Now that Joe Biden is the president-elect of the United States, the prospects of staving off total climate disaster look a little less dire. The Senate will likely constrain him — pending Georgia special elections, either the Republicans retain control of the Senate or the Democrats eke out a very narrow 50-50 majority and have to rely on centrists to get anything done — but there are still plenty of ways he can use his power to fight climate change.
The situation calls out for a potential change in approach if you’re interested in donating to climate causes. In the past, there was reason to think that donating to US charities may not be the most cost-effective option — that, say, your dollars may go farther in developing countries working to preserve their rainforests.
But right now — and despite the logjam in federal climate policy — there really is a strong case for donating toward shifting US policy. Given that Biden campaigned on climate and has indicated that he’s willing to make bold moves on that front, it’s more likely now than it was under President Trump that donors can actually improve US climate policy by funding the right groups.
And now may be the most impactful time to donate. New leaders often do their most significant policy work in the first years of their presidency, so contributions made early in the Biden era can have an outsized impact when it comes to moving the needle on climate. And with the end-of-year giving season upon us, some very wealthy folks are offering to match donations.
But which are the most high-impact, cost-effective, evidence-based charities to donate to if you want to improve US climate policy? Your three best bets are the Clean Air Task Force, Carbon180, and the Sunrise Movement Education Fund.
These recommendations come from Founders Pledge and Giving Green, both groups that research the most effective charities and guide donors to give to them. Founders Pledge recommends the Clean Air Task Force and Carbon180, while Giving Green recommends the Clean Air Task Force and the Sunrise Movement Education Fund.
As you can see, there’s overlap as well as divergence in these recommendations. And the divergence is instructive. It stems from the recommenders’ differing assumptions about the best way to push forward climate policy under divided government: focusing on work that might have bipartisan appeal versus leaning into cultivating progressive grassroots activism.
The case for funding advocacy with bipartisan appeal
Johannes Ackva, the researcher who authored Founders Pledge’s assessment, believes that now is a particularly important time to focus on advocacy that targets Washington lawmakers, rather than focusing on grassroots activism. He notes that the combo Americans are likely to end up with — a Democratic House and a Republican Senate — means lawmakers will need to craft climate proposals that Republicans can get behind. So he thinks people concerned about climate change need to respond to our new circumstances and change the typical approach.
“Especially in light of the election result, we believe this kind of advocacy to be more impactful and more neglected than grassroots activism; right now, we need to be working to turn proposals and visions into politically feasible and effective policies,” he wrote. “The work of grassroots campaigners like the Sunrise Movement, which targets Democrats to encourage a more progressive climate agenda, likely won’t be so impactful as the US needs bipartisan policy favorable to both parties.”
There’s reason to be skeptical that the GOP will agree to any bipartisan climate deal; after all, this is the Mitch McConnell Senate we’re likely talking about. And Ackva acknowledges that “the Democrats will probably need to compromise as their preferred climate policies are unlikely to pass through the Senate.”
But Republican intransigence on climate, Ackva suggests, is why our best bet is to fund organizations that know how to make inroads with Republicans, rather than ones that have strong ties only to Democrats. Doing that obviously doesn’t guarantee any wins, but the claim is that failing to do that probably guarantees a loss. Ackva also thinks this kind of advocacy is relatively neglected, which means directing more dollars there stands to make a bigger impact than directing dollars to an area that’s already getting funding and attention.
This is why Founders Pledge recommends donating to the Clean Air Task Force and Carbon180. The former has a long history of successfully advocating for bipartisan climate policies under divided government. During the Bush years, for instance, it led a successful campaign to reduce the pollution caused by coal-fired power plants in the US and helped establish regulations of diesel, shipping, and methane emissions. It also runs a campaign to promote innovation on advanced nuclear energy, which could facilitate global decarbonization.
Meanwhile, Carbon180 focuses on ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, a neglected yet important piece of the climate puzzle. It has successfully lobbied for a tax credit for carbon capture and helped win increased funding for carbon removal research. And the organization is well connected among policy elites: It often briefs congressional staffers and provides input on legislation, and its executive director Noah Deich has just joined the transition team at the Department of Energy. Founders Pledge believes it’s suited for the moment.
The case for funding grassroots activism
Dan Stein, the director of Giving Green, an initiative at IDinsight, agrees that it’s important to fund advocacy with bipartisan appeal — hence Giving Green’s recommendation to donate to Clean Air Task Force.
But he also thinks it’s important to fund grassroots activist groups.
“I would push for a two-part strategy, because I think the way policy gets made is through these insider-outsider coalitions,” he said. “You have people with close links in the halls of Congress and to the president, and then you have external pressure that’s forcing the politicians to pay attention to the issue. You see examples of this throughout history: In the civil rights movement, you had these pacts between [Martin Luther] King on the outside and Lyndon Johnson on the inside.”
In addition to forcing Biden to keep prioritizing climate, activists can shift the Overton window, the range of policies that seem possible. Without a Democratic Senate, activists almost certainly won’t succeed in getting a Green New Deal, but they can still continue pushing its policy ideas into the mainstream.
And while legislative climate policy will need Republican votes, there’s also the executive branch, where Biden is going to have a lot of latitude to make policy changes through regulatory agencies.
“A lot of the smart money is on most of the climate movement in the Biden administration happening through the executive branch. For that, you don’t need bipartisanship,” Stein said. “So the question there is who has the ear of the Biden administration. And I think that people like Sunrise [Education Fund] have the ear. They’ve gotten that seat at the table.”
He elaborated on this in Giving Green’s recommendation, 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 incoming Biden administration’s climate plan.”
Giving Green says the Sunrise Movement Education Fund has been highly effective at growing its membership, but needs more funding to increase the size of its activist network so it can keep pushing for policy change.
So, which is the very best climate charity to donate to now?
Political scientists have lots of different theories of change, and they’ll probably be debating which is right for a long, long time. Since we don’t know for sure what’s most effective at creating change in a political landscape like the one we’re about to enter, it may make sense to support multiple evidence-based strategies simultaneously.
Hedging your bets by donating to more than one type of charity isn’t always a sign of indecisiveness. It can also be a sign of intellectual humility.
Whichever charity or charities you pick, know that the case for donating to improve US climate policy right now is strong — both because Biden’s victory creates new openings and because the US is the biggest carbon polluter in history and the second-biggest carbon emitter in the world today. And while you may think that American climate work is already well-funded, there are pockets within it that are still neglected; for example, when it comes to lobbying to influence climate legislation, the fossil fuel industry has outspent environmental advocates 10 to 1 in recent years.
That said, if you’re interested in donating to effective climate charities elsewhere in the world, check out this list, which includes high-impact groups that focus on other facets of the problem, such as protecting rainforests and tech innovation.
Finally, if you like the groups that Founders Pledge recommends, note that donations that come through its Climate Fund are currently being matched by Erik Bergman, a marketing entrepreneur, until December 31.
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