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Business leaders: Invest in racial equity to combat the climate crisis

Every sector—from business to finance, energy, government, and beyond—must also invest in racial equity, clean energy, and green jobs if we truly want to rebuild America’s economy.

Business leaders: Invest in racial equity to combat the climate crisis
[Source Image: farakos/iStock]
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Two threads are woven into the fabric of each crisis facing our country today: deeply rooted racism and glaring income disparity. These twin crises—the social construct of racial discrimination and the socioeconomic categorizations that divide our country—are magnified further when viewed alongside the threat multiplier of climate change. All three burdens disproportionately impact communities of color.

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Today, the philanthropic sector and corporate America are grappling with our own roles in the perpetuation and ending of racism in this country.

We must have a similar reckoning with the climate crisis.

To address both racism and climate change, we at the Kresge Foundation recently joined the Donors of Color Network’s Climate Funders Justice Pledge, which calls for at least 30% of our environment program funding to be dedicated to climate justice organizations led by Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, and other people of color. Inherent in that pledge is the imperative to being fully transparent about where our funding lands and the results we seek.

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This type of commitment to climate justice cannot, and should not, be unique to philanthropy. Every sector—from business to finance, energy, government, and beyond—must also invest in racial equity, clean energy, and green jobs if we truly want to rebuild America’s economy.

It is fitting and right that President Joe Biden has placed racial equity and justice at the heart of a sweeping set of presidential directives aimed at tackling the public health crisis, the economic crisis, the climate crisis, the criminal justice crisis, and the white supremacy crisis. It is equally fitting that the Biden administration is pursuing environmental justice and climate change through a companion suite of executive actions.

In 2020 alone, the U.S. experienced a record-breaking 22 weather and climate disasters that caused approximately $95 billion in damages, killing at least 262 people and injuring many more. One power outage or raging flood caused by a climate disaster ripples and ricochets to countless other forms of business and neighborhood infrastructure, augmenting economic disruption, personal tragedy, and civil instability.

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Our country needs more investment in clean energy technologies, other climate mitigation measures, and climate adaptation; this investment must start in communities of color. Whether Ford’s and/or General Motors’ pursuit of an all-electric fleet within 20 years, Nike’s decision to power 100% of its domestic operations with renewable energy, or Microsoft’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030, private sector actors are increasingly articulating that a low- or no-carbon economy is not simply a business opportunity, but a business imperative.

But we need business leaders to take their investments a step further. Increasingly, investments in clean energy technologies, climate mitigation measures, and climate adaptation practices must have a strong and enduring ground wire into communities of color.

People of color live in communities that are hardest hit by climate change, driving adverse health outcomes, diminishing home values, undermining business stability, and disrupting the ebb and flow of daily life. To root out the structural impediments to these disparate outcomes—and to rebuild systems that are equitable and just—requires equipping low-wealth communities with the tools they need to participate in the decisions that shape their lives.

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It is tempting to steel ourselves against the memories of 2020 by viewing them as catastrophically idiosyncratic. A once-in-a-century pandemic with its horrific loss of life, unprecedented disruption of norms of social interaction, cataclysmic meltdown of small businesses, and cruelly unforgiving hardships on front-line, low-wage workers. A surge of racial upheaval and reckoning precipitated by the reckless, ruthless state-sanctioned violence against Black citizens. A cascade of natural disasters expressing the atmosphere’s growing rage with climate change. An unprecedentedly toxic political culture fomented by an autocratic leader with neither the moral compass nor the skills to navigate through any of the convergent crises.

However, I truly believe that no matter which political party you are aligned with, we all seek to dismantle the systems and structures that cause such pain, suffering, and dysfunction. And to do so, we must all be laser-focused on achieving racial equity and justice.

Environmental philanthropy—and environmental organizations—traditionally have come up short in operationalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their governance and leadership structures. That can, and must, change.

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Kresge has centered equity as one of our organizational values with an explicit focus on racial equity. In November of 2020, our Kresge program teams committed $30 million in grant funding to support nearly 60 racial justice and community-led efforts across the U.S. In 2019, our investment office launched the 25% by ’25 Initiative, a commitment to ensure that by 2025, 25% of the foundation’s U.S. assets will be invested with firms owned by women and people of color. We’ve also worked to overhaul our recruiting and hiring practices to ensure more diverse and inclusive candidate pools because we know investing in diversity leads to more equitable outcomes.

I share these examples because we, too, had to reckon with the underinvestment that Kresge was making in organizations working toward racial equity and justice. We also recognized our underinvestment specifically in organizations working toward environmental justice. Therefore, we shifted our environment program strategy to provide the support they needed to translate organizing efforts into secured and enduring capacity to forge change.

The Climate Funders Justice Pledge is the first effort of its kind by donors in the climate sector and we fully expect it to take hold, gain traction, and expand. At Kresge, we consider the 30% threshold at the heart of the pledge to be the floor, not the ceiling.

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The Biden administration’s latest executive order creates a government-wide Justice40 Initiative with the goal of delivering 40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. Even with our 30% commitment, this means philanthropy is now lagging behind the federal government on environmental justice goals. We must all do better, and the business community must join us.

By putting an unambiguous and unequivocal stake in the ground, we hope we can spur not only our philanthropic colleagues into new territory, but also our colleagues in the private sector. In concert, we can change our country’s trajectory to one that offers greater opportunity for all.


Rip Rapson is the president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation.