It’s time to confront the disconnect between the climate crisis and South African philanthropy

Alan Wallis – Strategic Advisor, African Climate Foundation


In South Africa, and globally, philanthropic inaction on climate change is sadly the norm, not the exception. There is a worrying, and persisting, disconnect between the seriousness of the impacts of climate change and the insufficient quantum of philanthropic giving. Climate change continues to be an afterthought, relegated to a stand-alone or siloed issue, and not the cross-cutting impact amplifier that it is. It is therefore important for South African philanthropy to confront this disconnect, act on the ample evidence available and to do what philanthropy does best – invest in South Africa’s long-term socio-economic and environmental resilience, which will require confronting climate change head-on.

IPASA’s work in 2021 recognises this. Through its Future Proofing Philanthropy Webinar Series (and the Climate Change toolkit and resource for philanthropy) and recent Symposium which saw youth activists calling for increased philanthropic climate action, it is hoped that we will see South African philanthropy reorientating and reprioritising climate from being a stand-alone issue, to a key consideration in its support for social and economic resilience and transformation.


A disconcerting disconnect

A recent report by the ClimateWorks Foundation found that philanthropic giving to climate change mitigation represented less than 2% of total philanthropic giving in 2020, which is woefully insufficient to meet the rapidly growing intensity of the climate crisis. Of this 2%, less than 3% is disbursed in Africa. This is alarming because Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change impacts. Despite having contributed the least to global warming and having the lowest emissions, Africa faces exponential collateral damage, posing systemic risks to its economies, infrastructure investments, water and food systems, public health, agriculture, and livelihoods, threatening to undo its modest development gains and slip into higher levels of extreme poverty. South Africa is both a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (because of its reliance on coal), and like the rest of the continent is extremely vulnerable to climate change and its impacts given its high levels of poverty and inequality. South African philanthropic giving to climate related work however is extremely low, despite an active and generous philanthropic sector.

Changing perspectives

South Africa needs to simultaneously achieve its developmental objectives while adapting to and building resilience against climate change impacts. With so many development challenges facing South Africa and exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic, climate change is often not characterised as priority and other social issues are seen as more pressing, which in turn informs and guides philanthropic giving.

Covid-19, although a health crisis, has had far reaching knock-on economic effects, disproportionately impacting the poor and marginalised; and stagnating economic growth – the effects of which will be felt for many years to come. It has never been disputed that Covid-19 is not just a health issue. It is a social, governance, human rights, and economic issue, necessitating a holistic response from philanthropy. Despite not being able to plan for Covid-19,  philanthropy was able to rapidly respond in a variety of ways. However, responding within a crisis, where the impacts are visible, present, and tangible means that philanthropy finds itself on the defensive, trying to control the damage. This is unavoidable when unforeseen events occur, and long-term planning is overshadowed by the urgency of the short-term harm.

Climate change is also an economic issue. We are not simply dealing with environmental vulnerability and risk and emissions reduction, but an integral part of the development conversation and agenda in South Africa. However, because the impacts of climate change will manifest themselves over the next 20 to 30 years, the impacts may seem abstract and intangible, and distant from the multiple crises that we are trying to navigate today. However, the evidence is clear, climate change is going to fundamentally alter the global economy, and how South Africa responds will determine its social and economic resilience. The world is a fortunate position to be able to plan for climate change and harness the development dividends that climate positive responses can produce. However, it means starting now.

How we characterise the urgency was aptly captured at this year’s IPASA Philanthropy Symposium where young climate and social justice activists painted the picture of their future if nothing is done. In a sobering conversation, philanthropy was reminded of the importance of listening to those who will have to live with consequences of climate inaction; the danger of short-termism and waiting for crisis to happen, and the disappointment in knowing that this crisis can be avoided. During the discussion, a participant asked how we mainstream climate change into all our interactions and thinking.

Philanthropy can support this if it can move past the focus on a narrow range of climate change and environmental risks and vulnerabilities and meaningfully explore the opportunities that climate change interventions have, to transform our economy and lives of South Africans. Philanthropy has the flexibility, resources, and mandate to empower citizens, and catalyse meaningful change in a variety of ways.

The entry points are endless

South Africa is in a better position than most to respond to climate change. The establishment of the Presidential Climate Commission, the imminent passage of the Climate Change Act, a technically skilled and active civil society, extensive technical expertise across sectors and generous and established philanthropy sector is a good start. Coupled with the recent support for South Africa’s energy transition and a multi-billion Rand pledge at the United Nations climate talks in Scotland, the current environment is receptive to ambitious climate action. Philanthropy must ensure it does not miss this window of opportunity by confronting the disconnect between the risks (and opportunities) and its climate inaction.

Whether you work in education, health or social justice, climate change must be central to your long-term planning, operations and the management of your endowments and investments. If we collectively focus on the climate crisis now, and start making long-term plans for adaptation and resilience, factoring climate risk into all of our decisions, a climate positive and resilient South Africa is possible. As we look to 2022, it is my sincere hope that South African climate philanthropy considers mobilising resources around climate action and joins the global climate philanthropy movement by signing the International Commitment on Climate Change.



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