Climate Change


According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Climate Change refers to any significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time. In other words, climate change includes major changes in temperature, precipitation or wind patterns, among other effects, that occur over several decades or longer.”

It is important to remember the difference between climate and weather to avoid confusion. While weather refers to the state of the atmosphere at a given point in time, climate refers to weather conditions prevailing over a long period of time. Weather may be variable, but climate is demonstrated through long-term trends. Although weather conditions will vary, the evidence for climate change accumulates over many years. Short-term temperatures or precipitation values in a given location do not indicate long-term climate trends.

Differentiating climate change from global warming is also important. Global warming refers to the observable increase in global temperatures due primarily to the increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Global warming is one factor that contributes to our changing climate.

Causes of climate change

Some changes in climate happen naturally. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says there have been eight cycles of ice ages and warmer periods in the last 800,000 years. However, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have increased exponentially since the Industrial Revolution, and the only possible source is the drastic increase in human activity.

This increase in CO2 and methane has caused what is known as the “greenhouse effect,” where heat is trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere instead of being released into space. This increased heat is causing what is known as anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change.

Human-caused climate change is not limited to industrial and transportation emissions. In addition to atmospheric drivers, there are also land surface drivers of climate change. These include:

  • The destruction of marshes and wetlands and, by extension, reduction in the Earth’s ability to regulate local temperatures.
  • Deforestation that reduces the Earth’s ability to convert CO2 to oxygen.
  • Expansion of concrete and asphalt construction associated with rapid urbanization, which drives the Urban Heat Island effect.
  • The impact of agricultural production and food waste on increased greenhouse gases.

Effects of climate change globally

North America is seeing the effects of climate change, including severe and unusual weather patterns and long-term changes to climate. A study published by Science Magazine in April 2020 drew a direct connection between anthropogenic climate change and the megadrought that affected southwest North America between 2000 and 2018.

Increased atmospheric and oceanic temperatures lead to stronger hurricanes, more rainfall and snowfall, longer wildfire seasons and more frequent droughts. In the winter, increased temperatures lead to the melting of the polar ice caps, which disrupts the polar vortex, allowing it to break down and send frigid Arctic air into more places more frequently. This pattern was behind the winter storms that hit the U.S. in early 2024, such as Finn and Gerri.

These same climate changes are happening around the world. In Australia, climate change raised the risk of bushfires by more than 30% in 2019-2020. In 2020, Asia experienced some of the worst monsoons in recorded history. In Russia, record-setting warmth led to hundreds of fires burning through the Siberian wilderness. Climate change has contributed to increased drought, heavier rains and flooding, and more wildfires in Europe.

Climate adaptation and climate mitigation

Climate adaptation refers to a variety of actions meant to reduce vulnerabilities or compensate for, or adapt to, the adverse impacts arising from changes in the Earth’s climate. Examples of climate adaptation include but are not limited to, changes in agricultural practices to maintain crop yields; raising or protecting structures from floodwater, storm surge, and sea level rise; increased water planning and storage; flood control infrastructure; and managed retreat and migration.

Climate mitigation, on the other hand, refers to a set of actions or changes in societal behavior taken to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and/or to remove GHGs from the atmosphere to prevent significant adverse climate effects. Climate mitigation often centers around new technologies to reduce carbon emissions (e.g., electric vehicles), improve energy efficiency, and “scrub” or “capture” carbon from the atmosphere.

According to the ClimateWorks Foundation’s Funding Trends 2023 report, philanthropic trends around climate change adaptation and mitigation continue to evolve. While clean energy remains the largest category for foundation giving and public investment, there are rapid and sizable increases in funding for the reduction of “super pollutants” like methane and the decarbonization of transportation and industry. Additionally, more funders increasingly recognize the importance of supporting climate solutions that acknowledge and engage with climate justice and equity concerns.

Key Facts

  • Human activities have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide significantly. Based on samples from ice cores, atmospheric carbon dioxide had never exceeded 300 parts per million for millennia. However, NASA measurements as of December 2023 found that the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is 422 parts per million. According to NASA, human activities have raised the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content by 50% in less than 200 years.
  • The Earth is getting warmer. Beginning in June, each month in the last half of 2023 set records for being the hottest respective month, and 2023 was the hottest year in the 174 years that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been keeping records. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “We are facing a climate crisis … From extreme heat, to wildfires, to rising sea levels, we can see our Earth is changing.”
  • Climate change is a justice issue. Toxic facilities emit contaminants, and many of these facilities also emit carbon dioxide and methane, which are drivers of climate change. The first indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in the U.S. is race. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report said with high confidence, “Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected.”
  • Every region of the world will face increases in hazards. The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report makes clear that ecosystems and humans are projected to face increasing risks. In the near term, an increase in heat-related human mortality and morbidity is expected, as is an increase in water-borne and vector-borne diseases. An increase in mental health challenges associated with increased temperatures is also likely. However, the report says the risk level will depend on vulnerability and exposure trends, which humans can influence.
  • Climate change and the displacement of people are increasingly interconnected. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, climate-related disasters resulted in more than half of new reported displacements in 2022. Additionally, nearly 60% of refugees and internally displaced people live in countries that are among the most vulnerable to climate change. The term “climate refugees” is not officially recognized in international law, however, some argue that there is now a need to formally recognize the status of climate refugees.
  • Increased ocean acidity negatively impacts ocean life. Lesser known impacts from climate change that research is identifying and that are observed through the experience of at-risk populations globally include increasing ocean acidity associated with higher levels of CO2. As the oceans absorb higher and higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the ocean water turns acidic, destroying the habitats of many species of ocean life. This matters because it changes the overall structure of ecosystems and can affect fish populations and the people who depend on them.
  • The window of opportunity to prevent permanent impacts of climate change is diminishing. The IPCC has warned that the impacts of climate change could be irreversible by as soon as 2030. Research published in October 2023 indicates that this may come much sooner.
  • The cost of not acting on climate change could be more than twice the U.S. national debt. A report from Deloitte’s Center for Sustainable Progress released in 2022 indicates that, if left unchecked, climate change could cost the global economy as much as $178 trillion over the next 50 years. By contrast, the economy could gain $43 trillion by rapidly accelerating the transition to net-zero carbon emissions over that same time period.

How to Help

All of this may seem overwhelming, but there are roles for philanthropy to play in addressing the impacts of climate change.

  • Invest in prevention and mitigation measures. Investing in initiatives such as urban forestry, community gardens and natural land preservation not only helps pull carbon out of the atmosphere, but they can also help reduce surface heat, feed communities, slow down the passage of water through soil and stabilize the soil around them – reducing the risk of flash flooding.
  • Support initiatives to create more resilient critical infrastructure systems. Extreme temperatures, one result of a warming world, can put additional stress on critical infrastructure systems, causing them to fail when they are most badly needed to reduce the impacts of extreme weather. For example, clean power solutions that also power cooling systems can help reduce carbon emissions and provide safe indoor temperatures for at-risk populations.
  • Support racial justice, community organizing and other movement-building organizations that seek to eliminate societal inequities. As with natural hazard-related disasters, climate change negatively impacts individuals and communities because of social inequities and pre-existing vulnerabilities. Support for efforts to address inequities and the impacts of climate change at the local level must have leadership that is representative of the community. For example, a local group whose leadership represents their community and has experience in community organizing is well-positioned to gather support for policy changes or additional resources.
  • Coordinate efforts with stakeholders. Given the urgency of climate action, the record number of billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. in 2023 and the various systems affected by climate change, donors must be strategic with their funding and work together. Collaborating across public, private and civil society can help ensure funding and investments are complimentary, address gaps and leverage other resources.

What Funders Are Doing

  • Recognizing that climate change impacts people’s lives and systems in various, overlapping and complex ways, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) funding is often cross-sectoral. It aims to help communities mitigate and adapt to the threats a changing climate poses. Examples of CDP’s funding include:
    • In 2023, Nexus received $250,095 from the Global Hunger Crisis Fund to improve household livelihoods and increase the ability to adapt and manage climate risks among drought-affected farmers from marginalized communities in Baardhere and Gabiley districts, Somalia.
    • In 2023, the Near East Foundation received a $250,000 grant from the Global Recovery Fund and COVID-19 Response Fund to support COVID-19, conflict, climate and crisis-impacted people in South Sudan reduce their risk of food insecurity, recover livelihoods and build resilience to future shocks.
    • In 2023, Taller Salud received a $260,000 grant from the Atlantic Hurricane Season Recovery Fund to help communities in Puerto Rico most affected by climate change prepare, respond, mitigate and adapt to shocks they face. The organization will establish Resilience Hubs based on trusting and elevating women of color’s leadership in those communities.
    • In 2022, Mujeres de Islas, an anchor nonprofit on the island of Culebra, received a $55,850 grant from the Atlantic Hurricane Season Recovery Fund to expand a solar project. The grant was made through the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico and helped fill a gap in matching funds that existed from a nearly $5 million Economic Development Association grant.

In addition to CDP’s investments, other philanthropic organizations are responding to climate change in a myriad of ways that reflect the range of engagement opportunities for funders.

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(Photo: A calving glacier. Source: NOAA)