News and analysis
August 19, 2015

MacArthur's $50-Million Climate-Change Push Aims at Voters


The MacArthur foundation announced Wednesday that its $50-million pledge to climate change will be distributed among nine established environmental organizations to build consensus and put the issue on voters’ minds during the 2016 presidential race.

The climate-change commitment is part of an overhaul announced last week by Julia Stasch, the Chicago foundation’s president.

The nine beneficiaries of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s climate-change effort:

  • The Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy will split $20 million for general operating expenses and coalition building.
  • The Sierra Club will get $15 million for its Beyond Coal campaign.
  • ClimateWorks Foundation, ecoAmerica, Energy Foundation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council will receive $3 million each, largely for general operating support.
  • Environmental Law and Policy Center will get $1.5 million for general operating support.
  • The Carbon Disclosure Project will receive $340,000 to accelerate the completion of a carbon pricing system.

A handful of smaller grants in the fourth quarter of this year will bring the total to just over $50 million.

Strengthening Organizations

The foundation decided to pour money into general operating-support grants at established environmental nonprofits because the debate over global warming in the United States is on the cusp of a breakthrough, according to Jorgen Thomsen, director of conservation and sustainable development at MacArthur.

The grant maker decided the time was right to make a major push on the issue in part because of the upcoming elections and in part because of recent bilateral climate agreements with China and India, clean-energy proposals announced this month by President Obama, and a United Nations climate conference in Paris scheduled for November, Mr. Thomsen said.

"There’s some really significant shifts in movement now, and it’s a good time for our foundation and for philanthropy to come in and strengthen and support that leadership," he said.

$50-Million ‘Down Payment’

The $50 million is considered a "down payment" on the foundation’s future climate work, and Mr. Thomsen said the grant maker had not decided how much to give in the coming years. In 2016, he said, MacArthur will begin making "exploratory" grants in China and India designed to help industries there "leapfrog" over coal dependency and embrace renewable fuels or low-carbon technology.

Philanthropic interest in forestalling global warming jelled in 2009, when the William and Flora Hewlett, McKnight, and David and Lucile Packard foundations pledged a total of about $1 billion to the ClimateWorks Foundation.

Tom Steinbach, director of the environment program at the Hewlett foundation, called MacArthur’s latest commitment to climate change "a really big deal."

But while he believes that attitudes have shifted on climate change — as reflected in the U.S.-China deal, a recent papal encyclical warning of the dangers of climate change, and the White House plan to reduce emissions at power plants — Congress is a long way from adopting meaningful changes in policy, he said.

"We have a sense of what needs to happen, but we don’t have a really credible and serious effort to engage policy makers to get them to yes," said Mr. Steinbach. "MacArthur coming in is a recognition that we need action and that philanthropy can play a role in encouraging that action."

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