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Is climate change action the new face of natural disaster relief?

Smoke from wildfires in Quebec, Canada shrouds New York City.

As extreme weather makes front-page headlines year-round, each news cycle brings fresh evidence that we are living in unprecedented times. Whether it’s global heatwaves, flooding in Pakistan, Canadian wildfires that block out the sun, decade-long droughts in Africa, or ever more powerful hurricanes, natural disasters have our attention. 

When a disaster strikes, individuals, communities, philanthropy, and entire nations often rise to the occasion, providing relief and humanitarian aid. Seeing a problem—like the February earthquake in Turkey and Syria—many will act to mitigate it. But climate change has been a disaster experienced slowly, and now all at once. The growing alarm to take action is often muted by the enormity of the challenge and the lack of specificity over just what to do. 

Making the climate connection

Even a decade ago, you might have been able to compartmentalize natural disaster relief as separate from the effects of climate change. Today, however, the two challenges are so intertwined that a new approach to disaster philanthropy may signal its convergence with climate change mitigation and a growing awareness that work in one area is inexorably connected to the other.  

It is only in recent years that we have seen an emerging shift in the philanthropic response from relief to resilience, from funding recovery efforts to engaging with the root causes of many natural disasters.  

In the past, weather-related disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires, however unpredictable, followed seasonal patterns that shaped how people planned for and responded to extreme weather. But as they continue to grow in intensity and frequency, it’s unclear whether philanthropy’s shifting approach to addressing these disasters’ root causes will keep pace. 

For example, Hurricane Katrina, in August of 2005, presented as a once-in-a-generation disaster. In response, people, corporations, and the philanthropic sector supplied more than $500 million in humanitarian aid, including $409 million in contributions to the American Red Cross to meet the basic needs of victims in New Orleans communities. At the time, the narrative around investments in failed infrastructure, urban planning, and community recovery dominated the focus of the philanthropic sector. 

Little attention was paid to what we now understand as the causal relationship between warming ocean temperatures and the destructive capacity of hurricanes wrought by climate change. That is no longer the case. As just one example, the Green Climate Fund now makes their proactive philanthropic approach explicit, funding “projects with a strong focus on increasing direct access and building resilience in the developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change.” 

The philanthropic response to wildfires has gone through a similar evolution. In 2003, responses to devastating fires around San Diego, California, focused almost entirely on emergency aid, recovery, and rebuilding. Two decades later, disaster recovery remains an essential part of wildfire funding. However, there’s also a growing focus on resilience initiatives and engagement with long-term conservation and risk reduction projects that include accelerating the use of data and technology to better inform communities of risk; conserving land to prevent overdevelopment; and more effectively managing vulnerable ecosystems.  

These examples not only show how far the philanthropic sector has moved in connecting climate change with natural disasters. They also demonstrate how much progress is left to be made. 

Thinking big on climate change

There is good news. Climate change funding is increasing dramatically. This is due in no small part to major investments from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bezos Earth Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among scores of other big bets on research, technology and initiatives to address the root causes of climate change that will have the long-term effect of blunting the growing frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Whether through defending marine ecosystems, accelerating climate research, mobilizing climate funding in developing countries, or investing in innovative carbon-capture technologies, many across the philanthropic sector have begun to see that all funders ought to be climate change funders. 

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP)—a frequent research partner with Candid—formed in 2010, is a key player in rallying donor support for disaster preparedness, relief, recovery, and mitigation, and equally in changing the conversation from coordinating humanitarian aid, to thinking broadly about how climate change connects to and effects how we think about and proactively plan for disasters. Advocating that all funding should consider holistic, community-led equitable recovery, CDP makes it clear that “all funders are disaster funders.” 

This good news is tempered by the reality that climate funding remains a niche in the larger philanthropic ecosystem. Foundation funding for climate-related grantmaking increased 25% between 2020 and 2021. That said, only 29% of funders that explicitly support climate initiatives are allocating at least 20% of their grant dollars to such efforts. Meanwhile, European philanthropy is spending just 5% on climate-related funding.  

While we may be on the path toward fully engaging climate change as the singular existential challenge that it is, the philanthropic sector still has a long road ahead. 

When slowly becomes all at once

U.S. philanthropy is getting better at understanding that natural disasters, however unavoidable, are also the product of our long-term choices. The more the philanthropic sector connects the dots between extreme weather, natural disasters, and climate change, the better philanthropy can not only play a role in addressing acute social, economic, and environmental challenges. They also can continue helping to mitigate the human catastrophe of natural disasters. Awareness of the critical relationship between climate change and natural disasters and that to address one means engaging with both is a crucial test for the sector.  

July was the hottest month in the hottest year in recorded history. This is no longer a slow-moving disaster. As of today, we must all be climate change funders. 

Header image: Smoke from wildfires in Quebec, Canada shrouds New York City on Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023. M1 Buses on Madison Av. near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Marc A. Hermann / Metropolitan Transportation Authority.


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  • neat says:

    August 27, 2023 12:17 pm

    Climate change has already arrived in Pakistan (Indus Valley)
    Decades of environmental damage, damming of rivers in India and mismanagement has resulted in the bulb temperature crossing 55 Deg Celcius, way beyond human capacity.

  • Evelyn Terry-Coleman says:

    August 3, 2023 10:43 am

    Very enlightening..My newly formed community /faith based organization seeks to assist underserved marginalized communities affected by disasters These communities are confronted with immediate and long term affects in the areas of housing, health, and education, Their
    emotional ,and psychological needs
    are also impacted. .These disasters ultimately have an impact on the stability of an already unstable community
    DRA seeks to align with those who are seeking to assist in times of disasters.

    Please feel free to contact us . Your feedback is welcomed because we are developing snd new to the cause

    Thank you again for sharing
    [email protected]