Ceres, the Boston-based nonprofit that seeks to mobilize business leaders for a sustainable world, has done just that. It has created a “Clean Trillion” campaign that urges businesses to invest in clean energy solutions. Its road map to sustainability helps business by 2020 commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25%; improving the energy efficiency of their operations by at least 50%; reducing electricity demand by at least 15%; and obtaining at least 30% of energy from renewable sources.

Moreover, these businesses can flex their muscles and lobby for policies that expand investment in clean energy through Ceres’ Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP) initiative.

These actions seem rather clear. Whether they are attainable is another story. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, investments in clean energy rose 16% in 2014 to $310 billion. Good news given that it is the first such rise in three years, but there is still a ways to go in reaching Ceres’ vaunted trillion-dollar-a-year campaign goal.

Meanwhile, Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental philanthropist, spent at least $57 million of his own money on environmental and political causes last year, according to The New York Times, only “to have largely wasted his time and money.”

In total, environmental groups spent $85 million—a magnitude greater than they had ever spent in any election year, the Times reports, and virtually nothing came of it. Democrats and respective environmental policy packages were famously quashed during the November midterm elections.

If not through policy or purse strings, where might climate philanthropy wage influence?

Sarah Hansen, author of Cultivating the Grassroots: A Winning Approach for Environment and Climate Funders, a report published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, contends environment and climate funders can be more effective by investing heavily in grassroots communities that are disproportionately impacted by harm to the environment and climate. “By engaging meaningfully at the grassroots level, grant makers have the opportunity not just to support efforts that are especially strong but to use their work at the local level to build political pressure and mobilize for national change,” she says.

The famous mantra put forth by former Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill that “all politics is local,” might apply to climate change actions and effectiveness as well.

This is buttressed by research. Eco America, a research and marketing organization whose mission is to connect with Americans’ core values to bring about and support change in personal and civic choices and behaviors, finds that “local preparedness resonates.” This is because personal health and welfare are of higher priority to individuals than more general and sweeping climate change considerations.

Low priorities result in less action.

To be sure, the climate movement en masse has registered some success: More hybrid and electric vehicles are on the roads, new carbon pollution standards for coal plants have been introduced and more households are getting their power from solar and wind sources.

But even all that won’t move the dial much in the face of irreparable global warming by 2050, when the damage of too much carbon in the atmosphere will channel its severity across land and sea.

So perhaps a focus on the here and now—and zeroing in on local initiatives—is what’s warranted. At least that is what some climate philanthropists are starting to believe.

Toward that end, the Rockefeller Foundation is turning its attention to climate resiliency. It’s backing the 100 Resilient Cities effort (100resilientcities.org) to help cities around the globe adapt to the new normal of weather extremes and natural resource disruptions. The foundation is also issuing practical guidelines for using information ecosystems to promote resiliency.

As climate change and extreme weather roil the world, more climate adaptation and resilience programs are in fact sorely and practically needed. Infrastructure work, which is what adaptation and resiliency amount to, can translate into more jobs and promising investment opportunities. This is the terrain of impact investing, where capital produces both financial and social returns.
Fixing cracks and sealing frames may not be as sexy as far-flung experiments to discover the silver bullet for climate change mitigation. Less sexiness and hype and more seriousness, however, may be just what the climate movement needs.

Government, after all, isn’t sexy. Neither should philanthropy be. The climate movement needs to be more results-driven for the benefit of us all.

As Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve, a California-centric nonprofit, puts it, “It’s about putting one foot in front of the other and being methodical, not grandiose.”

Dreaming of a cleaner world and calmer climate may be big, but it’s the little things—tried and true—that will make that dream a reality. Climate philanthropists take note.

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