Michigan Climate Action Network helps communities take action against climate change

Founder Tom Porter focuses on growing local efforts to build future capacity

Though he made a name for himself as a venture capitalist, Tom Porter may have been destined to be an environmental activist.

"It's sort of in my DNA," he admits, recalling frequent childhood treks in the woods with his father, a botanist. "We couldn't walk for more than 25 feet without stopping to look at another plant." 

Initially, Tom ignored his genetic tug and went to college, first studying philosophy and religion before choosing to go to business school. He went on to a career that saw him form one of Michigan's earliest venture capitalist firms, start a number of companies and teach the business to more than a thousand University of Michigan graduate students.

But when he turned 60, his focus shifted from the boardroom to the backwoods. "I thought it was time to do something different to contribute to Michigan rather than start new companies," he says, "I wanted to continue to grow and to apply what I knew about growing companies. It was easiest for me to gravitate to the environment."

From MEC Board member to climate activist

Easing out of the workforce freed up time to study environmental issues and nonprofits working on them. Joining the Michigan Environmental Council's board of directors was a first venture into the field. He's been an MEC supporter ever since.

At the same time, he and his two children began using their family foundation to support environmental activities, like starting a model farm-to-school program in Leelanau County. As they developed environmental acumen, they realized they could have a greater impact by focusing their funding, rather than spreading it among issues and actions. They just weren't sure what to aim at; until one day it hit him.

"I was standing on my property–for which I am the luckiest person to be able to own–looking at Lake Michigan," he recalls, "and I was thinking the climate here will soon be like Arkansas. When my kids are my age, this will be gone."

That epiphany sparked a mission. "The more you learn about climate change," he notes, "the more you say you have to do something about it."

For nearly a decade, he's been focused on the issue, supporting local groups' initiatives, listening to experts like Bill McKibben and even organizing buses to shuttle Michigan activists to a massive 2014 rally in New York that advocated global action against climate change.

Growing support for clean energy goals

Two years ago, he funded and participated in a gathering of dozens of organizations at MEC headquarters to brainstorm a statewide response. Its solution was to form the Michigan Climate Action Network, a consortium of 34 organizations working to build a movement to push clean energy solutions that promote climate sustainability. MICAN is a partnership with MEC. Our energy and climate specialist Kate Madigan serves as its director.

Tom isn't just a supporter. He also serves on MICAN's steering committee, lending leadership, expertise, and fundraising skills. The network has been investing in communications capacities–"a cost-effective way to growing a base," he says. Plans include growing its ranks to 60 organizations and more than 5,000 individuals. Recently, it launched a citizen-based campaign to push at least eight Michigan cities to adopt the goal of powering themselves entirely by clean energy within two years.

"We want to encourage people to take action in the communities where they work and live and to provide tools and information to help them do that," he says. "If Michiganders can voice their concerns and encourage climate actions at the local level, it will be easier to create change at the state level, as well."

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