09/17/2014 03:58 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

World's Philanthropists and Foundations, Use Your Financial Power Against Global Warming

In the largest and most international declaration ever published by environmentalists, 160 leaders from 46 countries have called on the world's foundations and philanthropists to use investments worth hundreds billions of dollars to turn the tide on global warming.

The group, which includes me, took out a full page advert in the International New York Times on Monday, September 15 to warn that the December 2015 Paris Climate Summit "may be the last chance to agree a treaty capable of saving civilization."

The 160, who have all received prizes for their environmental work, argue that the foundations could materially help the negotiators of that treaty if they dig into their endowments now and try to "to trigger a survival reflex in society" by creating a tipping point in climate action.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the world is currently on course for 4C to 6C of global warming, which would have devastating consequences throughout the world. The environmentalists say frankly that they are "terrified that we will lose our ability to feed ourselves, run out of potable water, increase the scope for war, and cause the very fabric of civilization to crash."

They warn that in such a world all the good works done by philanthropic foundations -- the programs on clean water, health, feeding the world, poverty eradication, and so on -- "will be devalued and even destroyed." Their huge endowments "will end up effectively as stranded assets" invested in financial markets damaged by climate chaos.

The European Environment Foundation, which organized the call to action, is writing to foundations individually asking them to: invest directly in clean energy companies and low-carbon projects; withdraw investments from fossil fuel companies or campaign as shareholders for them not to develop new reserves; and make grants to support clean energy start-ups and stimulate the development of low-carbon markets.

In the short term, the 160 environmentalists hope their appeal will emphasise the importance of the UN Climate Summit in New York on September 23, and add not just a sense of urgency to that event, but hope and momentum because foundations around the world are indeed beginning to act on climate change.

The Divest-Invest coalition launched in January this year and now includes foundations with assets worth $2 billion, which have committed to pull their assets out of fossil fuels and back clean energy instead.

Dr Ellen Dorsey, Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund in the U.S. and a leader of the coalition, says: "The escalating climate crisis threatens the programs of every philanthropic organization. Growing numbers of foundations are shifting their money from fossil fuels to clean energy so their investments help solve this crisis instead of contributing to it. We hope that our stand will encourage others to take the urgent action we now need to prevent runaway global warming."

Uday Khemka, Managing Trustee of the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation in India says: "As an Indian Foundation we are intensely aware that global warming of four degrees would bring unimaginable suffering, causing a significant collapse in the systems which provide food, water and safe homes for hundreds of millions in India, and vastly overwhelming all our development work for the most vulnerable in our society. Foundations can make a big impact by investing in a low-carbon future, speaking out about the urgency of taking action, and showing the way to governments, companies and investors."

James Arbib, Founder and Trustee of the Tellus Mater Foundation in the UK, said: "Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity and the window to address it pre-emptively is closing fast. Allocation of capital is a critical lever in pursuing a solution. We are actively looking at ways to invest our endowment to support a transition to a low-carbon energy system within a long-term and sustainable financial system."

The 160 environmentalists hope that in the longer term, beyond the New York summit and in the run up to Paris, the appeal will encourage other foundations and philanthropists to take action, including of course those currently not working on climate, or factoring climate into how they invest their endowments.

One option I am personally very hopeful about is for foundations to require companies they invest in (whether as equity, debt, or grants) to donate 5 percent of their profits to the climate/development battle.

Solarcentury, the company I founded 15 years ago because of my concerns about fossil-fuel overdependency, has created a charity with 5 percent of its annual profits, SolarAid. This in turn has founded the biggest retailer of solar lighting in Africa, SunnyMoney, in just four years. One hundred percent of profits from that retail venture will be recycled to SolarAid's climate/development mission.

Given that some of the companies riding the clean-energy elevator can (and indeed must) grow from minnows worth millions to whales worth billions, this would provide a whole new huge pool of capital in the world: one entirely dedicated to social good.