By Laura Thompson Osuri

Global steps to battle climate change might have faltered, but philanthropic institutions in the United States have swung into action, more than tripling their support for climate-related causes in 2008. Donations jumped from the 2007 total of $240 million to $897 million in 2008, according to a report from the Foundation Center, an organization that supports philanthropies, in New York.

The funding is going to a range of activities, including efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and to prepare cities for warmer temperatures and higher sea levels. Foundation money is also supporting academic researchers studying the effects of climate change and ways to reduce pollution. In 2008, for example, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York gave a grant to Stanford University in California for studies on how agriculture could adapt to a changing climate. The ClimateWorks Foundation in San Francisco, Calif., is supporting research around the world, including a grant to Wang Lan, a materials scientist at the China Building Materials Academy in Beijing, who is working to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from cement production.

The vast majority of the increase in 2008 came from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif., which gave a total of $549 million. Hewlett's donations included a one-time contribution of $500 million to ClimateWorks, which aims to help countries limit carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to less than 450 parts per million.

Many other foundations also bumped up their spending. All told, 267 foundations other than Hewlett distributed 1,578 grants for climate change, representing a 45 percent increase in their giving compared with 2007, according to the Foundation Center report, which is entitled Climate Change: The U.S. Foundation Response.

A generational change may account for part of the sudden generosity. Baby boomers are showing more concern about climate change than previous generations did, says Rachel Leon, executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association in New York, a trade group of environmentally focused foundations. These people are now starting to set up their own foundations with a strong emphasis on climate change.

The efforts of the foundations pale next to commercial investment in clean energy--$173 billion in 2008 and $162 billion last year, according to market analysts Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London. But foundations can fund projects regardless of their potential pay-off, says Ethan Zindler, the company's head of U.S. research. "They view it as a social imperative," he says. ClimateWorks, for example, collaborates with smaller foundations around the world on projects including the development of vehicle-fuel standards in India and appliance standards in China.

Other efforts aim to help developing countries adapt to change. Under a five-year, $70-million commitment in 2007, Rockefeller established the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, which focuses on aiding smaller cities, such as Surat in India, make growth decisions that help them survive a shifting climate. "We are not really an environmental foundation but a poverty-reduction foundation. But we see a connection between them," says Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation.

None of the foundations contacted by Nature would say what it plans to give in 2010. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.) Because Hewlett will not repeat its $500-million, one-time donation, the total foundation support for climate-related causes is likely to drop from its 2008 high, but Steven Lawrence, the director of research for the Foundation Center and the author of the new report, expects funding this year to surpass the 2007 amount. "My expectation is to continue to see growth in giving."