I’ve been speaking with many of you this past year about your feelings about climate change and specifically your philanthropic giving and leadership around it. Understandably, many of us are discouraged and concerned. We’re seeing the impacts of climate change all around us and we’re wondering: “Is it too late? Can I make a difference? Is there reason for hope?” “And if there is reason for hope, where should I focus my energies at this moment?”
In August, we all received a huge dose of good news from Washington when the new climate bill was passed! I’m sure you remember the nail-biter, with Senator Manchin (as usual) on the fence until the last minute? It turns out, that one of my family members was vitally important in making this happen; The Senior Advisor to President Biden for Climate Policy is my cousin, Sonia Aggarwal! So, I sat down with her, along with my colleague, Susan Burns, for an interview specifically focused on donor concerns. I hope that as you read her story, you will find cause for hope. If you’d rather watch the video, you can watch in our previous post, click here.
Please reach out to me by email, if you’d like to have a brief, 30-minute, complimentary conversation with me and my team to explore ways that you might direct funding to productive use in this pivotal moment in US history.
Finally, A Cause for Hope!
An Interview with President Biden’s Senior Advisor on Climate Policy and Innovation, Sonia Aggarwal
The New Climate Bill provides $369 billion over the next ten years toward reducing our greenhouse gasses. It’s the largest investment in climate change in US history and finally puts the United States from sidelines to one who is stepping up and doing its part. It includes funding for wind and solar, electric vehicles, rebates for energy efficient appliances and insulation and much, much more.
This interview was conducted on October 14th, 2022, by philanthropic advisors Susan Burns and Tracy Gary. Tracy Gary is a co-founder of Earth Legacy Alliance and Unleashing Generosity. Susan Burns is a philanthropic advisor with Unleashing Generosity and Director of Finance for Change, a program of Global Footprint Network. Sonia Aggarwal is responding to pre-written questions.
The importance of the Climate Bill can’t be overstated, and we know that the vote was very close. What were your thoughts and feelings the moment you realized that it was going to pass?
It was quite a roller coaster and there was a dark period where it seemed like this was not going to pass. When it finally did come to pass, I think it made it all that more joyful. It’s a completely transformative piece of legislation. It will have 10 times the climate impact of any other single piece of legislation that has ever been passed here in the United States. That is incredible.
It took a huge effort that included nonprofit organizations and labor across the United States, who helped tell the story about what the benefits would be if Congress acted and passed this law. I don't think that it could have happened without the broader community of people who engaged with Congress to get this over the finish line and the stories that they told about what this would do for their businesses, for American manufacturing, for good jobs, for careers for people who work in the clean energy industry. All of that was just so incredibly important.
Aside from the huge implications for the United States, I think the entire world is breathing a sigh of relief.
Absolutely, there was a lot of pessimism about the United States and our overall capability to pass legislation, as we're the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, and for most of our history have been the largest. So, if we don't act, it's tough to be asking the rest of the world to act.
“[The bill] will have 10 times the climate impact of any other single piece of legislation that has ever been passed here in the United States. That is incredible.”
What about Implementation? Are the accountability pieces being monitored carefully?
Oh, yes. This is a very large focus of the administration now. There's a whole team at the White House that's been hired just to focus on implementation of this law. That will include many different departments and agencies across the federal government. And it will also include a lot of engagement with states, [cities and municipalities,] that will receive money through various programs that they then need to design and deploy in their own way.
Can you give some examples?
We have a $4.5 billion rebate program for low- and moderate-income households who want to install energy efficient appliances, do deep retrofits, put in a heat pump, electrify their homes, and that will go out to all the states and to tribal governments. And so, all those different states and tribal governments will need to design those programs in a way to deliver the largest positive impact that they can for the communities that they serve.
How can Americans make sure that the funding that is aimed at underrepresented communities is not misdirected? Are NGOs prepared to engage in the deal making that will be required?
There's historically been, a relatively small number of communities that are resourced appropriately to apply for these kinds of federal programs. One of the things that we really want to try to encourage in the deployment of these new funds is to ensure that communities have the resources that they need to understand how to navigate what is, unfortunately, going to remain a complex federal process. So that’s [one role for philanthropy], just building capacity in these communities, helping them navigate, what pots of funding are available now, which tax credits are available, and how they access them? So, I think philanthropy has an incredibly important role to play in helping people navigate that.
We are noticing a sense of resignation in the donor community about climate change. A sense that we waited too long, and now it’s “too little, too late.” What would you say to a donor who feels this way?
I can understand [this perspective,] but I think that there is nevertheless a lot of work that that needs to be done. One of the challenges that we've had in communicating climate change to people is that we have these thresholds 1.5 degrees, two degrees, and it feels like a binary situation where if we crossed that threshold, it's over. And we should just throw up our hands. But that's not the way that climate science works. Every ton of greenhouse gas emissions that we emit into the atmosphere hangs around for 1,000s of years. And that will have lasting impacts; it will create all kinds of impacts that we can hardly even imagine now, whether that's natural disasters, or security challenges, global migration, lack of access to food and water, all kinds of really challenging situations that only get worse with every single ton of greenhouse gas emissions that goes into the atmosphere.
So it's not like we lost and we should just give up. We have a chance, right now, this is a decisive decade. Either we make a lot of progress in this decade, or we will be in a lot worse position. But no matter how much progress we make now, this is not a problem that where we will ever reach the point of just saying, "Well, you know, we should stop trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions", because every additional ton makes an incremental impact on the future.
“It's not like we lost, and we should just give up. We have a chance, right now. This is a decisive decade.”
Some donors may argue that the climate bill is so sweeping that it takes care of the problem or feel that the relatively small amount they can contribute isn’t meaningful in comparison. What would you say to these donors?
From the inside, I can say with a lot of authority, that we need a lot of help to ensure that both the policies that have passed and the momentum that we are trying to catalyze has the impact that we want it to have, and that we need it to have.
What are some of the most important things NGOs can be doing now to take advantage? We have donors who are saying "I just don't have guidance on what is the most important thing I can do."
[One role is] ensuring that communities can access these programs and can make the most of them. It also could come in the form of helping to tell the stories of the benefits of some of these programs so that other communities and other states and other individuals can see the positive impact of these programs. And this also helps politically to ensure the durability of this policy, as well as to ensure that we are getting the types of people into political offices that will continue these types of policies and expand them. So that's all just incredibly useful, and its stuff that we will have a very tough time doing from the inside the Federal Government.
And I will also say that this one law is not enough, we have to do more, and we plan to do more. But one way that the donor community can help us do that is to make us accountable. Tell us "Hey, you haven't finished the job." Put some pressure on us. That gives us the space to do more, so we're not only hearing from the people who don't want us to do anything. It really it really makes a difference. People feel those political pressures.
“One way that the donor community can help us is to [hold] us accountable. Put some pressure on us.”
Where do people go to for more information and to access this funding?
We have a website called www.cleanenergy.gov. It is intended to be a portal for folks to access a lot of that information. In many cases, the first step of implementation are requests for information that will be coming from the Department of Energy, from the Department of Agriculture, from the Treasury Department, and others. Those are the three key agencies to watch, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, which is implementing several aspects of the law as well. These requests for information, will be influential in how the programs are ultimately designed.
Is there money available now? Or is there going to be a lag?
It's variable, because there's $369 billion of investment across this package. So, for some of it there are tax credits that are already available; more will become available on the first of January 2023, which is just a couple months from now. And then, as the other grant programs and loan programs start to roll out, that will be over time. There are some grant and loan programs that are open now, such as the loan program office at the Department of Energy, which is accepting applications, for example. But there's more to come.
I would imagine that there will be a lot of public private partnerships, and a lot of large companies are probably better equipped than smaller communities to tap into things. I can understand why it would be important for the philanthropic community to help communities tap into the resources.
What was not in the legislation that needs philanthropic support?
We need to do more, because [the Bill] is not enough on its own to meet the President's goals in the 2030 timeframe or in the 2050 timeframe. The President has set a goal of reducing emissions 50 to 52%, below 2005 levels in 2030. This policy gets us on track for about 40% reductions in that timeframe. But before we took office, we were on track for something like 24 to 26% in that timeframe. So this is an incredible step change. And it will take a lot to get this implemented, but we can't relax because we need to do more in order to hit the President's goals and make sure that the United States is contributing to limiting global warming to less than 1.5 degrees.
Here are five ways donors and investors can play a role:
- Fund public awareness of the climate bill. Create hope and positive momentum by funding diverse leaders telling stories of the positive impacts of a low carbon economy. Be sure to fund travel, training, and coaching costs as they speak to media or policy makers.
- Fund the Green Collar Jobs movement: The bill will create new, green jobs which can employ people from underserved communities. A strong green collar jobs movement ensures these jobs are fair, inclusive, and go to the people who need them the most.
- Fund grassroots organizations fighting for the health of their neighborhoods and families. Despite the positive benefits of the climate bill, it also includes concessions to the Fossil Fuel industry, such as easing restrictions on fracking in some communities. These communities will need support like never before to resist the further pollution of their land and impacts to their health.
- Fund political organizing: We need elected leaders in office who will continue to invest in a low carbon economy. While the bill will significantly reduce our carbon emissions, we will need to do more to meet our carbon reduction targets.
- Build the capacity of communities to reap the benefits: The bill will provide billions for solar, new electric appliances, and insulation of residential buildings. Traditionally, low-income communities and reservations have missed out on these benefits. Grassroots organizations need funding to build their capacity to access these funds to benefit their communities. Be sure to include extra funding for the complexities of government grant writing.
Contact us at Unleashing Generosity for support in crafting your strategy and identifying nonprofit organizations in which to invest.
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