Since the election of Donald Trump, many people who have not previously considered themselves “activists” have begun to devote their time, energy, and their money to climate issues. In the weeks following the election, the Sierra Club, for example, gained 85,000 new donating members, constituting a bump of hundreds of thousands of dollars. While we do need more resources to fight climate change, there is a danger that the current funding bump could reinforce a preexisting, massively unequal distribution of money within the climate movement.
Photo by Rainforest Action Network
A great study by Sarah Hansen found that in 2009, the top 2 percent of organizations working on climate change received half of all contributions and grants. In 2014, Inside Climate News compared the membership, budget, and reach of major US environmental organizations. It showed that in 2014 the $100 million Sierra Club budget was bigger than 350.org, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, Credo Action and the League of Conservation Voters’ budgets combined. In that same year, the World Wildlife Fund was working with over 266 million dollars, while Conservation International had a budget of 164.8 million dollars. The Nature Conservancy blew these out of the water, reporting a budget that topped a billion dollars.
According to one high-level foundation staffer, the unequal distribution of wealth comes up again and again in environmental fundraising circles. So why hasn’t more progress been made?
Her first answer was logistical: it’s easier. Giving away a greater number of smaller grants means hiring more program staff. It is also often more difficult for funders to evaluate smaller organizations and to be confident in the fiscal oversight and longevity of grassroots groups. The second answer is access: If you don’t have the capacity to seek out funders, then how would they even know you exist?
The climate movement is less effective as a result of these institutional patterns.
The concentration of wealth narrows the tactics of the movement as a whole. Some foundations do not understand the importance of grassroots organizing. For some, a background in business — where being loud or abrasive is not rewarded — may bias them against an outside game strategy. By “outside game” I mean the messy, unglamorous, confrontational tactics that tend to be the purview of smaller organizations, like throwing rallies, going door-to-door to organize neighbors, hosting informational sessions, and taking direct action. We now have no other choice but to devote ourselves to the outside game. But we are in good company. It is hard to point to a transformative political victory in this country that wasn’t rooted in grassroots organizing and disruptive direct action. Unfortunately, the existing concentration of wealth guarantees that this more impactful approach is usually underfunded or overlooked.
Rob Friedman, a campaigner for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says we can see this lesson in the recent history of the climate movement. “If you look at our major victories over the last five years, like the New York fracking ban, or stopping Keystone XL, the funding discrepancies were insane between the groups involved in those struggles. Smaller groups successfully moved the larger groups to support their goals, not the other way around. For the longest time, larger groups in New York did not believe a fracking ban was possible, and if that was your position you would be laughed out of the room by elected officials. But the grassroots pushed larger groups in the right direction. Historically, on so many issues, ‘winning’ has been defined as what’s deemed to be ‘politically feasible,’ not what communities need for their survival.”
Friedman contrasts this with campaigns instigated by insiders. “The Clean Power Plan,” he says, “is the second time in recent history where there’s been a push for national climate policy to limit climate pollution from the power sector. And while it is important to limit that pollution, it’s also the second time that the perspectives of grassroots environmental justice groups were not meaningfully considered by national groups until the eleventh hour. As a result, you have some grassroots groups opposing the CPP because it could lead to more fracking in their communities, or more pollution in their neighborhoods as a result of pollution trading. Had national organizations built power with the grassroots from the beginning, and asked them what they needed to achieve their climate justice goals, you would have seen a more united movement for federal climate policy. The work moving forward must be about facilitating alignment between the inside and outside strategies, with equitably resourced grassroots groups defining the path forward.”
Jessica Tovar, an environmental justice organizer with the Bay Area-based Local Clean Energy Alliance, had a similar perspective, pointing to the federal government’s 2008-2009 cap-and-trade effort which some opposed on the grounds that the proposed caps on emissions were inadequate to address the climate crisis and that the legislation contained no provisions for environmental justice communities. “Look at the wheeling and dealing around cap-and-trade. Environmental justice and grassroots groups were completely opposed. However, lots of larger, better-funded organizations said that cap-and-trade represented an opportunity to secure money for climate initiatives, so they wanted to do it. Big environmental organizations that supported cap and trade did so for their own benefit to call a quick victory at the expense of the grassroots environmental justice community. This puts environmental justice groups in a terrible position, because we are left fighting for their share of funding, even when we fundamentally disagree with the proposed methods for securing those funds.”
Very often, a desire for quick victories prevents the actual success of climate initiatives, because grassroots groups aren’t at the table when these initiatives are being drafted. Without the support of groups focused on base-building, there is less real pressure on elected officials to support climate initiatives. In Washington State, for example, environmental justice communities opposed a carbon tax that was proposed last year by policy think tank Carbon WA without the input of climate justice groups — a tax that actually undercut a more equitable cap-and-trade measure that had been developed with labor and environmental justice groups. Without the support of groups with actual organizing power, the measure was defeated by Washington voters in November.
If we want to win, we had better take these lessons to heart.
Tovar suggests one step forward is for larger groups to provide tangible support to smaller, community-based organizations. “Community injustices are best solved by the people who live in those communities and experience day-to-day burdens. Providing technical assistance —whether it’s political connections, scientific expertise or unpacking jargon so that communities can better understand technically complex environmental issues — is the best way larger groups can support smaller climate justice groups.”
The climate crisis demands deep work from all of us over the course of decades. However, in the short term, what we need to do is simple. Funnel money toward grassroots groups and groups led by frontline communities and people of color who are already doing transformative and necessary work all over the country. It was a necessity before Trump was elected, and now, in this moment, it is non-negotiable.
This op-ed was produced in partnership with Read the Dirt.
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