News from the Field

Philanthropy can bridge the gap between trumped-up fears and real threats

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking recently predicted that the human race has 1,000 years before we will have to vacate planet Earth. These days, that passes for optimism.

Depending on your perspective, it may feel like our days are numbered in even smaller units following Donald Trump’s election as president.

The White House race was driven by appeals to fear: on the part of the Trump campaign, fear of Mexican immigrants, Islamic terrorists, and federal bureaucrats coming to take your guns; on the part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, fear of Mr. Trump himself.

We’ve arrived at the point where we may test Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous maxim that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

At first glance, FDR’s warning may seem a call to resist the temptation to incite fear in the populace. A more apropos interpretation for today might be that we need to assess risk carefully and promote policies that address the greatest risks with the most passionate calls to action.

Nonprofits and foundations should ask themselves: Are we helping to determine where the greatest risks to society lie? Perhaps even more important, are we conveying those risks as clearly and convincingly as we can, knowing that other fears gripping the nation are lesser threats to our existence?

Philanthropy should be at the forefront of putting need and risk in proper proportion and investing in projects that educate the public.

On some issues, that is easier said than done. Terrorism- and gun-related panic is easily stoked, and it is difficult to offer a rational case that will satisfy advocates on different sides.

No immigration crisis

Immigration may be another matter. Few would disagree that, unchecked and unregulated, it can strain resources and disrupt communities. There is a widely shared view across the political spectrum that U.S. policies should promote lawful immigration and discourage illegal migration.

But we are not in the midst of an immigration crisis. For example, in recent years the number of Mexican immigrants returning home has exceeded those coming north, according to the Pew Research Center.

For donors and nonprofits focused on this issue, it’s fair to wonder, given the caricature of Mexicans pouring over the border that was ladled out at overheated campaign rallies, if enough was done to educate the public on the true nature of immigration trends.

Philanthropic supporters of immigrant rights can also do much more to humanize the people at the heart of the debate. They can back media projects that demonstrate what drives people to leave their country to seek a better future for their families and what can be done to address their needs. One example of this is the recent documentary Who Is Dayani Cristal? co-produced by Gael García Bernal, which shows the lengths to which a father will go to provide for his child and how tragically such an effort can end.

It’s equally important, if not more so, to convey the urgency of risks that pose a far greater threat — a threat to our very existence — but generate nowhere near the level of fear.

There is virtually unanimous scientific agreement that the excessive burning of fossil fuels is leading to global climate change that is already degrading natural systems at an alarming rate. According to scientific experts, we are experiencing a record depletion of Arctic sea ice and witnessing a procession of the hottest years in recorded history.

But indications from the incoming administration suggest the United States is poised to reverse course on policies to reduce carbon emissions and slow the effects of global warming. Indeed, the Trump transition team has signaled that it intends to slash NASA’s Earth-science budget for climate research, willfully blinding ourselves to some of the most important climate data available.

Environmental donors have invested in research and policy advocacy to encourage governments and industry to shift to clean energy and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But have they devoted enough resources to help a confused nation understand the gravity of the risk of catastrophic climate change?

Already, many powerful media projects are presenting the undeniable impact of climate change, like the Years of Living Dangerously series on the National Geographic Channel, but philanthropy can do much more to promote outreach activities for these programs.

Nuclear threat

Likewise, in the arena of nuclear security, there has been an uneasy balance since the first atomic weapons exploded over Japan more than 70 years ago. International agreements and norms have kept this horrific power from being unleashed on humanity again. That balance is in jeopardy under President-elect Trump, who as a candidate called into question many of the fundamental tenets of the global nuclear consensus.

Mr. Trump is reported to have questioned why America can’t use its nuclear arsenal, cast doubt on whether the country would come to the defense of treaty partners in NATO, and suggested that Japan and South Korea should acquire their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves against aggression from North Korea.

He has repeatedly asserted that it’s important for a leader to be unpredictable in a conflict to keep adversaries off base. But decades of nuclear standoff have depended on the predictability of response.

For most of us, the notion of nuclear threat is mercifully abstract. But according to Ira Helfand of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a nuclear attack on New York City would likely unleash a fireball that would incinerate everything in its path for 16 miles in every direction, then expand into a firestorm 30 miles across, covering 800 square miles and reaching a temperature of 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Up to 15 million people would die in the first half-hour.

Are we investing enough to prevent that outcome?

According to a recent report by the Peace and Security Funders Group, nearly 300 foundations contributed $283 million in 2013 to more than 1,200 organizations working on efforts to prevent, mitigate, and resolve conflicts around the world. Of that, about $30 million was dedicated to nuclear issues. Given the stakes, it could be more.

Donald Trump is about to become president of the United States, and he may or may not follow his campaign track on immigration, global warming, and the nuclear threat. Whatever he does, the rest of us have a responsibility to address the greatest threats to our existence as effectively as we can. We’ve got another 1,000 years on this rock, and we’d better make the most of them.

Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders and a regular Chronicle columnist. This piece originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on Dec. 5, 2016.

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