Scientists have shouted into the wind about impending doom for decades. For more than a quarter-century, the United Nations has annually convened international leaders, to nominal effect. And Greta Thunberg’s school strike for climate just hit week 224.
But could it be that what it takes to finally push climate action to a new level will be the faded glory of the British monarchy and the circles of wealth and power it still draws?
On Friday in the Fenway, the likes of David Beckham and Mitt Romney and John Kerry walked a pointedly green carpet — not red — to see Prince William and his foundation hand $1.2 million to each of five winners deemed to have hatched promising solutions to the climate problem.
The winners will be expected to use the money to dramatically expand the scale of their projects and export them across the world. But even beyond that, some now wonder if the Earthshot Prize, with its imprimatur of royalty and its invocation of the Cold War’s race to the moon, could influence an echelon of money and power to move the needle.
“A million dollars is significant. For a lot of these nonprofits and companies, it’s a game-changing investment,” said Justin Winters, executive director of the climate philanthropy organization One Earth. “But I would say in this case, the level of attention and partnerships that are brought to the table — to the finalists and the award winners — are really significant.”
Winners and finalists can tap into resources provided by Earthshot’s so-called Global Alliance — a deep-pocketed group of influential foundations and companies, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, IKEA, and Microsoft. The resources include anything from legal advice to manufacturing and supply chain services to business strategies. By 2030, the alliance expects to have nurtured some 150 innovative climate solutions.
For Living Seawalls, an Australia-based company, being named a finalist last year has proven transformative. Though the company was not a prize-winner, Katherine Dafforn, a marine biologist and the company’s cofounder, said Living Seawalls has brought in more than a million Australian dollars in funding since the honor was announced — three or four times what it had been able to secure previously.
“You need the spectacle, the excitement to get people to be aware of these issues around climate change and to help showcase the fact that there are these amazing innovators who are trying to provide solutions that the world can start to use,” said Dafforn, who was in Boston for the event, and because Living Seawalls is partnering with the Boston-based Stone Living Lab on a new project in the harbor to help drive biodiversity and mitigate the impacts of sea level rise.
At Friday night’s ceremony, the awards were given to Mukuru Clean Stoves, a Kenya-based startup replacing household stoves that burn charcoal with safer, cleaner-burning stoves; Kheyti, an Indian company making greenhouses that can help small farmers protect their crops from extreme weather; Indigenous women of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, who are using 60,000 years of indigenous knowledge to encourage new conservation approaches; Notpla, a London-based startup making alternative plastic packaging from seaweed; and 44.01, in Oman, which has pioneered a way to turn carbon dioxide into rock and store it indefinitely.
“I believe that the Earthshot solutions you have seen this evening prove we can overcome our planet’s greatest challenges. And by supporting and scaling them we can change our future,” Prince William told the crowd at the ceremony. “Alongside tonight’s winners and finalists, and those to be discovered over the years to come, it’s my hope the Earthshot legacy will continue to grow, helping our communities and our planet to thrive.”
Historically, philanthropy has been slow to get behind climate change. In 2020, US-based grant makers disbursed $64 billion, but just 0.5 percent went directly to climate change, according to a report by McKinsey Sustainability.
The Earthshot Prize, which was founded by Prince William and the Royal Foundation in 2020, is part of a new generation of big money prizes and funds aimed at driving climate solutions.
There’s Elon Musk’s $100 million XPRIZE, that will dole out funds through 2025 to companies competing around innovations that can pull carbon from the atmosphere. There’s the $10 billion committed by the Bezos Earth Fund, to be spent by the end of the decade on solutions that address environmental justice, decarbonization, conserving nature, and more. And there’s the $3.5 billion invested by Laurene Powell Jobs to focus on initiatives and ideas that help underserved communities coping with climate change.
But while those funds come with the backing of big business or philanthropic names, the spotlight that comes with Prince William is in a league of its own — both in terms of the connections it can make with its network of funders and affiliated companies, and because of how it brings everyday people to the issue.
“A lot of climate is so complicated that sometimes people feel helpless,” said Mindy Lubber, the chief executive and president of Ceres, a Boston-based group that promotes climate action in the corporate world. “They can’t understand all the science of it. They can’t understand what 1.5 degrees means. But this is an opportunity for everybody to partake in their own way in climate change.”
That could mean turning on the TV to learn about what the royal couple was up to in Boston and then being inspired to donate to a climate cause, or make different decisions about how to invest their $2,000 IRA, Lubber said.
For the scientists who have been working on the issue for years, it could be easy to get jaded about the issue suddenly receiving this attention thanks to the royal couple. But Max Holmes, CEO of the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, said that misses the point. “The reality is that we’re nowhere close to where we need to be on climate action,” he said. “So anything that can bring additional attention and enthusiasm and creativity toward tackling this incredible problem is a good thing.”
That attention — with hundreds of fans standing outside every appearance, despite rain and cold weather — might even be worth more than the prizes themselves, said Ben Downing, a former state senator who is now vice president of public affairs at The Engine, a venture firm and startup program founded by MIT.
“People are rightly busy with a million other things going on,” Downing said. “If they dedicate a little bit of the most valuable resource they have — their time — to thinking about climate, to reading about one of the solutions, and maybe that spurs them to think ‘What can I do,’ and nudges them a little bit more? I really do think there’s a lot of value to that.”
For Boston’s Mayor Michelle Wu, who in her year in office has been trying to bring a Green New Deal to the city, with wide-ranging programs that address climate, justice, and equity, the spotlight from the royal family has been particularly gratifying.
“It’s been a real affirmation of the efforts of so many people across our city — innovators, companies that are going to change the world,” said Wu. “This has put Boston forward as a city with a clear goal and tangible progress to be the greenest city in America.”