Lots of people and companies are seeing the terrible images of desperate people and animals and asking: how can I help? We’re also being asked: where can my donations make a difference? What’s the route cause of the fires? Is it worth sending funds at all?
At Tyve, we think it’s important to ask about the impact of donations so we asked Stephen, a researcher at the nonprofit Founders Pledge to give us an overview of what’s going on and how people who want to donate thoughtfully might respond.
(Stephen’s writing here in a personal capacity, and the views here do not represent the official position of Founders Pledge)
What’s going on?
You’ve almost certainly heard that this fire season in Australia has been particularly severe. To date, at least 10 million hectares of forest have been burnt and 25 people have been killed (Wikipedia). That makes this the deadliest season since 2008/09, when 173 people were killed (Wikipedia).
The fires have been a huge international story. Multiple countries have sent firefighters and equipment to Australia to help, and tens of millions of dollars have been donated to Australian organisations involved in relief efforts.
In this post, I’ll consider how thoughtful philanthropists should think about two key aspects of the fires: climate change and animal welfare.
The fires and climate change
Media coverage has strongly linked the fires to climate change. This is no surprise, as climate change is a particularly divisive political issue in Australia and around the world.
Forest fire intensity is affected by a range of different factors, from weather phenomena like the Indian Ocean Dipole to forest management policies. But there’s no doubt that climate change is making Australia hotter and drier, and 2019 was both the hottest and driest year yet (see this visualisation on Twitter). That kind of weather makes fires more likely and more severe.
Climate change, of course, is a global issue. While Australia has developed a bad reputation as a climate laggard, increased fire risk is the result of global emissions, not Australian emissions in particular. For that reason, if the fires have impressed upon you the potential future risks we’ll face in a hotter world, there’s no reason to stray from the organisations have the greatest impact on global CO2 emissions. We think the Clean Air Task Force is likely to put your donation to the best use possible by working on policy issues that would otherwise be highly neglected.
The fires and animal welfare
Another element of the Australian fires that has garnered a great deal of attention is their effect on animals. The most eye-popping figure, and one that is cited everywhere from Wikipedia to the BBC, is that over one billion animals have been killed. As a result, many people have been donating to charities like World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
As Vox reports, this figure is misleading in a couple of ways. For example, it uses per-hectare estimates of animal density from a 2007 WWF report on the effects of deforestation on habitat loss. Birds and reptiles account for 90% of the estimate, but are less likely than mammals to be killed by forest fire. Yet fundraising calls from organisations like WWF cite the one billion figure while highlighting charismatic creatures like koalas and kangaroos.
If seeing the heartbreaking videos of burned koalas has reminded you that the suffering of animals is just as real, awful, and unjust as human suffering, then I think your best bet is to donate to animal welfare charities with a track record of highly-effective action and demonstrated need for funding.
The response to the Australian fires shows the most heartening and most frustrating parts of the standard approach to philanthropy. It’s amazing that people see a problem and want to help fix it. It’s disheartening that so many of the fixes will probably do a lot less good than the donors would hope.
Tens of millions of dollars have been donated to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. Super wealthy donors from Metallica to Kylie Jenner have gotten involved (check out the Wikipedia entry). Sadly, I don’t think it’s likely that these donations have done much to fight the fires or help the victims. As Michael Eburn, a professor of emergency management, writes, people are “fundamentally … making a donation to the [New South Wales] government.” This is the problem of fungeing. Supporting the Australian government might be admirable, but is not the best way to improve the world.
Still, you ask, “how can I help?”
If you want your donations to be directly linked to the Australian fires, the New York Times has published a list of charities working close to the disaster, but we can’t be confident of the impact any contribution will have. If instead, the fires have inspired you to take action to fight climate change or help animals have happier lives more broadly we can confidently recommend:
- Clean Air Task Force - Fighting Climate Change through new policy and technology. See the full report.
- The Humane League - Happier lives for animals through advocacy. See the full report.
Your donations may not stop the current bush fires but you can be more sure that your donation will have a big impact and help alleviate future disasters.