By Dana Goldstein
It will take huge efforts, according to experts, to avert disasters related to climate change. Commitments from reluctant leaders to reform the global economy. Shifts in the daily routines of citizens. And research from the world’s greatest minds — lots of it.
To help pay for that research, the billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick are set to announce on Thursday the second-largest donation ever to an American university: $750 million to the California Institute of Technology for environmental study, much of it focused on technological solutions to combat climate change.
The Resnicks own the Wonderful Company, whose brands include Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful, Wonderful Pistachios and Teleflora, the flower delivery service. Their businesses are large consumers of water and plastic, and have at times been criticized by environmentalists.
The donation comes less than a week after millions of young people took to the streets in climate strikes across the globe, demanding faster action to address the warming planet. Climate change is also a growing focus in the Democratic presidential primary.
But Mr. Resnick, who described himself as a moderate who currently leans Democratic, said he did not see the donation as political. He said he and his wife were committing money to protect future generations — including their own children and grandchildren — and because they had seen the devastating impact of climate change in their own business, growing fruits and nuts.
“No one likes to deal with something that is unpleasant if they can kick it down the road,” Mr. Resnick said. But “no experts are saying take your time. It’s happening now.”
The money will be used to build a research center and to support a broad range of projects. Among them are attempts to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ocean; capture and reuse rainfall; make plants more resistant to drought; and create plastics that are easier to recycle, according to Thomas F. Rosenbaum, president of Caltech.
Mr. and Mrs. Resnick have been active philanthropists in California’s Central Valley, especially in providing aid to the families of their employees. They have founded charter schools and health clinics, distributed college scholarships and given to cultural institutions.
But the Resnicks’ business practices have sometimes come under fire from environmental activists.
The bottled water industry is not considered sustainable given the plastic waste it produces and the energy used to ship water long distances across the world, often to consumers who have access to free, safe water just by turning on a tap.
The Wonderful Company also grows and sells pistachios and almonds, which are especially water-hungry crops. A Mother Jones investigation in 2016 found that the Resnicks’ businesses were California’s largest consumers of water during a time of drought.
Mr. Resnick responded to those critiques by saying large-scale farming was more efficient and less wasteful. “You can’t grow healthy food without water,” he said. “We use that water to create crops that create food and jobs for people.”
Research funded by the Caltech donation could make global agriculture more sustainable, he added. In a sense, the gift — the largest since Michael R. Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University in November — could go toward mitigating some of the very problems the Resnicks’ companies are accused of perpetuating.
“If we had an alternative to plastic we would use it,” Mr. Resnick said of his bottled water business — a problem Caltech researchers may try to solve. He said Fiji Water had committed to using 100 percent recycled plastic by 2025.
Mr. and Mrs. Resnick previously contributed nearly $38 million to Caltech, the university said. About $100 million of the new $750 million donation will go toward construction of a building called the Resnick Sustainability Resource Center. An additional $250 million will finance research immediately, while $400 million will be placed into the university’s endowment for future environmental research.
The scholars funded by the Resnicks will retain complete independence over their work, said Dr. Rosenbaum, the Caltech president.
The federal government spent about $9 billion on the research, development and use of clean energy technology in 2017, according to the Government Accountability Office.
David Hart, director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at George Mason University, said private donations could be most helpful in finding real-world applications for new technologies — ones that can make daily activities, like farming or using air-conditioning, less damaging to the climate.
Donors should “foster new ideas that could turn into companies,” Professor Hart said. “Ultimately, we need clean energy to be really cheap and really easy to use, and help people live lives they want to live.”