The Newest Climate Activists? Fossil Fuel Heirs

Of all the people you’d envision joining the ranks of climate activists and protesting against Big Oil, fossil fuel heirs are probably the last people you’d think would join in. Yet two US families who became fabulously rich from the ugly black gold have a new generation who are using their inherited wealth to do climate good.

There are numerous ways each of us makes decisions to support climate solutions. We narrow our individual carbon footprints, share clean energy information, divest from fossil fuel companies, or invest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG)- conscious companies. We join in public discourse through attending meetings, contacting our legislators, or supporting climate-conscious candidates. We pledge to move to an energy transition sufficient to keep the planet below a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

There can be big pushback against climate activism, of course. The New York Post, a conservative newspaper, wrote about “left-wing” groups such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Quadrivium that fund “the radical, eco-leftist Environmental Defense Fund.” Republican attorneys general this year have fought Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) plans to require companies to disclose their climate risks within their operations. Local opposition to renewable energy infrastructure continues to be all-too-frequent.

But, on the other hand, support for climate action is growing. Indeed, numerous groups around the globe are fighting against the great injustices within the climate crisis and making transparent how poor nations, least to blame for global heating, are suffering its worst effects. These climate activists constantly expose corporations that are greenwashing their annual reports, and these same climate activists stay resilient when climate policies and politics fail citizens.

Inevitably, climate action funding is necessary for robust climate action, and it seems to arise from some unlikely places.

Fossil Fuel Heirs Use their Wealth for Climate Good

US business billionaires have tended mostly in their elder years to appreciate charitable giving. Andrew Carnegie relinquished nearly 90% of his fortune, and Henry Ford left much of his to an eponymous foundation, which has accrued an endowment of over $12 billion. What is unique, however, is for a US family dynasty to provide retribution for the source of its wealth.

Some notable and young fossil fuel heirs are modeling what using their fortunes can do for climate activism.

Aileen Getty, whose multi-generational family wealth comes from the oil industry, is a founding donor of the Climate Emergency Fund (CEF) and has donated over $1 million to the climate action organization. The California-based CEF was organized in 2019 on the ethos that civil resistance is integral to achieving the rapid widespread social and political changes needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Since its founding, the CEF is proud to say it has the following accomplishments:

  • 86 organizations funded
  • Over 22,000 climate activists trained
  • Over 1 million activists mobilized
  • 9 million people engaged

Getty has been an active philanthropist throughout her adult life. She is founder and president of the Aileen Getty Foundation, which supports organizations and individuals around the world committed to responding to the climate emergency and treating the planet and its inhabitants with kindness and respect.

In an email to the New York Times, Getty said her belief in the effectiveness of activism was unshaken, especially with time running out. Civil disobedience was meant to serve as an alarm, she said, and discomfort caused by disruptive protests paled in comparison to what might well lie in store. “Let’s not forget that we’re talking about extinction,” Ms. Getty wrote. “Don’t we have a responsibility to take every means of trying to protect life on Earth?”

The Equation Campaign is a 10-year funding initiative working to bring about a safe and just future by enhancing the power of movements to keep oil and gas in the ground. Started in 2021 by two Rockefeller heirs — Rebecca Lambert and Peter Case — who are trustees of the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Equation Campaign supports strategies and initiatives that disrupt the power of the oil and gas industry and build the power of movements and people on the frontlines. They do this using the levers that have given the industry its unprecedented influence: finance, media, law, and politics.

They provide funding that supports what they say are two missing pieces of the equation in most climate philanthropy and activism to date:

  1. Supply side strategies to stop or delay new or expanded projects and to directly target the power of the fossil fuel industry
  2. Racial justice movement strategies that center the expertise and power of the communities impacted first and worst by both the climate crisis and the impacts of oil and gas operations

For the Equation Campaign, stopping further oil and gas expansion has a quantifiable impact. The cancellation of an extension of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, following years of resistance from tribes, farmers, and local ranchers, prevented the release of as much as 180 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, according to the Indigenous Environmental Network.

John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1870 and became the country’s first billionaire. By 2018, ExxonMobil appeared in federal court, claiming that the Rockefellers — the megacorporation’s original owners — were funding a conspiracy against it.

Final Thoughts about Fossil Fuel Heirs & Climate Activism Donations

Since its founding, the Climate Emergency Fund has distributed grants (some as small as $2,000) to dozens of groups, including and those tied to the youth climate strikes. Extinction Rebellion has chapters around the world and has brought intense attention to the climate crisis through disruptive protests in London and subsequent protests in Los Angeles, New York City, and elsewhere.

Founded by members of the Rockefeller family, the mission of BankFWD is to accelerate the transition to a just, zero-carbon economy by influencing banks to align their business strategies with the 1.5° target of the Paris Climate Agreement. They argue that the influence of bank clients, particularly private banking clients, is an underutilized and powerful resource in the fight against climate change. Momentum is building, but most banks remain far from this goal.

Such work of acquired wealth can and should be altruistic. In this era of climate crisis awareness, it’s time to see other fossil fuel heirs beyond a few Rockerfellers and Gettys apply their good fortunes toward saving the planet.


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