In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its starkest warning to date about the urgency of addressing climate change. When he released the report, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared, “Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”

While climate is a global issue, community leaders are playing a crucial role at the local level. In the Silicon Valley city of Menlo Park, a grassroots group of community leaders set an ambitious goal: not just reducing emissions, but reaching full climate neutrality. Thanks to Menlo Park’s innovative spirit and wealth of community resources, the city is an ideal location to test a comprehensive approach to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

This admirable goal raised a tough question: how could the city reach its objective while promoting long-term economic vitality, quality of life, and equity for residents? A groundswell of enthusiasm from community members with diverse backgrounds arose to answer this question. Their efforts coalesced into Menlo Spark, a new nonprofit initiative that collaborates with the city government, businesses, and residents to support community-driven efforts to achieve climate neutrality.

Redstone worked with the founders of Menlo Spark to develop its strategy and help launch its early efforts. Our work offered a unique window into the dynamics of local policymaking and community organizing. We came away with two key lessons:

  1. Local communities can—and must—play a significant role in combatting climate change. The importance of efforts like Menlo Spark is immense: smaller cities collectively account for a massive share of emissions in the US. These communities are thus an indispensable part the climate action movement, but they are often overlooked in favor of bigger cities or state and national action. As a result, we are excited to see Menlo Park join the ranks of bigger cities that have committed to climate neutrality, like Seattle, to serve as a model for other small cities seeking to build more sustainable futures for their residents and neighbors.
  2. Building a movement for climate action requires the inclusion of a wide variety of community interests. Many well-meaning advocates for climate action focus on the urgency of the issue as their central message to mobilize supporters. However, through conversations with Menlo Park residents whose primary interests run the gamut from children’s health to vibrant neighborhoods to economic prosperity, we saw the potential of climate action to energize the community by achieving much more than emission reductions. For example, residents interested in reducing traffic in their neighborhoods applauded the idea of improved bike paths and transit. Others who care deeply about equity were intrigued by the possibility of residential solar power to decrease energy costs for families. And city staff looked ahead to ways that Menlo Spark could help them proactively meet and even benefit from regulatory obligations. Menlo Spark is an inclusive movement that acknowledges the importance of all these community goals, emphasizes the power of sustainability to actively further these goals, and connects climate action to tangible steps residents can take to support their interests while protecting the earth. We are eager to see how Menlo Spark residents drive their movement forward in a way that excites and makes sense to them.

Menlo Spark will hold a public launch event in May, and we look forward to following and supporting the initiative’s first steps. After the launch, our blog will feature an interview with Chris DeCardy, Chair of the Menlo Spark Advisory Board and Vice President and Director of Programs at the Packard Foundation, and Diane Bailey, Executive Director of Menlo Spark. They will share their passion for Menlo Spark’s vision, and the lessons it may hold for philanthropy and for other communities.

    About the Authors
  • Brent C. Harris

    Brent has helped to build several of the world's largest foundations and family offices

  • Stacey Chen

    Stacey partners with clients on strategic planning, advocacy evaluation, and funder collaboratives to advance gender, racial, education, and health equity and to engage communities in policy advocacy.