By Susan Drake Swift
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation “helps people build measurably better lives” including by investing more to combat climate change than any other philanthropy on earth. More than a billion dollars have been granted to date and Hewlett’s commitments extend around the globe and far into the future.
“I think it’s fair to say that the most important problems plaguing society globally and domestically are climate change and inequality,” says Hewlett President Larry Kramer, echoing remarks he has made as an IS board member. “We all make our own choices on what to work on – but whatever you choose, be it inequality, or immigration or whatever – you should work on climate. Because it affects all these problems, and will swamp whatever gains you make. It’s that big. I come at this as an historian, and if you study global history you see that changes in climate have repeatedly led to the end of cultures and societies. There’s nothing bigger.”
Founded in 1966, the Hewlett Foundation has had a longstanding nature conservation program which “has long focused on ecological biodiversity in the wide open spaces,” says Kramer, noting that the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and his wife were westerners who relished being in the outdoors. “Bill was a phenomenal amateur photographer of wildflowers. He and Flora both cared about wide open spaces. If you live in California, it is hard not to have that as part of your soul and that’s what it was for them.”
When the Hewlett Foundation began tackling global environmental issues, it “didn’t think about developing its climate change portfolio in the way most foundations, or even Hewlett itself, usually thinks about problems. Because we knew we couldn’t do this one ourselves, we needed other funders to coordinate with us,” Kramer says.
In 2007 the foundation joined with the Packard, Oak, Doris Duke, Joyce, and Energy foundations to develop Design to Win, a look into the future for five carbon intensive sectors: power, industry, buildings, transportation, and forestry. The researchers came to two main conclusions. One, “it was possible to forestall irreversible changes in the planet’s temperature.” Two, “hundreds of millions of dollars in new philanthropy would be needed each year to reduce annual CO2 emissions by 30 billion tons below the projected levels by 2030.”
A year later Hewlett, again in tandem with other philanthropies, made a five-year, $100 million a year commitment to ClimateWorks, a network of climate foundations overseen by business, civic, and scientific leaders in places emitting the most carbon dioxide: the United States, the European Union, China, India, and Latin America, as well as a focus on carbon stored by the world’s forests. This level of commitment continues to this day and it is helping to deliver important results. A recent White House clean energy fact sheet commended the foundation for “developing deep experience in building and sustaining multi-foundation alliances to limit the risks of climate change and advance clean energy.”
In June 2016, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India shook hands on a new U.S.-India solar partnership. It has come none too soon. The partnership is designed to leverage seed capital from U.S. foundations, including the Hewlett Foundation, along with Indian government funding and loans from the U.S. government to secure, over time, a large amount of private investment capital.
The Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, a grantee of both the Hewlett and Packard foundations, has promoted energy efficiency, renewable energy, and sustainable transport – working with decision makers at every level and experts of all kinds to create cross-sector strategies and policy frameworks. Aditi Sinha, communications manager at the Shakti Foundation, describes some of the factors leading to the new bilateral partnership. “The demand for energy has grown significantly in the last few decades and is expected to double by 2030. But almost 300 million Indians still lack access to energy today. In many parts of the country, electricity supply is unreliable and of poor quality,” says Sinha. ”Also, India is vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of its vast coastline and a large population that is dependent on agriculture. A new national leadership is also playing an important role in charting out a more sustainable development pathway for the country.”
Elected in 2014, Prime Minister Modi himself grew up in a small town in Gujarat, the son of a street merchant. Energy for development is a top priority of his administration. Momentum in the country toward renewable energy is considerable, but Sinha cites continuing challenges relating to implementation and the lack of finance.
As important as the funding for clean energy is, it cannot go forward in the absence of communications strategies that pave the way. Hewlett is a major player but in a low-key role. “It is in the Hewlett Foundation DNA to say it’s not about us. We use our voice when it can help advance the strategy, but we have grantees doing the work and our communications efforts focus mainly on helping them do it.” That said, at times things don’t go as planned. “Lots of things we try don’t work,” says Kramer. “People in philanthropy are obsessed with how hard it is to talk about failure. I don’t understand that. We all experience and talk about failure in our personal lives and it shouldn’t be any different at work.”
He offers two examples, both from Hewlett’s outreach efforts to build support for climate change action.
“Climate has become a highly politicized issue, and we are not going to make progress until more people on the right are engaged. After the failure of the cap and trade bill in Congress in 2009, we realized we had failed to invest in a wide enough range of policy approaches to climate change, including policies that might be supported by conservatives wanting to act on climate. Our focus had been too singular to one kind of policy solution and too technical. Since then, we’ve become more flexible and open to supporting a wider range of approaches and constituencies.”
Another example concerned the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change: “the emails of climate change scientists were hacked into and selectively excerpted to make it look like a conspiracy. We weren’t prepared to respond at the time. But as a result we built stronger communications operations. Now media stories with inaccuracies can’t get so far ahead that we can’t catch up.”
Kramer has a lifetime interest in consensus building and the workings of democracy, having clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Henry J. Friendly of the Second Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. as well as serving as dean of Stanford’s law school.
“People are on different sides of issues for different reasons, with legitimate interests and concerns. So we need to get everybody together and talk about what works for everybody, or for as many people as possible. Emphasizing common bonds makes so much more sense than the alternative. This self-righteous ‘my way is the only way’ stuff is hurting everybody.”
Is he optimistic or pessimistic about climate change?
“Cautiously optimistic,” he says because we know it is still doable and the world seems to have taken a turn in the right direction in the last year and a half – including Paris. We need tons more help for philanthropy to do everything it is capable of, there is nowhere near enough. We need more partners at the local, national, regional, and global levels. We are on the right track, but we need to accelerate our progress. Again: this is, literally, everybody’s problem.”