For a Top Foundation’s Evolving Climate Program, a Growing Focus on China and India

Rush hour in Beijing. TonyV3112/shutterstock

Rush hour in Beijing. TonyV3112/shutterstock

The MacArthur Foundation officially made climate change one of its top priorities in 2015 under then-new, now-departing president Julia Stasch. The environmental community was eager to see where this new pot of funding would be headed, and a little over four years and $236 million in, we’ve got a sense of what kind of climate funder MacArthur is and what’s got its attention. 

In a nutshell: We’ve seen a lot of giving in the United States in hopes of building broader and bipartisan support for climate action, including backing for business leadership and state-based efforts. In the past couple of years, there’s been a strong focus on helping India and now China meet their climate goals. And recently, the foundation’s signaled support for nuclear and carbon capture technology. 

While the United States remains one of its three priority geographies, it is notable how much MacArthur’s climate grantmaking in the past two years has been focused on Asia. The foundation recently announced $20 million in climate grants that mark a second round for progress in India, and a first round focused on China. Both countries are all-important fronts in the climate fight. New research out last week found that India’s greenhouse emissions are projected to grow by 6.3 percent in 2018, while the rise for China will be 4.7 percent.

“China is on a path to account for 30 percent of total global warming emissions by 2030. Yet, some of the most exciting developments and promising opportunities to address climate change are taking place there,” MacArthur’s climate program director Jorgen Thomsen said in the announcement.


There’s ongoing support for U.S.-focused grantees, and some of its international-focused funding goes to U.S.-based groups, but almost all of the program’s new grants this year were for work outside the U.S., according to the foundation’s database. Before that, the climate program made a round of six U.S.-focused grants in May 2017. This pattern of giving could just be the grantmaking cycles playing out across the three priority regions, but in any case, MacArthur has emerged as a major player in funding climate action in Asia.

A Developing Program

For a little context, let’s take a step back and look at what the foundation’s been up to since 2015. 

When MacArthur first rolled out its new climate program, the initial $50 million commitment went largely to what you might call the usual suspects—huge environmental NGOs, including the EDF, the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program, NRDC, ClimateWorks and the Energy Foundation. It had an early goal to strengthen U.S. climate leadership by building political will, pending upcoming elections. 

In 2015 and 2016, the grants list shows a lot of focus on communications and public engagement, with a particular interest in broadening support with a sort of centrist approach—including faith, economic and national security, and even bird-loving messaging around climate action. The Nature Conservancy and EDF received substantial support, in part to engage a broad cross-section of voters. Grants also included carbon pricing policy work and support for Clean Power Plan implementation.

We all know how 2016 ended. Not great. In the following year, U.S. grantmaking turned its focus to state lawmakers and policies, and a couple of private sector-based programs. 

In the latter half of 2016 through today, the India program has also taken hold. A major interest here is helping the country carry out its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. That includes work on expansion of renewable energy, integration of renewables into power grids and improving efficiency. This is also when MacArthur joined in on some big philanthropic partnerships around Indian energy finance, and efficiency through the historic Kigali protocol

Now, the funder is turning to China, with three grants totaling $4.6 million. Two of the grants—no surprise here—will go to the Energy Foundation and the Environmental Defense Fund for work on efficiency, renewables and developing a carbon trading platform. A third goes to ClientEarth, which uses legal action for environmental protections.  

Looking Ahead

A couple other news items give us some additional insight into where MacArthur’s climate giving is heading. For one, the foundation signed on with nine other foundations in September for a collective $459 million pledge to support forests and indigenous land rights as a way to mitigate climate change. 

And finally, in October, Julia Stasch wrote a joint op-ed with the CEO of Exelon, the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the United States, calling for energy companies and environmentalists to work together. In it, MacArthur voiced support for the exploration of carbon capture and the use of nuclear power, along with expanded renewables and a limit on carbon emissions. The Hewlett Foundation has also supported work related to carbon capture and nuclear energy, but it’s a stance that puts them at odds with many in the environmental movement. That could create tension for MacArthur (likely already has) if the op-ed signals greater investment in these areas. 

I’ll also note that there are a couple of directions that I’d like to see MacArthur take, especially as it sends future dollars to work in United States. First, they could lean far less on major NGOs like EDF and Nature Conservancy, which historically receive a very large portion of the green funding pie. 

And related, as the foundation has shown an interest in building political will, they should pay far more attention to grassroots organizing and climate justice work. Some of the most exciting momentum in the climate movement right now is happening among youth, women, indigenous people and communities of color—whether it’s around, the Green New Deal, the Sunrise Movement, or growing networks of climate justice groups. MacArthur has done a bit of grantmaking in this vein, but it continues to be an underfunded opportunity for philanthropy.