Climate and Health|November 03, 2021

The urgent need for philanthropic investments to meet both climate and health goals

Gabrielle Fitzgerald


Representatives from all over the world are gathering in Glasgow this week for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, where they will attempt to hash out agreements to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Not only is the impact of climate change we expected to feel mid-century already here - it's everywhere. Record-breaking heat waves in British Columbia and Sicily, long-burning wildfires in California and Siberia, catastrophic flooding in Germany and South Sudan, swamped subway stations in New York City and Zhengzhou.

This year's weather events have led to death, destruction, and a disruption of everyday life for 85% of the world's population. All of this has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a stark warning of our interconnected world's fragile health, environmental, and economic state.

Yet, despite all of this, philanthropic funds remain siloed toward reaching either climate goals or health goals. Imagine how much faster progress would be if we thought about these issues as inextricably linked?

"Health, like the climate crisis, inequality, and conflict, cannot be tackled in silos. A new collective way forward is needed to ensure that we deliver on the promises of the past and tackle these intertwined challenges together." - WHO Director-General

Some leaders are starting to see the connections between health and the environment

Leaders from multiple sectors are rallying around the urgent need to focus on the links between health and the environment. In August, the Biden administration announced the creation of a new Office of Climate Change and Health Equity at the Department of Health and Human Services. In September, the leaders of three major Christian denominations released a statement calling for greater cooperation to protect the planet, citing the tremendous impact on the food and water supply of the world's poorest populations and warning that "tomorrow could be worse." And 200 medical journals issued an unprecedented joint statement urging leaders to cut emissions to prevent "catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse."

These recent comments echo earlier statements by World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has said that "Health, like the climate crisis, inequality, and conflict, cannot be tackled in silos. A new collective way forward is needed to ensure that we deliver on the promises of the past and tackle these intertwined challenges together."

But too many philanthropies and funders are stuck in siloed thinking

The world has seen amazing generosity from philanthropists on the issues of climate change as well as health. However, very few have broken down the silos between these connected issues.

This spring, in partnership with the Bridge Collaborative, my organization released a report that reviewed philanthropic, bilateral, and multilateral funding streams to assess whether funders have been motivated to make necessary changes by the extraordinary circumstances we're facing.

In 2020, the world's top 20 philanthropic funders swiftly made large grants to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Yet our topline review of the largest grants -- totaling approximately $5.2 billion -- found that not one was intended to create linked environmental impacts. This reflected a missed opportunity at a crucial moment to fund a climate-forward economic recovery that recognized the many links between the environment and human health.

What about the years leading up to the pandemic? Did we see shifts towards integrated funding then? It's hard to say, as the leading funding databases provide little visibility into funds meant to impact multiple issues and use traditional, siloed coding, forcing the categorization of funds towards singular impact. From what the databases do reveal, it is clear that too many entrenched norms and approaches in funding still lean towards the comfort and perceived clarity of single-sector solutions.

In the report, we recognized many of the challenges to funding intersectional solutions -- if this were easy, there is no doubt that more funders would already be doing it.

In light of those challenges, our report outlined eight practical actions private and public funders can take to move towards integrated, cross-sectoral funding in the areas of environment and health. These actions ranged from joining a peer group, to developing new, intersectional metrics, to investing in collaborative funds.

Could COP26 be a turning point for philanthropists to break down silos between climate and health?

If we're to have any hope for future generations to enjoy a healthy planet, we need much more ambitious, aggressive action. The actions we suggest in our report should serve as starting points -- ones that several funders have already demonstrated. But now is the time for real commitment and challenging conversations around even bolder changes still to come.

There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, and the role of philanthropy is critical. Will COP26 in Glasgow be a turning point for philanthropists and funders breaking down silos and working together?

Three years ago, 29 funders came together to pledge $4 billion to "tackle the climate crisis."

This year, it is my hope that these funders renew their commitment and ensure that their resources are working toward intersectional goals of both healthy people and healthy planet.

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