MacArthur Foundation vows to push climate solutions, starting with $50M pledge to green groups

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2015

The charitable foundation known for its annual “genius grants” and its public broadcasting underwriter’s message promoting “a more just, verdant and peaceful world” is deepening its commitment to addressing climate change under a new multimillion-dollar program aimed at building leadership capacity and political consensus around climate solutions.

Roughly $50 million in initial funding, announced this morning by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, will be shared by nine nonprofits engaged in climate policy and advocacy. It is being characterized by the foundation as “a down payment on a major new commitment to help curb global climate disruption by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Climate change, and its global disruption, threatens to undermine virtually everything we care about as human beings, from quality of life to the economy, from poverty to peace and security,” MacArthur Foundation President Julia Stasch said in a statement announcing the new initiative.

“Global climate disruption will have a profoundly negative impact on how humans live and work,” she added. “That’s why we need effective international leadership and cooperation that bring about sufficient and measurable results.”

Officials with the Chicago-based philanthropy, with assets of $6.47 billion, said the initial focus of the new initiative “is on building and sustaining sufficient U.S. leadership to ensure that the nation meets its own responsibilities in addressing climate change.” However, the foundation “intends to be a constructive partner to other countries, such as India and China … whose leadership and action are also critical to addressing a more sustainable future.”

The largest first-round grant, $20 million, will be shared by the Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund to foster political engagement on climate change and to build new constituencies and coalitions for “durable action on climate policy in the U.S.,” according to a foundation press release. Officials with the two organizations said the $20 million would help advance a 1-year-old partnership focused on building pragmatic, nonpartisan solutions to climate change.

Amplification of anti-coal message

“It’s clear we can do more together than we can alone,” Jeremy Symons, associate vice president of EDF, said of the effort with the Nature Conservancy, adding that the two organizations “share some common characteristics,” including philosophies and organizational strategies that eschew traditional politics and focus on areas where people can find common cause.

Jeff Fiedler, the Nature Conservancy’s director of climate policy, said in an interview that the MacArthur grant will support TNC and EDF activities both nationally and at the state level “to build a new optimism around a low-carbon energy future and to rebuild the political center” that has been largely missing from U.S. climate discussions.

But while MacArthur officials stressed their desire to cast a wide net with hopes of bringing traditionally disparate interests together on climate change, the foundation’s funding priorities make clear that it believes in a future with little or no coal-fired power generation.

For example, $15 million in new MacArthur funding will go to the Sierra Club to aid the organization’s efforts to shutter much of the U.S. coal-fired power plant fleet and press electric utilities to switch to carbon-free energy sources such as wind and solar. The $15 million in new funding follows a $4 million grant made by MacArthur in 2013, according to Bruce Nilles, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal senior director.

In an interview, Nilles called the new commitment by MacArthur an “awesome and humbling recognition from a well-known, established and highly respected organization.” The $15 million will also help the Beyond Coal campaign maintain its 170-person paid staff and provide ongoing support to more than 1,000 grass-roots organizers working in states across the country.

The Sierra Club has also raised by two-thirds its campaign objective to shut down 100,000 megawatts of U.S. coal-fired power plants and now will seek to secure the closure or commitments to close an additional 66,000 MW of coal-fired generation by 2017, Nilles said.

Nilles said that challenge may become easier as political allegiances around energy fuels begin to shift. “The most powerful part of the traditional coal lobby — the utility sector — is splitting off” from the mining firms and railroads that used to be aligned in their support for coal, Nilles said. Increasingly, electric utilities “no longer see their fate interwoven with coal,” he added. “Over the next few years, we hope to accelerate that transition and get these companies to see themselves as clean energy pioneers instead of defenders of coal.”

‘Big bets’ on support and new campaigns

Beyond the two largest grants, MacArthur awarded roughly $14 million to six additional organizations — including $3 million each to the Natural Resources Defense Council, ClimateWorks, the Energy Foundation and ecoAmerica. Some of the funding will be used for general support, while a portion will be directed to specific campaigns, the foundation said.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center will receive $1.5 million to support its advocacy and legal work in seven Midwestern states, according to officials with the Chicago-based group. Attorneys Rob Kelter and Brad Klein said in a telephone interview that the new funding will help ELPC increase both the scope and intensity of its climate work, particularly in areas of energy efficiency and clean energy solutions.

The smallest of the initial grants, $350,000, will go to the Carbon Disclosure Project, a U.K.-based organization dedicated to accounting, reporting and reducing carbon emissions from a broad swath of businesses and corporations.

Jorgen Thomsen, MacArthur’s conservation and sustainable development program director, said in an interview that the new initiative builds on the philanthropy’s decadeslong support of organizations and causes related to the environment, energy and conservation. But it also amplifies the foundation’s belief that climate change has become one of the world’s most pressing problems and that acting immediately and aggressively with significant financial resources is the best strategy for solving the climate crisis.

The foundation has dubbed such priorities “big bets,” reflecting its belief that transformative change is needed to solve complex, intractable problems like climate change. Other issues that have received, or are going to receive, similar focus from MacArthur include criminal justice, nuclear weapons and the allocation of capital for social good.

To those who question MacArthur’s dramatic boost in funding to strongly opinionated and in some cases well-financed advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and NRDC, Thomsen said there was a clear rationale to its decisionmaking.

“Where we are placing the big bet here is that we think these organizations will help us identify and drive the solutions that not just this country needs, but that we need globally to address the big carbon emitters,” he said. “Some of these groups are obviously funded by others. Our hope is that by contributing our resources, we can give them that extra push to help them go the extra mile.”