While environmental giving mushroomed to twice its annual amounts in 2007 and 2008 after the documentary An Inconvenient Truth made climate change part of the international zeitgeist, annual giving in the sector has since fallen off dramatically, according to the Foundation Center.

Foundations—by far the largest donor community and good indicators of where benefactor interests lie—now give about $1.5 billion to the climate change cause per year, down from a $2 billion peak seven years ago.

All this giving goes to nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), whose mission statements range from clean energy development to clean water to conservation, among myriad other approaches. Indeed, the activities of the top 10 most effective NGOs listed by Philanthropedia, a service of GuideStar USA that serves donors, span from protecting wildlife to grassroots activism to scientific research to protecting forests, protecting communities, transforming the transportation industry and developing clean energy, as well as pushing for new laws and policies.

The environmental playing field is, shall we say, spread thin. And many of these activities—such as wildlife protection—have little if any effect on actual climate change. Hence figuring how much is given to climate change mitigation efforts alone is difficult. Still, even taking all that extraneous activity into account, the net total of $1.5 billion still sounds like a lot of money.

But it isn’t. And here’s why: The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget is about $8 billion a year. Never mind the billions more spent by the Interior and the Energy departments, which also aim policies at climate change mitigation and environmental causes. The coffers of eco-NGOs by comparison are but a pittance. Even with their significantly larger budgets, government agencies have been unable to forge much new ground or stem the tide of climate change.

To prevent a two degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures by 2050, which would have far-reaching effects on lives, property and ecosystems, the U.S. needs to cut carbon emissions from 1990 levels by at least 25% through 2020, as proposed in the 2005 United Nation’s Kyoto Protocol agreement. Instead, the U.S. has actually increased carbon emissions nearly 10% from 1990 levels.

This isn’t to say the federal government has done nothing or that it hasn’t taken strides to chart a cleaner energy path for the country. Nor is it to say that climate groups haven’t rallied for better policies.

The largest march against climate change rolled through New York City last September with nearly half a million people participating. But a whimper from it was heard in terms of policy change or business or scientific development. And a new round of concerts is planned for June by the organizers of the Live Earth campaign with the goal of acquiring one billion signatures from individuals concerned about climate change. What that will lead to is anyone’s guess. Obviously, the outcry of “we care” is important for politicians and business leaders—those in positions to actually do something about climate change—to hear, but there is a strong chance the outpouring of goodwill will more likely result instead in shrugs of “who cares?”

Climate philanthropy funneled through nonprofit organizations need not have such weak results.

According to the International Energy Agency, it will take about $1 trillion per year in funding through 2050 to mitigate the effects of climate change. This would mean new power grids—“smart” grids—and new energy efficiency measures as well as power plants.
“Analysis of the entire energy system shows that delaying action on climate change is a false economy,” the IEA writes in its report, Redrawing The Energy-Climate Map. Lower amounts of investments now will result in far larger investment requirements later, the IEA concludes.

“The weight of scientific analysis tells us that our climate is already changing and that we should expect extreme weather events (such as storms, floods and heat waves) to become more frequent and intense, as well as increasing global temperatures and rising sea levels. Policies that have been implemented suggest that the long-term average temperature increase is more likely to be between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees Celsius (compared with pre-industrial levels), with most of the increase occurring this century. While global action is not yet sufficient to limit the global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius, this target still remains technically feasible, though extremely challenging,” the IEA writes.

That extreme challenge equals $1 trillion. So rather than a billion signatures, why not aim for a trillion-dollar campaign? At least that would present a goal with some teeth.

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