The philanthropic investment portfolio must be rebalanced

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Ray Schmitt's PowerPoint presentation at the March 2008, Ocean Sciences Meeting in Orlando.

Most philanthropy focuses on human health and education. Its time to consider alternative investments for the long range health of society.

Americans are a generous people.  Our tax laws and general prosperity have fostered a level of philanthropy unheard of in any other country.   The beneficiaries of our largesse are primarily religious, health and educational institutions.  Given the great new challenges expected in the light of a changing climate, we question whether the current distribution of philanthropic investments is well suited to societies’ long term needs.

Consider the eventual outcome of the over $3B annual philanthropic support of health research in the US.  It will inevitably lead to longer human life spans.  While great for humans, this will undoubtedly further burden the climate system of the Earth.  Similarly, many $billions per year are donated for education, which may have the laudatory effect of raising some peoples awareness of the environment, but it most assuredly raises their expectations for quality of life.  Who can doubt that a healthy, educated populace consumes far more energy, water and natural resources than a primitive, subsistence level society?  Thus, the many billions spent on health and education, while serving obvious human needs and aspirations, are not necessarily doing our planet any good!  A longer-lived, healthy and educated society will place ever-growing demands on the life-support systems of Earth.

Is there scope within the philanthropic community for less attention on the short term needs of mankind and more on the longer range condition of our planetary home?  The problem of understanding the climate system is an excellent example.  Much of the uncertainty in the arena of climate change and global warming lies in the lack of data.  In order to understand a cyclic process it is essential to have many realizations of that process.  You can’t deduce the physics of a 10 second wave with only 10 seconds of data.  Yet society demands to know the outcome of decadal and centennial variability in the climate system without anything like an adequate record.  We have few human institutions that have endured for the long times required for climate data.  We expect the government to maintain data collecting systems for weather, but the record is not good when considering the decadal and longer times scales.  Data systems are changed, calibrations are suspect, data are lost once the short term need is met.  Consider the iconic case of the CO2 time series at Hawaii.  It is now a 50 year time series, reproduced endlessly in the debates over global warming and carved in marble in the halls of the National Academy of Sciences.  David Keeling struggled mightily in the early decades to maintain that record with grant support coming two years at a time from a variety of agencies with other science priorities.  Funding a record that should be maintained indefinitely with short term renewal grants is crazy.

Consider our poor knowledge of the oceanic heat content.  It is 1100 times larger than that of the atmosphere yet has been barely measured. Much of the oceanic data comes from the Navy’s cold war interest in the temperature structure of the sea for antisubmarine warfare.  The number of observations peaked in the mid-1980s, then declined with the end of the cold war through the ‘90s. Given the stagnant federal budget for science in the face of massive deficits and a declining discretionary budget, it is naïve to think that government will provide the long-term commitment to data systems needed to understand climate.  Governments have lifetimes of hundreds of years, some universities claim continuity for nearly a thousand, the Christian church for nearly two thousand.   Universities and religions use endowments to perpetuate themselves, cannot we not begin to build a new endowed institution that would have a similar long term commitment to collecting climate data?  An endowment of about $1B would go a long way toward solving the problem of trying to maintain a number of key time series for the physical climate.  The payoff would be for our descendents, as they would then have the data they need to make informed decisions about the climate system.  What we envision is a sort of Howard Hughes Medical Institute for the climate sciences, something that would assure the survival of a systematic, sustained record of the state of the climate system of the earth.  We are not endorsing a specific antidote to climate change, as these could be misguided until the complexity of the system is fully understood.  Rather we advocate for a means of developing and sustaining the required instrumental record.  Is there scope for such long-range thinking in the philanthropic community?



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Last updated October 21, 2013
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