It did not escape Stewart Resnick’s attention that, after some unusual winter weather in 2015, his pistachio crop took a 70% hit. He couldn’t miss it when, for several years, his heat-blasted oranges came in smaller and less prodigiously than in the past. California’s persistent drought could not be ignored, either, by the man reputed to be the biggest farmer in America.
Those events influenced the Resnicks’ decision, announced Thursday, to give $750 million to Caltech for research into climate change and sustainability. And there was another inspiration.
“My grandkids … they would yell at me all the time, ‘How can you help with this? What are you doing about it?’ ” Resnick said after announcing the gift. “A lot of the adults are not concerned, but the kids are concerned. And rightfully so.”
The donation from Resnick and his wife, Lynda — to build a sustainability center, fund immediate research and enrich an endowment expected to spin off $20 million a year — is the second-largest to an American university.
The gift comes amid growing alarm over climate change and the Trump administration’s rejection of established science. Students marched around the world less than a week ago, coinciding with the U.N. climate conference, to protest what they view as a lack of action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. States such as California are weighing proposals to phase out single-use plastics containers used by many food and drink manufacturers.
The Resnicks have forged one of the nation’s great farm empires even as drought and extreme weather linked to global warming thwarted many of their competitors. Their vast fields of fruit and nut trees in the Central Valley feed a variety of consumer brands, including Halos mandarin oranges and the pomegranate juice Pom Wonderful. They also produce Fiji Water, wine from Justin Vineyards and operate the florist delivery service Teleflora.
Caltech agreed with Resnick’s assessment that the gift would be “transformational.” The university said the donation would be used to study solar science, climate science, energy, biofuels, decomposable plastics, water and environmental resources, and ecology and biosphere engineering. The school plans to build a $100-million “sustainability research institute” named for the family. It is the largest donation the institution has received and the largest given to any university for environmental research.
The couple, who live in Beverly Hills, had previously donated $38 million to enhance sustainability work at the Pasadena-based research hub. The bulk of their philanthropy had been directed at the San Joaquin Valley, where they built health clinics and two charter schools and gave out hundreds of college scholarships.
“Our belief is we should help those who are less fortunate and particularly for those in the areas where we make money,” Resnick said, noting additional giving in Fiji and Mexico. “The transformative moment was that the world is all also our community. And it’s all about the weather. If we can’t solve that problem, everything else we’ve done is not going to have any meaning.”
Caltech said the funds could go to a wide range of initiatives and also benefit the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which it manages for NASA. It will be focused on issues including the development of efficient solar fuels, the “measurement, modeling and potential mitigation” of climate change, better management of water resources and best practices for improving soil fertility as the Earth warms.
Among the questions Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum said researchers might explore are how to use sunlight to break down water and create hydrogen fuels; whether the worst of sea level rise would come in 10 years, or more; and how to replenish underground aquifers and measure their ability to retain water.
Rosenbaum called sustainability “the challenge of our times,” adding that the Resnicks’ gift “will permit Caltech to tackle issues of water, energy, food and waste in a world confronting rapid climate change,” while “letting researchers across campus follow their imaginations and translate fundamental discovery into technologies that dramatically advance solutions to society’s most pressing problems.”
The announcement comes at a time of increasingly dire projections for the Earth’s future habitability. The 2015 Paris agreement aims to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels — and within 1.5 degrees if possible — in order to avert the most devastating effects of climate change.
But the national targets agreed to in the Paris climate accords fall significantly short of that goal. Human activity already has warmed the planet by about 1 degree Celsius, and fulfilling only the Paris commitments is likely to result in a temperature increase of 3 degrees — far beyond what scientists consider tolerable to humanity.
The effects of global warming are becoming harder and harder to ignore. People are increasingly enduring more extreme wildfires and heat waves, rising sea levels and diminishing air quality.
The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of devastating consequences without “far-reaching and unprecedented changes” to slash emissions in little more than a decade. Avoiding calamity will require drastic, large-scale action to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030.
The Resnicks began building their agricultural empire in 1978 when they bought their first farmland as a hedge against inflation. Stewart Resnick told reporter Mark Arax not long ago that he couldn’t even be sure how large his holdings had become but, at last check, that he had accumulated 180,000 acres, or 281 square miles, in California alone.
He formed a powerhouse couple with Lynda, known as a marketing whiz, who dropped out of college at 19 to form her own advertising agency. Stewart’s janitorial business was an early client. Lynda Resnick eventually would run worldwide marketing and product creation for the family’s umbrella operation, Wonderful Co. Forbes recently put the family’s worth at $9 billion.
Their rise has not been without controversy. The Resnicks were slammed during the California drought over their companies’ heavy use of water. And their business practices have come under scrutiny at times, including in 2016, when the family’s winery near Paso Robles plowed under an oak forest to make way for new grape plantings.
The Resnicks later said they were “ashamed and very sorry” for being “asleep at the wheel” about the bulldozing. They promised to restore the land and donate it for conservation.
The Federal Trade Commission also found that the company’s Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice had relied on advertising that falsely claimed its products could treat heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction. The family appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to review the lower court decision.
Caltech officials said they have been talking to the Resnicks over several years about how they might expand their support of the university, which the magnate described as “the most wonderful institution I have ever been exposed to.”
Stewart Resnick acknowledged that some of the innovations that might come out of Caltech’s work could eventually benefit his businesses. But he insisted he has already been trying to make progress, including pushing to have all of his companies’ plastic bottling made from recyclable materials by 2025.
Noting that the world now recycles less than 10% of its single-use plastic, Greenpeace strategist Charlie Cray said big operators like the Resnicks need to shift their thinking from recycling to finding containers that can be reused or refilled to limit waste that is clogging the world’s oceans and killing wildlife.
Resnick said his family’s donation is meant to spur big solutions on plastics and other issues.
“In order to comprehensively manage the climate crisis, we need breakthrough innovations, the kind that will only be possible through significant investment in university research,” Resnick said. “Science and bold creativity must unite to address the most pressing challenges facing energy, water and sustainability.”
The size of the donation impressed climate activists.
“It’s such an astounding gift in terms of the total dollar amount that it tells you how deeply worried people are about what is happening and how much needs to be done,” said Rafe Pomerance, chairman of the climate umbrella group Arctic 21. “It reflects on the incredible increase in concern.”
M. Sanjayan, chief executive of Conservation International, sounded the most hopeful note.
“This research will no doubt change the world,” Sanjayan said. “It may even save the world. It’s that profound.”
The only larger gift to an American university came in November, when former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to boost financial aid for low- and middle-income students.