If you had $100 million to mitigate the effects of climate change, how would you spend it?
This is not a hypothetical for Holdfast Collective, the nonprofit organization that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard created. Holdfast will oversee the nonprofit using the clothing brand’s funds — around $100 million per year — to combat the climate crisis.
This makes Holdfast “a major player in climate philanthropy” — an area that could use a major boost on the philanthropic stage. Of the world’s total donations in 2020 ($750 billion), less than 2 percent ($6 billion to $10 billion) were designated for climate change mitigation, according to a 2021 ClimateWorks report.
Patagonia has a long history of financially supporting environmental organizations, and many are hopeful that this announcement will sustain such giving for years to come.
Others are excited to see Holdfast’s 501(c)(4) designation, which also allows the collective to make political donations — a realm that Patagonia has generally steered clear of. Though some have noted that, with this designation, the company will pay almost no taxes on the donation.
Holdfast has yet to announce how exactly it will divvy up its financial contributions, and experts hold different views on how much money should be spent.
If climate change is to be solved with spending — and “solved” is a moving, fuzzy, subjective finish line — recent estimates have this price tag ranging from $300 billion to $131 trillion. Patagonia’s $100 million-per-year pledge is just fractions of a percent of each.
But the “Monopoly money” figures are no reason to completely disregard Patagonia’s financial contribution to the climate change fight, said Virginia Lacy, the senior director of philanthropy for Energy Innovation, a climate policy think tank.
In the larger context, she said, it is still a massive amount of money to put toward combating climate change: “It all comes down to how you use it.”
So how should it be spent? Grid spoke with well-known experts in the conservation, international relations, political and energy sectors about how they would deploy the $100 million.
Get it in the hands of grassroots organizations
Peter Galvin, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the best way to spend the money is to give almost exclusively to grassroots organizations who are the most familiar with the climate crisis.
That strategy aligns with Patagonia’s previous donation history — sometimes sending equipment overnight to the front lines of protests, Galvin said.
“Patagonia is investing in the infrastructure of activism itself,” he said. In the past year alone, the company has donated to nearly 1,500 activist organizations.
Though Galvin isn’t against investing in politicians and campaigns, he is wary of it as a truly effective solution to the climate crisis. Especially in American elections, he said, “no matter how much money environmentalists give” to politicians running for office, those supported by major corporations and fossil fuel companies will always have way more.
It would probably be easier, he said, for Patagonia to centralize this wealth and use it as leverage for funding political candidates. But in the past, it hasn’t done that — following the philosophy that relying on politicians to solve collective action problems is a slippery (and not terribly effective) slope. The foundations that fall prey to this thinking, he added, are unable to “sustain the gains” among voters, communities and grassroots organizations, because they do not have lasting relationships.
What grassroots organizations or efforts could benefit most from $100 million right now? Galvin would go on the aggressive — funding “hardcore, militant, forward-looking, radical organizations” such as Dogwood Alliance, Extinction Rebellion and Louisiana Bucket Brigade, that put pressure, he said, on “milquetoast groups and compromise-oriented people.”
Other experts were also supportive of Patagonia directing the funds to grassroots organizations.
Yolanda Kakabadse, former minister of the environment for the Ecuadorian government and former president of both World Wildlife Fund International and International Union for Conservation of Nature, said that she would focus on ocean conservation and food waste, citing those as areas in need of desperate attention.
“Oceans are the most abused ecosystem on the planet, and solving the whole climate crisis needs to be based on a better treatment of the oceans,” she said. “And, if food loss and waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter behind China and the U.S.”
The Ocean Conservancy, Marine Conservation Institute and Food Recovery Network are some of the largest nonprofits working in these domains.
Prioritize the world’s top emitters and most influential leaders
Ashok Swain, editor-in-chief of the journal Environment and Security, said that while many grassroots organizations are doing great work, the planet doesn’t have time to wait for local leaders to put pressure on national leaders. The only way to get anything done on a larger level is to work at the top of the ranks nationally and internationally.
If given $100 million, he would use it to leverage influence among world leaders of some of the most important countries in the climate discussion — namely the U.S., China and Russia. Basically, said Swain — who is also the UNESCO chair on international water cooperation and a department head at Uppsala University in Sweden — they need to start having the conversations they’re currently not.
“The thing that is missing is the lack of political will,” Swain said. “Politicians talk about Ukraine, about the energy crisis, about China, about — you name it — everything. But they don’t talk about climate change.”
According to a Pew Research Center study from this August, 75 percent of people from the 19 participating countries believe that climate change is the top threat to global security. But Swain notes a stark contrast between what the people think is important and where world leaders focus their attention.
Recent elections in Italy and Sweden are evidence, he said, of a far-right surge coupled with the global “Americanizing” of politics — campaigns that are dictated by corporate funding, which make the content of messaging, on topics like climate change, moot. Swain also points out how the United Nations’ COP 27, which begins in November, has received very little coverage so far on the world stage.
“We need to change the mindset of these big leaders, and that’s where I think this money could make a big difference,” Swain said. It is less important how and where the money is spent, he said, as long as it can be leveraged as inspiration to build momentum among other billionaires and leaders — that the money and can continue to build on itself, both its value and its message.
“We need to counter the political actors who are being bought by big companies,” he said.
Bridging grassroots with politics
All the experts agreed that it’s not a one — grassroots — or the other — policymakers — issue. Both sectors make the most progress when in conversation with each other.
It’s not always a perfect relationship, said Kakabadse. There is often a limit to what a government will agree to, she said. They want to see quick results and address what is timely, always keeping optics for the next election in mind. “Priorities are very much driven by the present and the immediate past,” she said.
But when citizens and grassroots organizations work with governments, said Kakabdse, with specific and clear proposals, environmentalists’ vision and the government’s power can get things done.
These on-the-ground organizations come to the table with an expertise in educating the public and empowering their ability to learn and communicate change.
“One comes from the top, you build the infrastructure,” Kakabadse said. “The other one comes from the bottom, which is prevention.”
For example, grassroots organizations such as the American Council on Renewable Energy and Grid Alternatives, which work to educate policymakers on the needs of particular communities, could help the industry’s “physical transition from smokestacks and tailpipes,” Lacy said, to cleaner energy infrastructure, such as electric vehicle charging stations, and wind and solar farms.
Lacy said working together is also an opportunity for grassroots organizations to educate and inform at all levels of government: federal, state, local, school boards and public utility commissions alike.
“My conviction is that those [in government] who are doing wrong things for the planet are not necessarily bad people; they are ignorant people,” Kakabadse said.
“Ensuring that you have both the activists coming to the table in those policy venues to ensure that there is the pressure to make clean decisions that ultimately can have enormous consequences,” Lacy said.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.