Where the Action Is: A Top Climate Funder Looks to States, Communities, and Business

Let’s travel back in time, just for a momentary escape, to August 2015, when the MacArthur Foundation announced it was officially launching a major climate change initiative. 

Obama’s Clean Power Plan had just been finalized. India and China were taking steps to reduce GHG emissions. We were about to head into the now-historic Paris Climate Change Summit.   

When MacArthur launched its program, it was hoping to seize upon some of these momentous developments in climate change, with one priority being to galvanize U.S. voters behind the issue and make the nation a global leader. Sadly, U.S. climate leadership has had some setbacks. One big, orange setback, actually.


So how is the foundation, recently emerging as one of the top new climate funders, responding in our new political landscape? 

Now more than $120 million in, MacArthur is giving a lot of attention to India, U.S. state policy, local efforts and market-based solutions. 

To be clear, the broad strokes of MacArthur’s climate strategy haven’t changed much. Even when it was trying to make climate a bigger issue in the runup to the 2016 presidential election (which did not work), it aimed largely at city and state levels, where climate could be less politically divisive. And the program has always had an interest in economic strategies like carbon pricing and appealing to businesses and investors. But its latest round of grants flesh out a domestic strategy focused largely in the private sector and outside the Beltway. 

Here are some takeaways:

  • One of the big grants this round goes to Earthworks for its state-based effort to reduce methane pollution in oil and gas development. A $3 million grant will support its campaign to expand the use of imaging tech to identify methane pollution, and then push state governments and regulators to stop it. Release of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, is a particularly large problem in natural gas fracking, and one major reason environmentalists reject it as a cleaner alternative to coal. Note here that the level of tolerance when it comes to natural gas development is a divisive issue in green philanthropy. While not a cheerleader, MacArthur’s leadership has indicated in the past that it considers fracking to be an important part of the energy mix, and wants to work with the industry to reduce methane pollution.
  • Funding in support of other state policy efforts includes a grant to establish a “Clean Energy Legislator Academy” at Colorado State University. This project will engage with legislators in the states and provide them with resources on clean energy policy. The Great Plains Institute also landed funding to conduct demonstrations, convenings, and other research to inform state policymakers. 
  • Three large grants involve economic incentives and supporting members of industry to be better environmental actors. A $3 million general operating support grant goes to CDP, an organization that collects voluntary disclosures of companies’ environmental impacts. A grant for the same amount goes to Ceres, which works with business to encourage environmental leadership and sustainable practices. And a $4.5 million grant continues MacArthur’s support for clean energy finance in India. 

Related: Can Philanthropy Spur the Massive Climate Finance the Developing World Needs?

  • MacArthur’s giving for consensus building around climate change in the U.S.—most notably through its previous $9 million grant to the National Audubon Society—continues, with a grant to the Union of Concerned Scientists for public education and state-based efforts to reduce emissions.
  • Finally, one of the most interesting and encouraging grants from this round goes to the Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that supports low-wealth communities of color in the South working on transportation, energy, and land use from a standpoint of economic inclusion. This is a uniquely justice-oriented grant within MacArthur’s climate portfolio, focusing on systemic change and equity. As the nonprofit’s site states. “PSE recognizes that transactional, campaign-based organizing is an ineffective model for creating lasting change. In order to truly re-balance the political, economic and social balances of power, change must come from and be led by communities themselves.” Cheers to that. 

MacArthur getting serious about climate change is important and encouraging, and it’s been intriguing to watch the program develop, along with the mega-foundation’s overall restructuring under President Julia Stasch. It kicked off with some huge general support grants, although frankly, it was uninspiring to see them go mostly to the usual big green groups. But as it’s expanded, the funder has ventured out into some interesting territory. 

I tend to be pessimistic that corporations are going to be the leaders we need when it comes to climate change, even as more funders seek to amplify the business case for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, as we've reported. But backing for progress in states and building power in communities is an important strategy to embrace these days, one that hopefully, with sustained and significant funding, will get the country on track.