Rebuilding Notre Dame or Funding the Fight Against Climate Change?


What the funding of Notre Dame’s restoration can teach us about how to finance the restoration of our shared planetary ecology (read Climate Change)

Even before the embers had cooled on the pulpit of Notre Dame, 1 billion Euros had been donated for its rebuilding.  Many applauded this feat of philanthropy.  A staggering amount made more incredible only by the speed at which it was collected.

Many others applauded yet questioned how it was that so much was raised, so quickly, to preserve a single (if wondrously incredible) artifact of human history and culture, yet relatively little is being done to save our planet which is still literally aflame.

Complicit yet uncontroversially important

Fewer, but still many, had the audacity to observe how the donations flowed to an institution that has arguably contributed to what is ruinous in our world directly and indirectly, including supporting a social and economic systems that has led our home to be on fire.

Others point out that ‘super-rich’ individuals and corporations found it easy to open their coffers for Notre Dame, yet stubbornly resist any substantial effort to address climate change, dwindling biodiversity, and social injustice if it threatens their own vested interests.

These are valid points.

But there is something more valuable to learn from Notre Dame than simply debating the morality of giving to one cause over another.  The bigger and inevitable question is how much longer will we – society – will have the luxury of prioritizing ‘discretionary’ resources to fund things we feel are important, as opposed what is required for basic human survival? 

The future is now, and we are indisputably at the crossroads.  

Western lifestyle priorities are no longer supportable and are doing irreputable harm to the planet.  As the Extinction Rebellion points out, we soon may be able to fund only what is necessary, regenerative, and works to detoxify our economic systems.  More simply: we won’t have a choice about where we spend our donations and tax dollars.

Some defenders of the donations claim there are enough resources to pour money in to project like the rebuilding of Notre Dame and correct the existential environmental fix we are in.   

Are there? A back of the envelope calculation suggests there is.

Take this relatively simple solution to climate change.  Tom Crowther, a climate change ecologist at Swiss university ETH Zurich, proposes planting 1.2 trillion trees. This would be enough to halt, even reverse atmospheric carbon growth: a perfect, plausible, and affordable stopgap solution as we transform to a zero-carbon economy.

1.2 trillion trees? Cheap at twice the price

The cost? A mere $500 billion (give or take a few hundred billion).  Sounds like a lot, right?

Not really.  There are plenty of places this money could come from, foremost amongst them would be the $5 trillion in public subsidies to the petroleum industry.  But I digress.

Planting a trillion trees is but one of many plausible and affordable solutions to climate change. This begs the question: Why can’t we fund change?  Or rather, why haven’t we?

Charity is Good, Time to Direct the Impluse

Despite the cynics and vested interests, the outpouring of charity for the French cathedral is a great positive, as it shows the impulse to do ‘good’ is very much alive and well. 

If this is the case, the question becomes not if the money is available, but how to harness charitable (and investment!) instincts, to direct funds towards resolving the twin threats of climate change and biodiversity?

Four reasons why people give

According to a study of over 500 academic papers on charitable giving, people have four main charitable instincts.

First, we must trust the institutions asking for donations. This represents a substantial challenge for the environment in the current political context.  Over 30% of voters still don’t believe climate change is real or caused by human activity.  Additionally, ‘radical’ environmental groups have verily pissed off certain large portions of the population (while inciting a much smaller portion to donate).  Trust is a big issue to overcome as a result.

Second, we need to feel good about donating.  This can be as simple as showing friends and family a picture of the house our donations helped rebuild or child it put into school.  For many, ‘climate’ is too ethereal, with no frameable result to warm our hearts.

Trust, doing good, connecting, alturism

Third, folks want a personal connection.  This explains reactions to Notre Dame, an iconic working cathedral at the heart of French Catholicism and Catholicism generally as well as French culture for over eight centuries.  Millions of Christians have prayed there, and many millions more of all faiths have visited from all corners of the world just to see its cultural splendor.  By contrast, and curiously so, while most people love nature, few feel connected to it in a way they might to Notre Dame (we have much to learn from First Nations on this count).

Finally, people are naturally altruistic.  We want to help people in need.  This explains giving to victims of floods, bombings, mass killings, or disease.  Again, not great news for climate.  For while carbon is certainly ravaging the world as might any virulent cancer, climate is a faceless, nameless patient difficult for the average person to identify with. 

Don’t Be Mad, Get Even, Rise Rebel Restore & Donate!

There is justifiable anger with the enormous gifts to Notre Dame made by those with unequivocal interests in maintaining an unsustainable world order, for we now clearly know what they have in their coffers and how they could help. 

Yet this is not where we should focus our energy.  Our time and money are far better spent on encouraging donors, investors, and tax payers to prioritize discretionary resources to fund climate change.

If we are to loosen purse strings in a meaningful, sustainable way, we must connect to the goodness of folks and build trust in the institutions that can make change happen.  We must also give Climate a face and learn how to connect ourselves more deeply to nature.

We need to do all this before there too few resources left to make a difference: or worse, before all the funds in the world won’t even make a difference in our bid to save our shared planetary ecology. 


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