are important, but the focus of this piece is preventing further catastrophe.
We’ve also selected organizations that are tackling this problem on different levels, based on different theories of change. Some advocate for high-level policy change, while others are focused on building activist movements or achieving immediate emissions reductions.
Dan Stein, director of Giving Green, says we should have a diverse portfolio of mitigation strategies. “There should be some short-term projects that give us certainty about reducing emissions now,” he told Vox last year. “But I also buy the argument that that’s not going to be enough — we need some moonshot projects.”
With that in mind, here are the organizations where your money is likely to have an exceptionally positive impact.
1) Clean Air Task Force
What it does: Since its founding 25 years ago, the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) has worked to curb air pollution in all its forms through regulation at the US state and federal levels. It successfully campaigned to reduce the pollution caused by coal-fired power plants; helped establish regulations of diesel, shipping, and methane emissions; and worked to limit the power sector’s CO2 emissions. CATF also advocates for the adoption of innovative, neglected low- and zero-carbon technologies, from advanced nuclear power to super-hot rock geothermal energy.
Why you should consider donating: CATF stands out not only for its impressive impact on US climate policy but also for being a pioneer in the environmental space. (Disclosure: Sigal donated to CATF in 2021.) It was one of the first major environmental organizations to publicly campaign against neglected superpollutants like methane, which plays a central but underrecognized role in the ongoing climate catastrophe.
At this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, more than 100 countries committed to the Global Methane Pledge, which aims for a reduction in methane by at least 30 percent by the end of the decade — an issue that CATF and other environmental nonprofits had foregrounded. More recently, CATF has begun expanding beyond the US to operate in Latin America, the EU, Western Asia, and Northern Africa.
You can donate to CATF here. —Muizz Akhtar
What it does: As its name suggests, Carbon180 is an environmental nonprofit focused on flipping humanity’s current relationship with carbon upside down, so that we take in more carbon than we emit. A relatively new organization with a modest budget of less than $3 million in 2020, it works toward its goal of carbon removal (or “negative emissions”) through advocacy on Capitol Hill — an approach that may have reaped dividends with the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included billions in research and development for carbon removal.
Why you should consider donating: Scientists agree that for the world to have any hope of capping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5, by 2100, we’ll need some deployment of carbon-removal technologies. In the increasingly likely scenario that we’ll miss both of those targets through cutting emissions (right before COP26 began, UN researchers calculated that we’re likely to hit 2.7 degrees of warming by the end of the century), carbon removal technologies can play an essential role.
That’s because even if ideal timelines for capping and reducing emissions are not realized, so long as we have the scalable technology, carbon can continue to be removed from the atmosphere to keep the planet habitable.
Carbon removal generally has been underfunded, in part because the tech is pretty new. Carbon180 can play an important role by advocating for more federal and state funding for R&D, investing in entrepreneurs, and boosting the public profile and awareness of carbon removal as a necessary technology.
You can donate to Carbon180 here. —MA
3) Evergreen Collaborative
What it does: Arising from the ashes of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-change-focused 2020 presidential campaign, the Evergreen Collaborative is a new advocacy organization that functions as a bridge between environmental organizations and the US federal government.
Evergreen includes some of the most prominent scientists and policymakers working for better climate policy and environmental justice, and they seek to leverage their experience and network to push for key energy and climate provisions in the Biden administration’s executive orders and Congress’s legislative agenda.
Why you should consider donating: Despite being a young, small organization, the Evergreen Collaborative has punched well above its weight in the past year (a crucial moment for the federal government to enact climate legislation, given that Democrats are in control). The group co-developed and advocated for the Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP), which became a central pillar of the Biden administration’s climate agenda. Though that program has unfortunately been scrapped from the legislation, that it was a fixture in the climate policy discourse is suggestive of Evergreen’s effectiveness at pushing ideas at the federal policymaking level.
You can donate to the Evergreen Collaborative here. —MA
4) Rainforest Foundation US
What it does: Rainforest Foundation US works to protect the rainforests of Central and South America by partnering directly with those on the front lines: Indigenous peoples in Brazil, Peru, Panama, and Guyana, who are deeply motivated to protect their lands. The foundation supplies them with legal support as well as technological equipment and training so they can use smartphones, drones, and satellites to monitor illegal loggers and miners, and take action to stop them.
Why you should consider donating: Rainforest Foundation US has shown an unusual commitment to rigorous evaluation of its impact by inviting Columbia University researchers to conduct a randomized controlled trial in Loreto, Peru. Starting in early 2018, researchers collected survey data and satellite imagery from 36 communities partnered with the foundation and 40 control communities.
The results were published this year — and they’re encouraging. The program reduced tree cover loss, and the reductions were largest in the communities most vulnerable to deforestation (along the deforestation frontier).
So much of the donor money going into the climate fight gets poured into efforts within the US and EU; it may make sense to divert some of that money to efforts in key ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest, on which the global climate depends. Given that the past couple of years have seen massive fires and a surge of deforestation there, now seems like an especially good time to directly support the Indigenous peoples who are holding the front lines for all of us.
You can donate to Rainforest Foundation US here. —Sigal Samuel
5) Sunrise Movement Education Fund
What it does: The Sunrise Movement Education Fund is the 501(c)(3) arm of the Sunrise Movement, a youth activist organization. Activism is an important piece of the climate puzzle; in addition to pushing leaders to keep prioritizing climate, activists can shift the Overton window, the range of policies that seem possible.
Of course, some activist groups are more effective than others. Stein, the director of Giving Green, told Vox in 2020 that the Sunrise Movement Education Fund is extremely effective, not least because it “has the ear of the Biden administration. ... They’ve gotten that seat at the table.”
Why you should consider donating: Giving Green recommended this nonprofit last year, noting: “Sunrise Movement Education Fund played a central role in building a strong coalition of politicians, activists, and researchers to coalesce around a policy framework generally known as ‘Standards, Investment, and Justice.’ This framework has been adopted by the House Select Committee on Climate Change and is integrated into the Biden administration’s climate plan.”
Although Sunrise isn’t on Giving Green’s recommended list this year, Stein told Vox that’s largely because the nonprofit hasn’t yet made public its plans for 2022 and it’s better-funded than it used to be; after learning more about its plans, Giving Green may again recommend it in 2022. In the meantime, it still looks like a good bet.
You can donate to the Sunrise Movement Education Fund here. —SS
6) Climate Emergency Fund
What it does: The Climate Emergency Fund (CEF) was founded in July 2019 with the goal of regranting money to groups engaged in climate protest — and fast. Its founders believe that street protest is crucially important to climate politics and neglected in environmental philanthropy. This year alone, CEF has given over $1.35 million in grants to 33 groups and projects it has vetted. Grantees include Extinction Rebellion, an activist movement that uses nonviolent civil disobedience — like filling the streets and blocking intersections — to demand that governments do more on climate. (Disclosure: Muizz donated to Extinction Rebellion DC in 2021.)
CEF was the lead institutional funder of the Climate Emergency Declaration campaign, which led to over 2,000 national and local governments declaring a climate emergency. More recently, CEF funded the Hunger Strikers for Climate Justice, whose participants fasted in front of the White House this fall to demand the Biden administration pass certain climate measures.
Why you should consider donating: Social change is not an exact science, and the challenges in measuring a social movement’s effectiveness are well-documented. While it would be helpful to have more concrete data on the impact of CEF’s grantees, it may also be shortsighted to ignore movement-building for that reason.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, told Vox that building the climate movement is crucial because, although we’ve already got some good mitigation solutions, we’re not deploying them fast enough. “That’s the ongoing power of the fossil fuel industry at work. The only way to break that power and change the politics of climate is to build a countervailing power,” he said. “Our job — and it’s the key job — is to change the zeitgeist, people’s sense of what’s normal and natural and obvious. If we do that, all else will follow.”
If you’re skeptical that street protest can make a difference, consider Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s research. She’s found that if you want to achieve systemic social change, you need to mobilize 3.5 percent of the population, a finding that helped inspire Extinction Rebellion.
You can donate to the Climate Emergency Fund here. —SS
What it does: TerraPraxis is a nascent UK-based nonprofit aiming to find innovative ways to meet the globe’s growing energy needs, with a special focus on advanced nuclear power, which is neglected in the climate funding landscape. The data shows that nuclear power is safer than you might think. It’s a clean energy source that’s already been scaled up fast to decarbonize electricity systems in countries like Sweden and France; going forward, it could help ensure that people in developing countries have enough energy to meet their needs.
Why you should consider donating: TerraPraxis is a very small, young organization, so it doesn’t have much of a track record yet. But Founders Pledge recommends it, arguing that more funding would enable it to reach its full potential. “We believe that TerraPraxis continues to do incredibly important work around shaping a conversation for advanced nuclear to address critical decarbonization challenges, such as the decarbonization of hard-to-decarbonize sectors and the conundrum of how to deal with lots of very new coal plants that are unlikely to be prematurely retired,” write Johannes Ackva and Luisa Sandkühler in their report for Founders Pledge.
You can donate to TerraPraxis here. —SS
Aside from donating, there are many other ways you can help
It’s worth noting that there are plenty of ways to use your skills to combat climate change. And many don’t cost a cent.
If you’re a writer or artist, you can use your talents to convey a message that will resonate with people. If you’re a religious leader, you can give a sermon about climate and run a collection drive to support one of the groups above. If you’re a teacher, you can discuss this issue with your students, who may influence their parents. If you’re a good talker, you can go out canvassing for a politician you believe will make the right choices on climate.
If you’re, well, any human being, you can consume less. You can reduce your energy use, how much stuff you buy (did you know plastic packaging releases greenhouse gases when exposed to the elements?), and how much meat you consume.
Research shows that it’s very difficult to “convert” people to vegetarianism or veganism through information campaigns, which is one reason we did not recommend donating to such campaigns (there are more cost-effective options). But now that you can get Impossible Whoppers and Beyond Burgers delivered right to your door, you can easily transition to a more plant-based diet without sacrificing on taste. Individual action alone won’t move the needle much — real change on the part of governments and corporations is key — but your actions can influence others and ripple out to shift social norms, and keep you feeling motivated rather than resigned to climate despair.
You can, of course, also volunteer with an activist group — whether it’s Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, or Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future — and put your body in the street to nonviolently disrupt business as usual and demand change.
The point is that activism comes in many forms. It’s worth taking some time to think about which one (or ones) will allow you, with your unique capacities and constraints, to have the biggest positive impact. But at the end of the day, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: It’s best to pick something that seems doable and get to work.
Update, November 30, 2021: This story was originally published in 2019 and has been updated throughout.
Correction, November 30, 12:40 pm: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story stated that Carbon180’s budget in 2020 was “less than $3 billion.” It should have stated “less than $3 million.”