Which are the most effective climate change nonprofits?

They aren’t the names you know

Marc Gunther
Dec 11, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo by John Englart (Takver) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This fall, just in time for the giving season, two groups of independent researchers set out to identify the most effective nonprofits that are working to curb climate change. Their findings may surprise you.

Giving Green recommends five organizations: the Clean Air Task Force, the Sunrise Education Fund, which is the 501(c)(3) arm of the Sunrise Movement, Climeworks, Burn and Tradewater. Top charities selected by researchers at the Founders Pledge are the Clean Air Task Force (again), Carbon 180 and Terra Praxis.

You’ll immediately notice one thing about these recommendations, which reflects thousands of hours of careful research. With the exception of the Sunrise Movement, these are small, underfunded and not especially well known groups. There are other common themes here, too. Several recommended groups work on removing carbon emissions from the air, which is a crucial but neglected climate solution. These recommendations also reflect a recognition of the vexing problem of energy poverty — that is, the fact that more than a billion of the world’s people lack access to modern energy and deserve to get it; any climate solution that asks people around the world to use less energy is going to fail. Finally, Clean Air Task Force, the only nonprofit to make both lists, supports advanced nuclear power and the capture of carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants — technologies that fall outside the conventional wisdom held by climate activists that solar and wind energy can provide all of the reliable, affordable, low-carbon power that the world needs. They can’t, at least not for a very long time.

You may also note that none of the world’s best-known environmental groups — not the Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club or the World Wildlife Fund — appears on either list.

Which is fine, because the big green NGOS rake in plenty of big dollars. Just last month, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that his Earth Fund was giving $791 million to 16 nonprofits fighting climate change. The vast majority of his money will go to the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute and the World Wildlife Fund, each of which gets $100 million. The big NGOS are also favored by the big foundations, like Hewlett, Packard and MacArthur, that have climate programs.

[A quick aside: This reflects the problem of inequality in the nonprofit world. Charities with strong brands, long histories and sophisticated fundraising arms get bigger and richer, partly because it’s all but impossible for ordinary donors to identify effective charities. Not knowing how to give wisely, they throw up their hands and throw money at the usual suspects.]

The fact that it’s so hard to evaluate environmental groups (see my previous reporting on this, here, here and here) is one reason why these researchers stepped up. Giving Green is an initiative of IDInsight, a well-respected nonprofit that promotes global development using evidence and data. Founders Pledge is a group of entrepreneurs and investors who commit to giving away at least five percent of their earnings from startups; its members wanted guidance because they care about the climate. Both organizations are loosely inspired by effective altruism, the movement that relies on reason and evidence to do good.

Giving Green got started when Dan Stein, the chief economist at IDInsight, looked for research to guide his own charitable giving about climate. He was surprised to find little evidence about what strategies work to reduce carbon emissions or reshape US policy, especially when compared to the work of global development, which is replete with randomized controlled trials and peer-reviewed papers. Needless to say, neither Charity Navigator, which purports to evaluate nonprofits, nor Guidestar, a repository of data about nonprofits, were of any help.

The Big Green groups are especially difficult to analyze, Stein says, although they are an important part of the ecosystem of climate nonprofits.

As a rule — perhaps there are exceptions — the big NGOs don’t set specific goals or timetables against which they could be measured. Few publicly own up to their mistakes, or reflect on what they’ve learned from setbacks. Nor do they explain how they select the causes they work on, or what they choose not to do.

Most importantly, their portfolios are diverse.

“They’re really hard to evaluate because they do so much,” Stein says.

While the big NGOs may well be working effectively on conserving land, protecting wildlife, keeping plastic out of the ocean or insuring that residents of Newark have clean drinking water — all important issues — a donor who wants to support climate action would do better to look for a organizations focused entirely on climate.

To that end, the organizations picked by Giving Green generate carbon offsets, which cause immediate, verifiable decreases of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or they work to influence US climate policy to bring about bigger emissions reductions over time.

There’s reason to be skeptical about carbon offsets, giving their history of overpromising and underdelivering. But Giving Green has taken a systematic, transparent approach to analyzing the offset market. Interestingly, Burn, Climeworks and Tradewater, its preferred offset providers, are all for-profit companies. Burn and Climeworks are especially promising because of their growth potential.

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A Burn cookstove

Burn makes and sells improved cookstoves in Kenya. It has sold nearly 1 million stoves, which makes it a star in an industry littered with failures. At least in theory, cookstoves that burn wood more efficiently generate multiple benefits — they save the consumer time and money they otherwise would have spent gathering or buying firewood; they reduce indoor air pollution, a serious health hazard; and they curb carbon emissions because they require less fuel to cook food. Burn’s impact was validated by a recent randomized control trial, which sets it apart from other cookstove providers. The potential global cookstove market is vast — more than 2 billion people in the world still burn biomass for cooking or heating — so buying offsets from Burn will help it reach more customers and keep more carbon out of the air.

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Climeworks construction site in Iceland

Climeworks is a fascinating company, one of a handful trying to make a business out of capturing CO2 directly from the air. (My 2012 ebook, Suck It Up, focused on direct air capture.) Based in Switzerland, the company pulls CO2 from the air and sells it to commercial buyers, including Coca-Cola, or buries it underground. The technology is nascent and costly, but it will likely be necessary because efforts to decarbonize energy systems are not moving nearly fast enough to curb global warming. Climeworks is currently building the largest air capture and storage plant in the world in Iceland.

Carbon 180, a small nonprofit recommended by Founders Pledge, is similarly focused on removing carbon from the atmosphere but aims to change policy, build coalitions and support research into technology that will lower the cost of carbon removal. In the Founders Pledge report on Carbon 180, researcher Johannes Ackva writes: “The scientific consensus is abundantly clear that carbon removal will be needed, at gigatonne scale, if we are to meet ambitious targets such as limiting warming to 2°C.” Interestingly, United Airlines just announced that it is investing in a direct air capture plant, as part of a plan to become carbon neutral by 2050.

To its credit, Founders Pledge recognizes one of the toughest elements of the climate crisis, which is that any climate solution must insure that people in poor countries have enough energy to meet their growing needs. It’s highly likely the people in rich countries also will want to use more energy. So we need more, not fewer, clean energy solutions, which helps explains why Founders Pledge is supporting a brand- new nonprofit called TerraPraxis, which focuses on energy innovation, especially advanced nuclear power.

Its analysis of TerraPraxis notes:

Nuclear power is the largest source of zero-carbon electricity in both the US and the EU, is one of the safest and cleanest energy technologies available, and has been scaled up rapidly in the past to decarbonize electricity systems in Sweden, France and elsewhere.

Philanthropic support for nuclear in the US and EU is scant, unfortunately. Support for TerraPraxis would help remedy that.

So would donations to Clean Air Task Force, Founders Pledge’s top climate charity. The DC-based Clean Air Task Force works to influence energy policy on technologies including nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, which are neglected, if not disdained, by the big green groups. (Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are unequivocally opposed to nuclear power.) “Overall, the Clean Air Task Force is the most effective organization we have found at advancing a technology-agnostic energy innovation agenda,” writes John Halstead, a researcher at the Founders Project. Clean Air Task Force has also shown it can work with Republicans as well as Democrats, which will be crucial so long as the US has a divided national government.

There’s more to say about all this, but rather than go on longer, let me suggest that readers dig into the extensive research published by Giving Green and Founders Pledge. This executive summary from Founders Pledge is a good place to start, as is their analysis of the Clean Air Task Force. Giving Green’s deep dive into the Sunrise Movement is worth a look, too. Founders Pledge has a climate change fund which accepts donations from non-members.

A final thought: We need more organizations like Giving Green and Founders Pledge to do the painstaking work of evaluating nonprofits. Like better-known meta-charities such as GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators, they help promote evidence-based giving and encourage nonprofits to be more accountable. Relatively modest grants from major donors — Jeff Bezos, the Gates, Ford or Hewlett Foundations, MacKenzie Scott, Wellcome Trust, others — could strengthen these efforts, seed others and improve philanthropy as a whole.

Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about philanthropy and accountability

Marc Gunther

Written by

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, etc. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Runner. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

Nonprofit Chronicles

My writing about foundations and nonprofits. I’m interested in the accountability of foundations, how they invest their endowments, the impact of nonprofits, effective altruism and the animal rights movement.

Marc Gunther

Written by

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, etc. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Runner. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

Nonprofit Chronicles

My writing about foundations and nonprofits. I’m interested in the accountability of foundations, how they invest their endowments, the impact of nonprofits, effective altruism and the animal rights movement.

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