The first round of grants (PDF) from the $100 million climate fund established last year by the Doris Duke Foundation were announced last week. Funding priorities and grant recipients were identified in an exhaustive 18-month process of extensive literature reviews and interviews with more than 75 distinguished scientists, economists, environmental leaders, investors, energy industry representatives, and public policy experts.

The result?

A total of $3.6 million will be distributed to five environmental organizations — ED and NRDC ($500K), Pew Center on Global Climate Change ($395K), World Resources Institute ($750K), and Resources for the Future ($750K) — and two universities — Harvard ($750K) and MIT ($500K). Three climate action strategies will be pursued:

  1. devise “optimal domestic and international pricing policies for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases”;
  2. develop policies “that bring available technologies to market more quickly”; and,
  3. “identify adjustments” to reduce climate-change impacts.

That the $100 million Duke Foundation fund will be expended on a decades-old strategy that has not worked is no surprise, as no coherent alternative to our present approach is available. However, the Duke Foundation announcement may portend change in two important respects.

Funding Shift. $100 million is a huge amount, equal to total U.S. funding for climate action in 2005 (based on an unpublished foundation consultants report), and there will likely to be more funding of this sort (i.e., from relatively conservative sources) made available. If — and this is a huge “if” — the Duke Foundation grants are intended to support current climate programs at Pew, ED, NRDC, etc., freeing up resources for other critical areas of need — establishing a national communications center, ramping up training of climate action staff and leadership, putting resources in place to respond to the next major climate change impact, for example — then the Duke Foundation funding will serve a tremendously valuable purpose.

Chain of Logic. Though limited in scope, the Duke Foundation announcement does show a logical progression of thought, in two “insights” appended to the grants announcement:

  1. carbon pricing, it is acknowledged, is insufficient to avert catastrophic climate change;
  2. immediate investment trends must be addressed before the world is locked into a fossil-fuel course of action;
  3. a third “insight” is self-evident in the Duke Foundation strategies, though not directly mentioned: policy-making on infrastructure investment is also insufficient to avert catastrophic climate change (hence the third priority strategy, adaptation to climate-change impacts).

This is a dismal three-step pathway of logic that tracks the unspoken assumptions of our present climate agenda:

  1. environmentalists do not have enough power to challenge the global, fossil-fuel-reliant, energy-supply market head-on, nor impose an effective regime of emissions controls; therefore, we should use sleight of hand to establish a commodities market for end-of-the-pipe emissions, which may be ratcheted up down the line;
  2. carbon markets won’t impact current investment; therefore, we need to develop technology and price supports to bring alternatives and conservation costs down to competitive levels; and,
  3. if we’re honest, the odds of either strategy being successful aren’t looking too good; therefore, we’d better start learning how to live with climate change.

There are other, reasoned courses of action available to us — the EcoEquity Greenhouse Rights proposal, bright lines chain of logic, and the Step it Up agenda, for example — but there can be no debate until it is recognized that our present agenda is merely one approach.

By linking its first round of climate grants to articulated strategies and assumptions, the Duke Foundation has taken a significant step in opening room for reasoned debate on what U.S. environmentalists and climate action advocates ought to be doing with our last opportunity to avert catastrophe.