The Real Climate Crisis is on the Front Lines

May 20, 2022Climate & Environment, Perspectives

The racial reckoning that saturated the US in 2020 has seeped into the broader global arena, forcing our society to have uncomfortable conversations that revealed the underlying prejudices within many policies and realities.

Alongside this racial reckoning, there have been parallel conversations concerning our current climate crisis. Underscored in mainstream media by devastating fires in Australia and California, increasing floods and landslides in areas like Nepal, and decimation of crops from locust invasions in East Africa, the detrimental effects of climate change are unceasing and only increasing in severity.[1]

Inequities, Local and Global

Addressing the climate crisis has rightfully remained a high global priority and has attracted generous amounts of philanthropic funding. As undoubtedly positive as this focus is, too much of the funding and conversations around climate action exclude the voice and participation of the people who are most affected by the crisis. This oversight is one that threatens to severely limit the chances of successful and equitable innovation, adaptation, and mitigation around climate change. In order to bring forth ideas and solutions that will most effectively address the challenges posed by our climate crisis, funders should prioritize collaboration with organizations that truly uplift and represent the voices of the people and areas that are most impacted by climate change.

Recent studies show that in the U.S., Black and Latinx communities create less pollution, and yet they are simultaneously exposed to more pollution than white communities.[2] This inequity holds true at the global scale as well: despite the Global North being responsible for the majority of CO2 emissions, the adverse effects of climate change are more harshly felt by people living in the Global South.

As an example, the 10-most food-insecure countries in the world generate just .08% of total global CO2 emissions[3]; while the United States is responsible for upwards of 15%.[4] Despite this unfair dichotomy, too many institutional funders continue to operate within an insular framework in which they partner with and provide funding to stakeholders that are far removed from the populations that are being most heavily impacted by climate change.  

Unite for Change

Thankfully, “too many” is not “all.” It would be disingenuous to imply that no philanthropic stakeholders are attempting to address the needs of the most impacted communities. Late last year, world leaders and representatives from public and private organizations alike came together to discuss the science and solutions behind the current climate crisis. Their convening culminated in the Glasgow Climate Pact, which can be seen as an upgrade to the 2015 Paris Agreement.

It is to be hoped that this new Pact will engender increased focus on sustainability and support for just energy transitions. Among the many goals that were agreed upon, included were agreements on the need to increase funding towards developing countries as well as double the financial support for solutions that help developing countries adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.

While we can and should applaud the conversations that are finally taking place around addressing climate change, there is nevertheless a gap in the way that many actors are communicating, implementing, and funding work that concerns climate and the environment. In a study conducted by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School looking at 12 national environmental grant makers, it was found that out of the $1.34 billion that was awarded to organizations in 2016 and 2017, only 1.3% of the monies was awarded to groups that were dedicated to environmental justice.

The environmental justice (EJ) movement draws attention to the fact that the people who live, work and play in America’s most polluted environments are most commonly people of color and the poor. EJ activists and advocates recognize that this is no coincidental correlation; communities of color are systematically the ones where projects and facilities with deleterious health and environmental impacts have been located, for generations.

EJ organizations are inherently community facing and work with and for the people and communities who face the severe consequences of climate change. The findings from the Tishman Environment and Design Center shine a light on the systemic gap in alignment and funding between philanthropic and environmental justice organizations. Thankfully, they also highlight a potential opportunity to improve that alignment through targeted funding of community-focused initiatives.

Time to Resource the Solutions

Frontline and grassroots organizations are already creating their own holistic solutions that prioritize justice and promote resiliency. However, they are often placed in a position where they must do so without the financial or organizational support of institutional investors.

To secure a habitable planet for future generations, we must reduce emissions, diversify energy use, and prioritize energy-efficient solutions that can help mitigate global warming and the harmful effects of climate change. This necessity has now reached a critical stage. Nevertheless, the reality is that many communities—and specifically BIPOC ones are already suffering from the harmful effects of climate change and environmental injustices. What we need now is an equal focus on solutions that address multiple levers: resilience, community-building, and justice.

While mitigation and adaptation are often given equal weight in the climate conversation, there is a notable difference in project funding flows between mitigation innovations versus adaptation-focused tech. The former are funded at exceedingly higher levels than the latter. A report conducted by the Climate Policy Initiative claims that adaptation projects receive an estimated $22 billion a year, compared to the $436 billion provided for mitigation activities.[5] This funding gap runs in parallel with the truth that adaptation projects are often led by EJ or grassroots organizations. This is of little surprise when you consider these are the groups who are already experiencing the detrimental effects of climate change. In short, the money is flowing towards solutions that for many are already too late.

There is little disagreement that climate change must be fervently and rapidly acted upon. This concurrence is an important first step in addressing the present-day crisis. It is promising to see that both public and private entities are starting to consider climate change as a serious priority. The next and most important step will be how public and private funders fund solutions, and to what extent they involve those on the frontline to help develop these remedies.

Many organizations are currently working on and implementing effective solutions that prioritize the most vulnerable populations and they are working with and for their community members to increase adaptive capacity.

Climate change innovation must not exacerbate the already deep-seated inequities within society. The only way to avoid this perpetuated harm is through collaboration with the organizations working closest with those on the frontlines. The communities facing the worst negative effects of climate change (in both developing countries and vulnerable U.S.-based ones) have to be at the center of the solutions.

We need to listen to, partner with, and importantly fund leaders, organizations, and communities who are facing these threats most directly. In doing so, we can not only help accelerate solutions to adaptation (and mitigation), but we can amplify the conversation around equity and other unjust power balances that make communities vulnerable in so many ways.

Locally based organizations on the front lines cannot be seen solely as advisors or providers of data inputs—they are the essential, central partners that should be given priority in both capacity building and solutions scaling. If we approach climate change innovation in this way, we will grow an equitable climate movement, and narrow equity gaps rather than perpetuate them. To do anything less would be to fail the communities and the planet twice over.


[2] Christopher W. Tessum et al., “Inequity in Consumption of Goods and Services Adds to Racial–Ethnic Disparities in Air Pollution Exposure,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 13 (March 26, 2019): 6001–6,