Why the MacArthur Foundation is doubling down on climate change

ShutterstockDenis Burdin
A rapidly retreating glacier in Greenland.

Not long ago, sustainable investment expert Cary Krosinsky brought to my attention an article by Marc Gunther, published in Nonprofit Chronicles. Entitled "Round Up the Usual Suspects," the article reports that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has chosen to focus its formerly widespread grantmaking on two overriding issues for the US: criminal justice and climate change. 

The Foundation's new president, Julia Stasch, wrote of its Safety and Justice Challenge, “Its goal is to help reverse the practice of mass incarceration in the United States. The high rate of incarceration and the dysfunctional relationship between police and minority communities are symptoms of a deep pathology that takes a terrible toll on families, communities, and the legitimacy of government itself.” 

Of the second initiative, Climate Solutions, Stasch wrote, “Our goal is to add significant, distinctive value to the many important and substantial efforts already underway. All of this and more is urgently required if the world is to avoid the worst outcomes of global climate disruption.” 

“The initial focus is to build and sustain sufficient US leadership to ensure that this nation meets its responsibilities in addressing climate change,” Stasch wrote. “As a down payment this year, our new Climate Solutions program awarded $50 million in grants.” 

In his article, Gunther lists the recipients of the first round of grants: 

  • $20 million to the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy
  • $15 million to the Sierra Club
  • $3 million to ClimateWorks Foundation, a creation of several big foundations
  • $3 million to the Energy Foundation
  • $3 million to the Natural Resources Defense Council
  • $3 million to ecoAmerica
  • $1.5 million to the Environmental Law & Policy Center
  • $340,000 to CDP

“They’re essentially the same crew that tried to deliver federal climate legislation back in 2008-2009,” Gunther writes. “They’re the same generals who fought and lost the last war.” 

Among the notables missing from the list of recipients, Gunther writes, is 350.org. “No organization has organized more climate activists in the past five years...Bill McKibben, a founder of 350.org, has also changed the conversation about climate by popularizing the concepts of a global carbon budget and carbon bubble, notably in his landmark 2012 Rolling Stone story, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” 

Gunther had another activist organization that he considers worthy of recognition by the Foundation as well: the Breakthrough Institute, which earlier this year published An Ecomodernism Manifesto. 

Referring specifically to the fact that the planet has entered a new geological era — the Anthropocene, a time in which nothing escapes the impact of human activity — the manifesto states, “We affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.” 

In an era in which more and more of us suffer from what the novelist Brian Adams describes in his novel "Love in the Time of Climate Change" as Obsessive Climate Disorder, it can be refreshing to learn from the manifesto's authors that technology can help lead us away from the brink. However, as Gunther points out, their embrace of nuclear energy will seem to many as another short-term solution that leaves a mess for future generations to figure out. 

But describing modernization as a decoupling of human welfare from environmental impacts, the manifesto states, “Greater resource productivity associated with modern socio-technological systems has allowed human societies to meet human needs with fewer resource inputs and less impact on the environment. More-productive economies are wealthier economies, capable of better meeting human needs while committing more of their economic surplus to non-economic amenities, including better human health, greater human freedom and opportunity, arts, culture, and the conservation of nature.” 

“We continue to embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation, including research to develop better technologies, subsidies, and other measures to help bring them to market, and regulations to mitigate environmental hazards,” the manifesto concludes. “And international collaboration on technological innovation and technology transfer is essential in the areas of agriculture and energy.”

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