Day One of #GPF2020

The Global Philanthropy Forum’s annual conference is virtual this year, providing space for all change-makers, philanthropists, social investors and innovators around the world to attend, no invitation required. The focus is on one of the greatest challenges of our time—climate change; understanding its complexity, identifying solutions, and seeking the path forward. The topic is especially relevant as we see unprecedented sea level rise, extreme weather conditions, and fires engulfing the West Coast of the US, just as Australia experienced earlier this year. The plenary sessions each day feature climate leaders who offer their unique perspectives on the current state of our climate, the challenges we face in regenerating our planet, and how we, individually and collectively, can overcome these challenges.

Day one of the conference highlighted the intersectionality of climate change issues; how global warming impacts and interacts with social and racial inequality, public health, and structural challenges. 

World Affairs President and CEO, Philip Yun kicked off the conference with Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, with advice on how philanthropy can effectively respond to the climate crisis. Kramer issued a bold call to action, ”philanthropy needs to stop fiddling while the world burns.” Climate change only exacerbates all of our society’s most pressing issues like racial and economic inequality, and our social, political, and economic structures simply can’t handle that kind of pressure. The problem is, we aren’t stepping up to the plate. We have the resources, experts, and solutions to combat climate change. We now need to get directly involved in enacting those solutions, and we need to do it intelligently.

Founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum, Jane Wales then engaged with Paul Hawken of One Generation to discuss why tackling the changing climate matters so much. Hope has only gotten us so far in addressing global warming, and Hawken believes that we instead need to be fearless in our efforts. Most people are disengaged when we talk about climate change because they feel no sense of agency and have no idea how to help as individuals. Why? Because we’re addressing a futurea far off and impersonal existential threatnot a current human need. Our current structures around food, water, clothing, politics, and the economy are all directly impacted, and often crippled, by climate change. We need to rethink the systems we have in place in society to come up with holistic solutions. “Every expert experiences imposter syndrome,” at some point according to Hawken, and “it’s impossible to know every intricacy and relationship in climate change issues.” But weexperts, philanthropists, and change-makerscan’t let ourselves become complacent just because we don’t have all the answers. 

Connecting climate change to other real world challenges, Catherine Coleman Flowers, Director and Founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, discussed how addressing poverty alleviation through an environmental justice lens can create lasting benefits to some of our most underserved communities in the US. Counties across the US don’t have access to proper sanitation. Warm weather, raw sewage and rising sea levels create the perfect storm for illness and reduced quality of life. Coleman Flowers asserts that localities need to be more responsive to problems experienced in impoverished areas and allow community leaders who have a vested interest to have a seat at the table. Innovation is key. ”If we can turn wastewater into drinking water in space,” asks Coleman Flowers, “why can’t we do that here?”

Engaging more with the problem, each day working groups dig deeper into the issues.  One working group track is focused on Inclusive Green Economies. Today, they concentrated on promoting sustainability in waste management. In the US, only 6 percent of food waste is recycled. The great majority of it ends up in landfills or incinerators and is burned, emitting deadly air pollution, which causes more deaths than car crashes and murders combined. Typically, it is communities in the lower socio-economic tier that are affected the most by carbon emissions on a global scale. Already underemployed, these communities bear the consequences of environmental impacts through negative health consequences. How can we craft a holistic solution, working towards environmental sustainability while promoting healing and creating thousands of new careers at a global scale? Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, founder of Wecyclers, Daniel Brown, founder of Rust Belt Riders and Jeffrey Neal, founder of Loop Closing, described “social enterprise” business models and scalable solutions that directly address these crucial questions. These entrepreneurs are empowering local communities to achieve sustainable and efficient recycling while creating wealth and beginning to heal communities.    


The year 2020 represents a crucial opportunity. With racial injustice, COVID-19, and the collapsing economy, not to mention the changing climate, we have a “convergence of crises.” In the face of this cascade, what can be done? “We need to get out of the gloom and doom mindset” when it comes to climate change, claims Christiana Figueres, Co-founder of Global Optimism. Despair leads to paralysis, and then nothing gets done. We have the ingenuity and the capacity to avoid the worst and build a much better world than the one we have now. A world that’s regenerated, more just and more stable. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director at The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard, agrees.  The inequalities we’ve historically allowed to fester can no longer be tolerated. He reminds us that when working on climate solutions we need to talk about the direct, short term benefits to everyday people, like healthier pregnancies, fewer children with asthma and brain disorders, and fewer deaths from common illnesses like pneumonia that impact our parents and grandparents.  This can change mindsets and behavior en masse.

Just after midday Pacific Time, Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis joined the Global Philanthropy Forum to offer a perspective from one state in the Western US. With record high temperatures and wildfires ravaging our country, our leaders and philanthropists need to take action now or we’ll see increasingly severe climate-related catastrophes. “Now is our opportunity to rebuild our economy more sustainably and equitably,” says Governor Polis. He says the solution to our climate change problems lies in collaboration between business, government, and all sectors of society.

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon then capped off the first day of the forum, offering his take on the challenge raised by Hewlett Foundation president Larry Kramer first thing in the morninghow can philanthropy affect change in this climate crisis? “Philanthropy plays a critical role as a bridge between worlds and channeling innovation and entrepreneurship,” in Ban’s view. Without partnerships between philanthropy, civil society and business, nothing can be done. He urges world leaders to step up and lead not only with passion, but compassion, and to listen to the voices of their people. We have an obligation to our planet to make it more sustainable, and real progress on reversing global warming can only exist when all members of society work together.

Climate change is not an issue that exists in a vacuum. It touches every part of our reality, and impacts the issues that matter most to us: wealth inequality, racial injustice, economic crises, jobs, education, and much more. The days of “doom and gloom” climate discussions need to end, because these conversations do not speak to the immediate problems citizens of the world face. To make impactful change, we have to galvanize individuals, and the only way to do that effectively is to connect climate change to the issues they care about. Climate change will then be transformed from a divisive political issue into a personal one.