Climate change: the 60ft tsunami

Indian businessman and philanthropist Uday Khemka tells Philanthropy Age why turning the tide on climate change should be a priority for the philanthropic community

Urgency and focus are two words Uday Khemka uses readily to describe the kind of action philanthropists need to take if they are to tackle climate change. As managing trustee and CEO of the Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation, he has spurned what he calls ‘programmatic’ giving, in favour of a strategic approach.

Khemka and his foundation work to bring different actors together – from the fields of science, business, government and academia – to ignite collaboration. The results are being felt everywhere; from high finance to low-rise rooftops. Here, Khemka expands on strategy, solar power and rallying philanthropy to climate’s cause.

What can philanthropy do to fight climate change?

If you have people willing to make the time and financial sacrifice, you can find tremendous white spaces in the area of philanthropy where you can bring together entire sectors to influence policy in a good, objective and rational way. Philanthropists are creating systems change and that’s exactly what we need if we’re going to crack a problem as big as climate change.

How has this approach worked in practice for you?

I’m a passionate believer in the solar energy rooftop revolution. We went to the [Indian] government, which had announced a huge target of 40GW for distributed rooftop power generation, and asked if they had looked at different policies. Had they looked at the best policies in the US or Germany? Had they looked at grid integration, utility incentives?

They asked for our help. So the Khemka Foundation created the Solar Rooftop Policy Coalition to bring everyone together. We now have 245 major institutions in India and globally involved in an exercise to look at how we create a really optimal policy, at the state and federal level, to make this solar rooftop revolution take off. I am also co-chair of India’s Clean Energy Finance Forum, which aims to crack how we raise the capital required for India’s renewable energy revolution.

Why did you choose this big picture approach?

If you pit scale and urgency against the limited resources of a single foundation, you realise that the most important thing to do is to bring people together. In other words, you swallow your ego and say it’s completely irrelevant what I do or don’t do, what is important is to bring together everybody to solve a problem.
There is a 60ft tsunami coming towards all of us on this planet and we’re building a 20ft dyke. It’s just not fast enough

Is it tough for philanthropists to find opportunities to work on climate change?

I don’t think it’s hard; it is horses for courses. There are different kinds of philanthropists who can do different kinds of work. Some are taking on a subsector, as I’ve taken on rooftop solar. Climate change arises from every kind of human activity, so there are a thousand opportunities for philanthropists in climate change, if they want to engage.

Do philanthropists need to think out of the box to find a way to contribute?

You don’t have to think out of the box: think in the box if you prefer. You could think about your business, you could think about your personal environment, it really doesn’t matter. It needs every one of us to do what we can from our particular competencies. We’ve done what we’ve done, but it doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody. Other people will be able to influence [the climate] in different ways.

Are enough philanthropists acting on climate issues?

There will never be enough. At the end of the day there is a 60ft tsunami coming towards all of us on this planet and we’re building a 20ft dyke. It’s just not fast enough. We need to be increasing the response, urgency and focus on this every single minute.