America’s Midwest can support inclusive climate solutions: Here’s how


Tonya Allen and John Palfrey


The threats we’ve seen to democracy and our institutions are major challenges to climate action.

The communities that are left vulnerable to environmental injustice or extreme weather are often the same communities subjected to police violence or targeted by voter suppression. In the United States, a million Black people live within a half-mile radius of oil and methane gas wells and processing transmission storage facilities, while 6.7 million live in counties with refineries.

America’s demographics are shifting, and a strong multiracial democracy with broad participation is essential for the nation, and especially for climate solutions. If we want to create a brighter future for our planet and future generations, we must also address issues around equity. Not only is an equity approach in climate action the right thing to do, but it’s also more effective.

It’s important that we act together within the social sector, looking past politics and focusing on building bridges across divisions. The social sector has the unique ability to get people working together regardless of their politics. By listening to people’s concerns and creating opportunities to address them, we can build engagement, appreciation, and a collective ambition. This will allow more people, organizations, and governments to come together, collaborate, and solve the climate challenge. Along the journey, we will learn together so that we can more easily address future challenges that come our way.

Wind turbines on a farm in the Midwest. Photo credit: Shutterstock


The Midwest: America’s geographic and political centre

The MacArthur Foundation and the McKnight Foundation are based in America’s Midwest, a region that is central to climate solutions. The Midwest is the largest carbon emitter in America, responsible for 26 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to serving as the geographic center of the U.S., it is also the political center. If we can win clean energy policies with bipartisan support in the states of Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana, we can advance bold federal and international action.

America’s demographics are shifting, and a strong multiracial democracy with broad participation is essential for the nation, and especially for climate solutions.

The Midwest has tremendous wind and solar potential that, if harnessed, could power the region and the nation, and its robust manufacturing sector can support this renewable energy economy while creating thousands of jobs for its residents.

A better future is possible, but it requires a significant investment in upgrading our infrastructure and ensuring that it’s clean-energy ready. It also requires investment in organizations that are working to improve policy, educate communities, and secure a healthy, functioning democracy where all voices are heard. All of that is possible here in the Midwest.

Leading through a democracy and equity lens

How do we incorporate this lens into our climate work? Specifically, we’re focusing on widening the community of stakeholders interested in fighting climate change and doing so with respect. We seek to create opportunities for communities while honoring their existing needs. And by doing so, we are tackling the climate challenge as well as building our democracy, strengthening civic engagement, and making space for conversations around equity.

An example of what happens when community voices are elevated is the recent passage of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in the state of Illinois. Thanks to a strong, diverse coalition pushing for climate action, the coal plant with the seventh-highest greenhouse gas emissions in America now has a close date. The key difference was providing a place and power at the table for voices that may traditionally not have had access to this important conversation.

Inclusive engagement also made a difference. Through the Listen. Lead. Share. initiative, more than 100 community meetings were held, allowing transparent conversation about solutions and development of coalition priorities around the needs of people. This model is now underway in the state of Ohio, where partners will lead people in conversations about the best and most effective ways to address climate and environmental justice in their communities. The path to a clean renewable future in Illinois is a replicable story, and we believe it’s possible everywhere.

Philanthropy’s unique role

Philanthropy has a powerful seat at the table in developing climate solutions. Ensuring that the work brings a greater diversity of voices to the table and that programs benefit those most impacted is key to ensuring sustainable change. As nonpartisan foundations, we are focused foremost on creating a more equitable world that benefits people as well as the planet.

At MacArthur, we are centering equity in our climate work and ensuring that the human right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is afforded to future generations. One approach we’re taking across all our programs is supporting power building among organizations led by people of color in communities that have been disproportionately affected by climate change. We’re working to ensure that the transition to clean energy, specifically, benefits everyone.

And at McKnight, we’ve made a commitment to double down on climate, and we believe decarbonizing the Midwest is a central part of this work. We’ve increased our climate grantmaking to $32 million annually, making us the largest funder in the Midwest that’s focused solely on the Midwest and its climate challenges. We are also making sure that our climate commitment is part of our equitable communities and international agriculture work.

As philanthropies, we are making choices, but ultimately, we’re investing in people. By building power, wielding it through the right channels, and sharing and deploying it equitably, we can create a world that future generations deserve. And that’s a lesson that can serve our entire philanthropic sector.

Tonya Allen is president of the McKnight Foundation. John Palfrey is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

You can hear a conversation with Tonya Allen and John Palfrey in a special podcast series from The Pew Charitable Trusts and Stanford Social Innovation Review, ‘Crisis and Change: Conversations With Leaders.’

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