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Foundations wary of carbon capture and nukes in climate fight

A new peer-reviewed analysis of hundreds of millions of dollars in climate and energy-related funding from a number of major philanthropies from 2011-2015 shows they devoted few resources to pushing carbon capture and none to nuclear power.

Adapted from Nisbet, 2018; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

Why it matters: Foundations play a major role in shaping and supporting environmental movement work on energy and climate change.

  • “The role that philanthropy plays in guiding our choices related to climate change is understudied and often overlooked," Northeastern University communications professor Matthew Nisbet, the paper's author, said in an interview.

By the numbers: Nisbet analyzed $567 million in climate and energy funding from 19 major foundations in the half-decade after cap-and-trade legislation collapsed in Congress in 2010.

  • "During the post cap-and-trade years, out of 2,502 grants reviewed, not a single grant was awarded for work focused on developing and promoting nuclear energy, and only $1.3 million was granted to support work on carbon capture and storage," states the paper published in the journal WIREs Climate Change.

A worry: The paper expresses concern about the resource distribution.

  • "Several expert projections on decarbonizing the world and U.S. economies define an important role for nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage," it states, citing analyses by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others.

The politics: Nisbet also told Axios that focusing on carbon capture and nuclear tech makes it easier to craft bipartisan coalitions in Congress, noting there has already been limited collaboration on this front, including the recent expansion of tax credits for carbon capture and storage.

One level deeper: The paper more broadly tracks the evolution of foundation funding in the years after the cap-and-trade bill died, and finds there were several notable shifts, even as renewables and efficiency remained the top tech focus. They include:

  • Increased emphasis on support for regional, state- and city-level action.
  • "Philanthropists were also aggressive in targeting the fossil fuel industry, spending $69.4 million to limit coal power, ban/restrict fracking, and hold the industry accountable," it states.

What's next: Nisbet's analysis breaks down funding only from 2011-2015 — but notes evidence of more recent shifts.

  • He points out, for instance, that since 2016 the Hewlett Foundation has provided $850,000 to the Energy Reform Innovation Project to work on "energy solutions that resonate with center-right interests," including carbon capture and advanced nuclear tech.