Nathan Cummings' Big Bet on the Breakthrough Institute

At first glance, it might seem odd that a major environmental funder would be a primary supporter of a group known for heralding the "death of environmentalism."

But in recent years, the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) has been trying to rattle the cage of modern environmentalism, meaning that its close relationship with the Breakthrough Institute is a match made in heaven. (See Nathan Cummings Foundation: Grants for Climate Change.)

From 2007 to 2012, NCF directly granted the Bay Area think tank more than $3 million, championing its work to reframe the climate change debate and the way liberals approach their most difficult challenges. Rather than fighting for carbon caps, the institute — which is a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors — has tried to put public investment in innovation at the core of the climate discussion, while seeking broader, bipartisan support.

"The Breakthrough Institute was founded on the premise that the complaint-based, interest group liberalism born in the 1960s and 1970s is failing to achieve the broad social and ecological transformations America and the world need," the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors site states.

Founders Ted Nordhaus's and Michael Shellenberger's criticisms of traditional liberal strategies have drawn attention to the institute and also ticked off more than a few of their peers.

In 2004, their paper "The Death of Environmentalism" proclaimed that the environmental movement had become an out-of-touch special interest group that was ill-equipped to take on the problem of global warming. The Sierra Club's executive director at the time, Carl Pope, wrote a scathing response, and Bill McKibben has called the two the "bad boys of American environmentalism."

But the report also drew a lot of praise as a wake-up call to progressive leaders. Peter Teague, environment program officer for NCF, underwrote the report and wrote in the introduction:

This article should prompt those of us in the world of philanthropy to engage with each other and with the groups we fund in an honest evaluation of our present situation. The stakes are too high to go on with business as usual.

Since then, the Breakthrough Institute, with support from NCF and Teague, has continued to beat the drum for public and private partnerships for clean energy technology. In short, they want to make clean energy cheap and easy to get, instead of trying to clamp down on dirty energy.

Their reports have called for massive public investments in research and development. They've highlighted the role the federal government has historically played in technological breakthroughs, comparing clean energy innovation with that of satellites, aeronautics, and computing. In recent reports, they've called for reform to clean tech subsidies and partnered with conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute to tout bipartisan support for such investments.

Critics have accused the Breakthrough Institute of oversimplifying the history and complexity of the environmental movement or just trolling for attention. But their approach has definite strengths. For one, the concern that trying to cap carbon is a lost cause has proven mostly valid, as cap-and-trade legislation is dead on arrival amid bipartisan gridlock. But perhaps more compelling is the way their strategy takes into account the developing world when other campaigns do not. By accelerating technology, Breakthrough hopes that advances in clean energy can curb greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States while also safely expanding modernity in places like China and India, where demand for power is only going up. It's a big vision.

Whether that vision takes hold and the institute and NCF can actually spark the breakthrough they're betting on, only time will tell.