The ClimateWorks Foundation is a left-of-center “pass-through” funding entity that distributes funds from donors to environmentalist advocacy groups around the world. Many of these nonprofits lobby for emissions taxes, restricting coal use, international climate treaties with strict enforcement mechanisms, and diminishing the use of cars. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation created ClimateWorks in 2008 to combat climate change through philanthropy. The foundation seeks a 30 billion-ton reduction of carbon emissions by 2030 by creating a political mandate for forms of energy that it favors.
In 2007, six foundations, the Hewlett Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and the Oak Foundation met to discuss how philanthropy could advance environmentalist policy priorities. They sponsored a report on the subject entitled, “Design to Win: Philanthropy’s Role in the Fight Against Global Warming.” The report, written by scientists with the California Environmental Associates, argued that because politicians focus on the next election and CEOs focus on the next quarter’s profits, the longer time horizons of philanthropists make them uniquely qualified to address global warming.
Design to Win (DTW) advocated for emissions caps and renewable energy quotas. It also urged philanthropists to invest heavily in lobbying to promote so-called “renewable” energy sources through taxpayer subsidies to utilities around the world.
To provide the necessary resources to reshape “the building blocks of the world economy,” the report argued that philanthropic funding for environmentalist issues should triple from the then-$200 million per year to an annual $600 million. To help reach that $600 million goal, the Hewlett Foundation, the Packard Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation, founded ClimateWorks in 2008. Hewlett’s Environment Program Director Hal Harvey took the position as the new foundation’s CEO.
ClimateWorks took in donations from wealthy left-wing foundations and issued grants to a network of environmentalist nonprofits. This method of bundling donations for redistribution to vetted nonprofits met a demand by many left-wing funders, who wanted experts to determine where their money would best achieve their environmentalist goals. Many of the recipient nonprofits then funneled money from these grants to more radical environmentalist advocacy groups.
ClimateWorks created Project Catalyst in May 2008 to provide analysis and policy proposals for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC sought to strike a new international climate agreement before the 1997 Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012.
ClimateWorks senior advisor and executive board member George Polk organized the project. At the time, he also advised liberal billionaire George Soros on the investment of $1 billion in private equity related to climate. Soros named him as his representative to the board of the company Powerspan after investing in it in April 2009. A few weeks after Soros made the investment, Powerspan received $100 million from the Department of Energy.
Project Catalyst has received criticism for the approach that it took leading up to the Copenhagen Conference. In a March 2009 symposium, representatives from the private, governmental, and nonprofit sectors made their own proposals from which the group produced a synthesis paper. It called for a global agreement that would place “incentives and mandates” on private business to create a low-carbon economy. It calculated that to limit global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial temperatures, global emissions would need to be reduced by 28 percent below projected levels in 2020.
Because Project Catalyst had representatives in nearly every country’s delegation, it wielded enormous influence over negotiations and the proposals that the representatives made.
During the ClimateWorks’s 2010 Annual Summit, roughly 200 representatives reevaluated the foundation’s methods and strategies. The Oak Foundation played a crucial role in changing ClimateWorks’s direction. Along with other representatives, it pressured the foundation to move away from the top-down approach it had previously taken. The foundation began encouraging its regional partners to take a more active role in the network’s grantmaking strategy and to choose their own projects. Although it still encouraged them to align their giving, but it planned to no longer filter all of the funds through itself on their way to grantees.
ClimateWorks has announced a “30 by 30” goal, recommended by the DTW report, aiming to reduce annual world-wide heat-trapping emissions by 30 gigatons by the year 2030. It plans to reach this goal by focusing specifically on sectors in countries it considers as having the greatest carbon-reduction potential. The DTW report recommended environmentalist philanthropy focus its attention on the U.S., the European Union countries, China, and India.
As shown in the DTW report, ClimateWorks’ founders see international pressure and activism as key to bringing down these emissions.
In 2016, the Packard Foundation gave ClimateWorks a $500,000 grant to implement a “production and protection” deal in Indonesia to link that country’s domestic politics to international and private sector investment.
The DTW report also recommended that philanthropists fund media propaganda to turn public opinion in each target country toward its goals. The desired outcome of this was twofold: to spur private investment toward favored alternative forms of energy such as wind and solar by creating demand for it; and to mold the politics of each target country to provide special favors for those forms of energy. It recognized that the goal of forcing a global reduction in energy emissions would be to manipulate the politics in diverse political cultures. The report acknowledged that this required allies with inside knowledge of local politics and cultures. It recommended philanthropists identify potential nonprofit allies already established, and when necessary create new ones.
ClimateWorks is currently the largest recipient of climate philanthropy in the world. Since its founding, it has received $1.3 billion. That accounts for nearly $400 million more than the Energy Foundation, which is the second largest.
The Hewlett Foundation has provided most of the foundation’s funding. In its founding year, it gave ClimateWorks $481.5 million for seed money. From then until at least 2015, ClimateWorks received more than half of its funding from Hewlett. From 2008 to 2011, the Packard Foundation gave $185 million. George Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society also heavily contributed, as did the Energy Foundation and the Sea Change Foundation.
The government of India blacklisted ClimateWorks in 2014 after that country’s Intelligence Bureau ruled Greenpeace, a ClimateWorks grantee, “a threat to national economic security.” The measure forced ClimateWorks to receive permission from India’s Home Ministry before making additional grants into the country. The government alleged that the anti-mining, anti-drilling, and anti-coal protests that ClimateWorks and other Western environmentalist organizations funded had cost the country up to three percent of its GDP.
European Climate Foundation
ClimateWorks grants around $25 million per year to European projects, but it does not disclose the organizations to which it gives. It expanded its activity in Europe after Copenhagen, largely at the behest of its premier European network member, the European Climate Foundation (ECF). The ECF was founded the same year as ClimateWorks; and like ClimateWorks, it acts as a “foundation of foundations,” funneling funds to radical, environmentalist advocacy groups in Europe.
ClimateWorks has also been accused of funneling money to activist groups as a means for liberal billionaires to shield their political donations from taxation by giving to a nonprofit. ClimateWorks funds dozens of state and local environmental activist groups with the funds it receives from the Hewlett and Packard Foundations. In 2014, U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee released a report that criticized ClimateWorks Foundation, among others, for facilitating tax-deductible political donations for liberal billionaires during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. The report showed that ClimateWorks donated nearly $170 million to the Energy Foundation after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from Hewlett and Packard.
The report showed that the Energy Foundation later gave $5.7 million to Green Tech, to which ClimateWorks Foundation also gave $1.5 million directly. It also showed that Green Tech donated to several “grassroots” environmentalist organizations on the far left during those years’ election cycles. It argued that the climate “propaganda” that these organizations produced provided an echo chamber for its liberal billionaire donors.  Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) included many former employees of these activist organizations.
Failing Climate Philanthropy
Despite foundations like Hewlett and Packard giving hundreds of millions of dollars toward the effort, many see climate philanthropy as a failing enterprise. Numerous political scientists, including Northeastern University’s Matthew Nisbet and Harvard University Theda Skocpol, blame this on the elitism of the organizations. 
Philanthropy journalist Marc Gunther notes that much of this failure is likely due to the international nature of ClimateWorks’ fund distribution, most of which has been spent outside the U.S.
This international aspect became a point of contention between Harvey and ClimateWorks founders. Harvey considered the foundation successful in its early years because of its funding improved technology in Southeast Asia to reduce emissions. The funders, however, became profoundly disappointed with the failure of the Copenhagen Conference and the U.S. Senate’s failure to pass a “cap and trade” environmentalist taxation bill, and they wanted more wins that would gain national press attention.
In ClimateWorks’ “Lessons in Leadership,” Harvey blamed many of ClimateWorks’ failures on an early misunderstanding about how much control the organization’s funders would have over their donations.
To the funders, noted Harvey, ClimateWorks was like “a bright shiny object.” Although they wanted to sit in on board meetings and help direct strategy, he argued, “too much help is toxic.”
Harvey compared the experience negatively to his leadership in the Energy Foundation in the 1990s. However, this formed part of a larger environmentalist philanthropic trend in the early 21st century that the Washington Examiner’s Ron Arnold calls “prescriptive grants.” Funders made out larger grants than they did in the ‘90s, but attached larger strings. Harvey claims the tensions created over this issue “ended the model.”
Harvey also said that the founders unrealistically expected $3 billion over five years to meet the foundation’s 30 by 30 goal. However, ClimateWorks failed to raise any additional funds, and managed only to get other organizations to align their funding with it.
Hal Harvey has been an environmentalist foundation official at least since he founded the Energy Foundation in 1991. He worked for the Hewlett Foundation from 2001 to 2008 where he led its energy program, and in 2008, he founded the ClimateWorks Foundation under the auspices of the Hewlett Foundation. He currently leads Energy Innovation, a California-based environmental policy firm.
Charlotte Pera is the current president and CEO of ClimateWorks, a position she has held since 2012. Before joining ClimateWorks, she worked as the director of U.S. programs at the Energy Foundation. She advised the European Climate Foundation when it launched in 2008, and she currently serves on its supervisory board.
Board of Directors
Susan Tierney is the board chair of ClimateWorks. She currently also sits on the board of the Energy Foundation and is a managing principal for the Boston-based consulting firm the Analysis Group. She worked as the assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton before becoming a consultant in 1995. She has consulted for nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies. She co-directed the Department of Energy team during the transition to the Obama presidency.
John Podesta, a longtime Democratic political operative, also serves on the board of ClimateWorks.