Issue Brief


Climate change is one of the biggest health and equity issues of our time. The effects of climate change on health are well documented (Appendix) and increasingly apparent with the spread of infectious diseases; poor air quality; increases in dangerous heat; and severe weather disrupting energy, water, and food sources.

Systemic racism and socioeconomic inequalities have disproportionately burdened low-income communities and communities of color with the health and economic impacts of climate change, pollution, and environmental hazards. COVID-19 has exacerbated these inequities and foreshadowed the increased disruptions, devastation, and disparities we can expect from climate disasters. 

Because the scale of climate change can seem daunting, some may think of the issue as the responsibility of federal, state, local, and tribal governments. But philanthropy has an essential role to play. The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy’s 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2020 contends that philanthropy will be on the front lines of climate change response, with most of this work falling into four key categories: 

  • Responding to disasters that are more frequent and more powerful as a result of climate change;
  • Incorporating the impacts of climate change into strategies for issues already being addressed;
  • Advancing innovative programs for mitigation and prevention; and
  • Continuing to lead on advocacy efforts for climate-focused policy change.

Climate Change Health EmergencyWhile environmental, energy, and disaster funders have been leading the charge, climate change’s significant impact on individual and community health argues for health philanthropy’s increased involvement. For health funders who are newly interested in climate-related philanthropy, there are promising practices to support and innovative solutions in which to invest. The following compilation of data, resources, and strategic guidance for health funders—while globally and nationally informed—is geared towards local and regional place-based strategies and is intended as a supplement to other resources in the Climate, Health, and Equity Funder Toolkit.

  • Understand the current funding landscape. The Climate, Health, and Equity Funder Toolkit provides a repository of information on government (federal, state, local, and tribal) and philanthropic funding, along with hubs of funder and nonprofit collaboration. Toolkit data originated from a landscape analysis of climate, health, and equity funding conducted in fall 2019. Another useful resource is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2017 health and climate landscape assessment, which outlined key findings related to funding approaches, research gaps, and communications opportunities. In recent years, several broader philanthropic initiatives, pooled funds, and climate challenges have also been established, such as Lever for Change 2030 Climate Challenge, Bloomberg Philanthropies American City Climate Challenge, ClimateWorks Foundation, Climate Leadership Initiative, and Climate Emergency Fund. Equity investments, however, are still woefully lacking, with just 1.3 percent of U.S. climate dollars going to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)-led environmental justice groups. The Donors of Color Network’s Climate Funders Justice Pledge is calling on philanthropy to increase funding of BIPOC-led groups to at least 30 percent within two years and to improve transparency with grant reporting. Resources: Donors of Color Network; The Hive Fund;  Native Americans in Philanthropy; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Climate Change and Human Health; United States Climate Alliance.
  • Consider ways your own organization can operationalize environmental sustainability and climate resilience. Philanthropy utilizes myriad tools beyond grantmaking and convening. At the institutional level, foundations can examine their own operations, policies, practices, and ways of doing business and can leverage their financial assets and purchasing power to prevent and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Examples include restructuring financial investments and banking relationships to divest from fossil fuels and align with sustainability goals; offsetting the carbon footprint of foundation-related travel and reducing overall energy consumption; changing vendor contracts to reduce single-use plastic and increase plant-based catering options; and preparing for the future implications of climate change on foundation operations, convenings, and grantmaking. Resources: Health Care & Climate Change: An Opportunity for Transformative Leadership; Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy

  • Enhance the capacity of hospitals, health care systems, and the health workforce to lead on climate-smart practice and policy change. The health sector is a significant part of the economy, and hospitals are often major employers that can leverage purchasing and political power to effect change. Although health institutions are taking strides to de-carbonize, reduce their environmental footprints, and build more resilient climate-friendly hospitals, more should be encouraged to do so. And with support, health professionals across many disciplines can be important advocates for health and climate solutions in clinical, community, and policy settings. Resources: Health Care Without Harm; Climate for Health; Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health; Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments; America’s Essential Hospitals.
  • Develop resilient neighborhoods and communities that mitigate environmental and climate risks and help people thrive. Addressing challenges of extreme heat, air pollution, water quality, weatherproof housing, energy costs, and access to nature are top of mind for many communities. Philanthropic investments in housing, transportation, economic revitalization, food access, green spaces, and other social determinants of health are opportunities to mitigate hazards and support regenerative, sustainable practices. For example, increasing tree shade, parks, bike-friendly roads, pedestrian paths, clean energy sources, and healthy building design support both community health engagement and climate-resilience. Resources: Health and Climate Solutions Program; Multisolving at the Intersection of Health and Climate: Lessons from Success Stories; APHA Center for Climate, Health, and Equity.
  • Address the mental health toll of climate change. Acute and chronic mental health challenges due to climate change are equally urgent. Increases in stress, depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, and substance use are all associated with climate-related events, whether directly (e.g., natural disasters) or indirectly (e.g., forced migration or unstable food systems). Already amid a mental health epidemic, our nation’s behavioral health infrastructure is severely under-resourced, and climate change will only intensify access issues and exacerbate inequities. More investments are vital to build the capacity of behavioral health systems, support the workforce, scale technology advancements, and reduce disparities to meet current demand and prepare for a future with greater strains on individual and collective well-being. Resources: Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance; Social Climate Leadership Group.
  • Advance policy, coalition building, and public-private partnerships to meet this moment. Akin to health in all policies approaches, a climate in all policies approach could be a useful tool at the local, state, and federal levels. Health funders, grantees, and community leaders can serve as credible sources of information on the health consequences of climate change and provide strategic advice to decisionmakers. Health funders can also help elevate the voices of affected communities and support awareness, health impact assessments, local or regional alliances, and partnership building that integrates a climate lens into all decisions and policies. The federal government has recently made environmental justice and climate change key priorities, creating new opportunities to align funding and increase public-private collaboration. Resources: Adding a Climate Lens to Health Policy in the United States; Climate Change Solutions Simulator; George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.
Credits / Contact

This issue brief was written by Alison Perencevich, Program Director at Grantmakers In Health.

To learn more about the numerous ways health philanthropy can help address climate change and its impacts or to join cross-sectoral efforts to protect our health, communities, and planet, sign up for GIH’s Health Equity E-forum at