When I sat down to write this blog, I began by reflecting on the first 20 years of RLF’s work and what the next 20 years will bring. Coronavirus had yet to upend the lives of many outside the Asian continent. Just a few weeks later, most of the country is on lock-down, the economy has imploded, nearly 10 million Americans have applied for unemployment, and the global death toll has topped 45,000, rapidly accelerating.* As devastating as this new reality is, I find comfort in the fact that we are coming together as neighbors, Americans, corporations, philanthropists, and global citizens. Albeit physically distanced from one another, the world is uniting against a common threat.
Someday, this will all be over. And I hope we can harness the unity we are practicing in these moments to address the many threats that have been pressing on us with a more attenuated sense of urgency: climate change, environmental injustice, and inequitable access to clean air, safe drinking water, nature, and parks. These problems, too, are killing us—at a slower pace, but in much larger numbers over time. Meanwhile, the emergence of the coronavirus itself, a zoonotic pathogen, points to the relationship between inadequate stewardship of the natural world and threats to public health at a global scale. While doctors, nurses, and scientists are on the frontlines bravely fighting this virus with dedication and innovation, we remain dedicated to building the resilience of our natural systems to support us all through sickness and health, long into the future.
Climate change isn’t going anywhere. Similar to coronavirus, experts have been warning us of the critical need to flatten the curve of emissions. Around the world, responsible leaders of all levels of government are beginning to reckon with the costly necessity of advancing mitigation and adaptation. They also continue to develop more effective international agreements to conserve habitats and wildlife on land and in the oceans
Responding effectively to these issues will define the next 20 years of RLF’s work. We need to advance solutions on all fronts, for people and the planet. We need to prioritize resilient infrastructure updates; next-generation jobs that are compatible with conservation; and better preparation for fires, droughts and floods, and sea level rise, especially in communities most susceptible to climate change impacts. Many low-income communities along our nation’s coastline are already living below sea level. Regions throughout the West are experiencing larger and more frequent wildfires, and finding it harder to recover after each conflagration. Communities across the country with economies based on fossil fuel extraction suffer from the worst air and water quality in the country, but are too often economically forsaken in the transition to global markets, high technology, and clean energy. And oceans and forests, the heart and lungs of our planet, require immediate, coordinated action to restore and enhance their vitality.
Inclusion and Innovation Define the Future
Twenty years ago, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation worked with me to launch Resources Legacy Fund as a new kind of conservation organization, one built with a start-up mentality, a laser focus on outcomes, and entrepreneurial energy that embraced creativity, flexibility, and close donor engagement. We didn’t shy away from challenge, and we weren’t afraid to experiment and learn from our mistakes. That ethos still drives our work, and it is how we will engage with our partners, new and existing, to tackle the many challenges we face.
At Resources Legacy Fund, we work at the intersection of philanthropy, policy, public funding, and on-the-ground project implementation. We build diverse partnerships to achieve great outcomes and are uniquely positioned to help open the door wider, put more seats at the table, welcome new voices, and empower underrepresented groups to reclaim their agency as leaders. Conservation and climate equity are issues that belong to all of us. As philanthropy increasingly invests in the diversity of tomorrow’s leaders, both people and the planet will benefit.
To address the needs of the day, we need more inclusion, entrepreneurialism, and collaboration. With these ingredients, we are already seeing notable wins. And there will be many, many more.
The International Boreal Conservation Campaign (IBCC) recently supported protection of 130 million acres of northern wilderness, set to be designated as Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, with more on the way. RLF is proud to be a partner of IBCC, working to conserve and sustainably manage the one-and-a-half-billion-acre global treasure that is the North American boreal forest. The effort champions Indigenous rights and supports First Nations’ aspirations to safeguard and steward their traditional homelands while also creating new economic opportunities. This is a seismic shift in the way conservation is approached in Canada and serves as a global model. With so much of the world’s remaining biologically important lands held by indigenous peoples, there is opportunity to conserve the land in perpetuity, advance prosperity, and protect indigenous cultural relationships to the land.
Expanding and diversifying conservation leadership and growing the base of conservation support are important strategies not only for social equity, but also for achieving significant and enduring conservation wins. Our investments in constituency building were crucial in helping to pass Proposition 68 in California—the most equitable parks and water spending measure in the nation’s history—and numerous state and local measures that connect disadvantaged communities to funding for parks, safe drinking water, stormwater management, and sustainable groundwater programs. Through our Open Rivers Fund, we are engaging diverse partnerships, including with Native American tribes, to remove obsolete dams across the American West and restore watersheds for fish passage, recreation, community safety, and tribal fishing rights.
The State of Hawai’i recently embarked on a plan to effectively manage its nearshore marine waters, with 30 percent designated as marine management areas by 2030, which makes it the first in the nation working to achieve this international conservation target. RLF is advising the State of Hawai‘i and local philanthropic partners on this work, sharing lessons learned from our partnership with the State of California to implement a science-based statewide network of marine protected areas. Vital to this work in Hawai’i is an effort to broaden community partnerships to bridge cutting-edge science and technology with native Hawaiian knowledge, reviving island traditions of ocean management. Investing in partnerships that advance ocean health, in the United States and abroad, is one of the most effective strategies we have to mitigate the existential threat of climate change.
From inclusion and innovation, we grow.
We have major environmental challenges on the horizon: rising sea level, wildfire, water scarcity, ocean acidification, and the global extinction of thousands of species. If we are to survive and indeed thrive, as a human race, we need to broaden the base of advocates and wholeheartedly welcome every human being into the conversation about our planet’s future. This is more than an environmental issue—it’s a social, economic, and moral issue—and the sooner that we all agree on that, the sooner we will implement lasting solutions that meaningfully improve health for people and the planet.
Underpinning all of this work is the need for a strong, healthy democracy that provides fertile ground for progress. That is one of the reasons we created the Fund for a Better Future, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization. We look forward to working with diverse leaders to strengthen the foundation for continued progress.
For those of us working in the environmental field, yes, we have a lot to celebrate, even in these scary times. But we have a long way to go. Despite climate change, racial and economic disparity, our current public health crisis, and political volatility, I am optimistic for the future. If we can learn anything from this coronavirus pandemic, I hope it’s unity and compassion, as well as the importance of using sound science and facts in our work. The only thing that stands between today and a safe, secure future is the failure to listen, innovate, and act courageously.
* Numbers updated to reflect new unemployment figures released on April 2, 2020, as well as global deaths.