Does climate change deserve more attention within EA?

I have been an 80,000 Hours Pod­cast listener and ac­tive in EA for about eigh­teen months, and I have shifted from a fo­cus on cli­mate change, to an­i­mal welfare, and now to x-risk and s-risk, which seem to be highly promis­ing from an EA per­spec­tive. Along the way, I won­der if some parts of EA might have un­der­played cli­mate change, and if more en­gage­ment and con­tent on the topic could be valuable.

While I was think­ing about sus­tain­abil­ity and ethics, I was frus­trated by how limited the cov­er­age of the topic was in the 80,000 Hours Pod­cast epi­sodes, so I emailed the team. Rob Wiblin re­sponded and sug­gested that I write up an EA fo­rum post.

Thanks to Alexrjl, John Bach­e­lor, and David Nash for their sug­ges­tions and ed­its.

Edited 29/​10/​2019 to re­move a mis­quo­ta­tion of 80,000 Hours, and a few other cases where I want to rec­tify some over-sim­plifi­ca­tions.


While it is true that EA and 80,000 Hours is effec­tive in draw­ing at­ten­tion to highly ne­glected ar­eas, my view is it has un­justly ne­glected cov­er­age of cli­mate change. There are sev­eral rea­sons why I be­lieve cli­mate change de­serves more at­ten­tion within EA. Firstly, some key opinion-shapers in EA ap­pear to have re­cently up­dated to­wards higher weight­ings on the sever­ity of cli­mate change. Se­condly, though cli­mate change is prob­a­bly not an ex­is­ten­tial risk it­self, it could be treated as an ex­is­ten­tial risk fac­tor or mul­ti­plier. Thirdly, there are limi­ta­tions to a crude ap­pli­ca­tion of the ITN frame­work and a short-ter­mist ap­proach to al­tru­ism. Fourthly, cli­mate change miti­ga­tion and re­silience may be more tractable than pre­vi­ously ar­gued. Fi­nally, by failing to show a suffi­cient ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the sever­ity of cli­mate change, EA may risk los­ing cred­i­bil­ity and alienat­ing po­ten­tial effec­tive al­tru­ists.

Chang­ing per­cep­tions of cli­mate change among key in­di­vi­d­u­als in EA

1. Assess­ment of cli­mate change in Do­ing Good Bet­ter, 2015

The view taken in this book, foun­da­tional to EA, mostly equates cli­mate change to a year of lost growth, and as­signs a ‘small but sig­nifi­cant risk’ that tem­per­a­ture rises are above 4C.

Will Ma­caskill: Economists tended to as­sess cli­mate change as not all that bad. Most es­ti­mate that cli­mate change will cost only around 2% of global GDP… The thought that cli­mate change would do the equiv­a­lent of putting us back one year eco­nom­i­cally isn’t all that scary- 2013 didn’t seem that much worse than 2014… So the so­cial cost of one tonne of Amer­i­can’s green­house gas emis­sions is about $670 ev­ery year. Again, that’s not a sig­nifi­cant cost, but it’s also not the end of the world.
How­ever, this stan­dard eco­nomic anal­y­sis fails to faith­fully use ex­pected value rea­son­ing. The stan­dard anal­y­sis looks only at the effects from the most likely sce­nario: a 2-4C rise in tem­per­a­ture… there is a small but sig­nifi­cant risk of a tem­per­a­ture in­crease that’s much greater than 2-4C.
The IPCC gives more than 5% prob­a­bil­ity to tem­per­a­ture rises greater than 6C and even ac­knowl­edges a small risk of catas­trophic cli­mate change of 10C or more. To be clear, I’m not say­ing that this is at all likely, in fact it’s very un­likely. But it is pos­si­ble, and if it were to hap­pen, the con­se­quences would be dis­as­trous, po­ten­tially re­sult­ing in a civil­i­sa­tional col­lapse. It’s difficult to give a mean­ingful an­swer of how bad that would be, but if we think it’s po­ten­tially catas­trophic, then we need to re­vise our eval­u­a­tion of the im­por­tance of miti­gat­ing cli­mate change. In that case, the true ex­pected so­cial cost of car­bon could be much higher than $32 per met­ric ton, jus­tify­ing much more ex­ten­sive efforts to re­duce emis­sions than the es­ti­mates the economists first sug­gested.

The main text, and the later table of cause pri­ori­ti­sa­tion uses the eco­nomic cost model and as­sumes 2-4C of warm­ing, with­out ap­pre­ci­at­ing the fol­low-on risks. It seems pre­sump­tive to as­sume that, with­out ac­tion, warm­ing would stay to 2C, as DGB does. Pledges are just things writ­ten on pa­per—his­tory’s taught us that.

This source sug­gests we’re on for 4.1-4.8C of warm­ing by 2100, so it seems er­ro­neous to as­sume 2-4C should be our baseline as­sump­tion. A reader would walk away from this book think­ing that cli­mate change was gen­er­ally not worth wor­ry­ing too much be­cause 2-4C is equiv­a­lent to a year of lost growth, and the chance of >4C of warm­ing is ‘small but sig­nifi­cant’.

2. Toby Ord up­dated his weight­ing to­ward cli­mate change in 2018

The text be­low is from the Fireside Chat with Toby Ord at EAG 2018. In this, Toby raises that the tail-risks are higher than many peo­ple think. It seems that one of the key re­searchers in EA (Toby) has up­dated their views on the sever­ity of cli­mate change.

Will Ma­caskill: Between cli­mate change and nu­clear win­ter, do you think cli­mate change is too ne­glected by EA?
Toby Ord: Yeah, ac­tu­ally, I think it prob­a­bly is.…
I think that there is some ex­is­ten­tial risk re­main­ing from nu­clear war and from cli­mate change… I think that the amount of warm­ing that could hap­pen from cli­mate change is re­ally un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated. The tail risk, the chance that the warm­ing is a lot worse than we ex­pect, is re­ally big. Even if you set aside the se­ri­ous risks of run­away cli­mate change, of big feed­backs from the methane clathrates or the per­mafrost, even if you set all of those things aside, sci­en­tists say that the es­ti­mate for if you dou­bled CO2 in the at­mo­sphere is three de­grees of warm­ing. And that’s what would hap­pen if you dou­bled it.
But if you look at the fine print, they say it’s ac­tu­ally from 1.5 de­grees to 4.5 de­grees. That’s a huge range. There’s a fac­tor of three be­tween those es­ti­mates, and that’s just a 66% con­fi­dence in­ter­val… They ac­tu­ally think there’s a one in six chance it’s more than 4.5 de­grees… I’m ac­tu­ally a lot more wor­ried about it than I was be­fore I started look­ing into this.

Even as­sum­ing that we stay within 2C of first or­der warm­ing (which we’re not on track to do) then >4.5C of warm­ing has a 17% prob­a­bil­ity. Given that we are nei­ther on track for 2C of first-or­der, and be­cause the >4C knock-on risk is so high, then I think Will’s lan­guage of ‘a small but sig­nifi­cant risk’ of >4C warm­ing does not rep­re­sent the is­sue ac­cu­rately.

3. The 80,000 Hours Pod­cast Epi­sode 50 has a brief dis­cus­sion of the im­pact of cli­mate change on food pro­duc­tion.

David Denken­berger: In the co­in­ci­dent ex­treme weather or mul­ti­ple bread­bas­ket failure, you have droughts or floods on mul­ti­ple con­ti­nents at once. There was a UK gov­ern­ment study on this that es­ti­mated right now, it might be around 1% chance per year, but with the slow cli­mate change… They were get­ting more like 80% chance of this cen­tury that some­thing like that would hap­pen.
Robert Wiblin: Wow. Okay.

At the time of writ­ing this, the only in­ter­view I’m aware of where cli­mate change miti­ga­tion is ex­ten­sively dis­cussed is with Pro­fes­sor Yew-Kwang Ng, where they ar­gue that in­ter­ven­tions to re­duce emis­sions are benefi­cial from an eco­nomic and welfare per­spec­tive be­cause of the short term gain/​long term harm im­pact of warm­ing.

4. Cli­mate change im­pacts welfare more than just de­lay­ing eco­nomic growth.

In the Do­ing Good Bet­ter cause re­view, the im­pacts are mostly equated to just lower growth, plus a tail-risk of civil­i­sa­tional col­lapse. How­ever, it seems that this doesn’t cap­ture the full brunt of the im­pacts un­der the main emis­sions tra­jec­to­ries. From the Stern Re­view, source here:

The Stern Re­view: By 2100, in South Asia and sub-Sa­haran Africa, up to 145 − 220 mil­lion ad­di­tional peo­ple could fall be­low the $2-a-day poverty line, and ev­ery year an ad­di­tional 165,000 − 250,000 chil­dren could die com­pared with a world with­out cli­mate change.

Cli­mate change will hit the poor­est peo­ple in so­ciety the hard­est, prob­a­bly in­creas­ing in­equal­ity, and dam­age many global sup­ply chains that peo­ple rely on—mak­ing ba­sic goods harder to ac­cess. A re­cent pa­per ar­gues that mosquito-born dis­eases could reach an­other billion peo­ple as the cli­mate warms.

5. Giv­ing What We Can ac­knowl­edges a lack of EA-al­igned re­search in this area

GWWC: Speci­fi­cally, there haven’t been any stud­ies in the past 16 years which quan­tify the im­pact of cli­mate change on global health in DALYs and in a per-tonne figure. Pro­duc­ing quan­ti­ta­tive es­ti­mates of the ex­act mor­tal­ity and mor­bidity im­pacts of cli­mate change (and of pre­sent emis­sions) is still a rel­a­tively ne­glected area.

6. Im­pli­ca­tions of cli­mate change are ab­sent from many 80,000 Hours Pod­casts dis­cussing fu­ture eco­nomic growth prospects

In this pod­cast, Tyler Cowen talks about max­imis­ing ‘sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth’, with no defi­ni­tion on what sus­tain­abil­ity means, de­spite the Stern Re­view high­light­ing the trade-off be­tween short-term and long-term growth. His im­pli­ca­tion is that we should all grow the econ­omy, rather than re­duce GHGs or im­prove re­silience/​adap­ta­tion.

The Stern Re­view: Us­ing the re­sults from for­mal eco­nomic mod­els, the Re­view es­ti­mates that if we don’t act, the over­all costs and risks of cli­mate change will be equiv­a­lent to los­ing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and for­ever. If a wider range of risks and im­pacts is taken into ac­count, the es­ti­mates of dam­age could rise to 20% of GDP or more. In con­trast, the costs of ac­tion – re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions to avoid the worst im­pacts of cli­mate change – can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.

In the most re­cent 80,000 Hours Pod­cast in­ter­view (at the time of writ­ing) on im­prov­ing the world through char­ter cities, there was no men­tion of cli­mate change, when adap­ta­tion and cli­mate re­silience is far be­hind where it needs to be.

How do these cities with huge pop­u­la­tions plan to deal with stresses on global wa­ter sup­plies, floods, and ris­ing tem­per­a­tures which are im­pact­ing cities around the world to­day?

For more in­for­ma­tion on how ris­ing sea lev­els and tem­per­a­tures will af­fect so­cieties and cities, I’d recom­mend this LRB re­view, and the book ‘Ex­treme Cities’.

Cli­mate change could mul­ti­ply very bad outcomes

7. Cli­mate change is bet­ter un­der­stood as an ex­is­ten­tial risk fac­tor.

Will Ma­caskill: Between cli­mate change and nu­clear win­ter, do you think cli­mate change is too ne­glected by EA?
Toby Ord: Yeah, ac­tu­ally, I think it prob­a­bly is...
I think the way to think about this is not that war it­self, or great power war, is an ex­is­ten­tial risk, but rather it’s some­thing else, which I call an ex­is­ten­tial risk fac­tor
I’ve been think­ing about all these things in terms of whether they could be ex­is­ten­tial risks, rather than whether they could lead to ter­rible situ­a­tions, which could then lead to other bad out­comes.

In this re­port, John Halstead views the causal­ity be­tween cli­mate change and other ex­is­ten­tial risks as difficult to nail down. He ar­gues that more emis­sions and warm­ing might cre­ate desta­bil­i­sa­tion and nu­clear war, but it’s hard to see ex­actly how.

It seems to me that this ‘ex­is­ten­tial risk fac­tor’ or ‘ex­is­ten­tial risk mul­ti­plier’ should be far from zero. I would ex­pect that global gov­ern­ments deal­ing with >4C of warm­ing in 100 years would face many do­mes­tic pres­sures, and that might make it harder to form agree­ments on disar­ma­ment treaties, or nan­otech­nol­ogy pro­to­cols, for ex­am­ple.

Another ex­am­ple could be biotech­nol­ogy—if hu­man­ity is adapt­ing to high lev­els of warm­ing, then this could in­crease the risk that a hos­tile group (per­haps dis­placed by cli­mate change) uses ad­vanced weaponry in a way that could be an ex­is­ten­tial risk.

In this re­view ar­ti­cle, refer­ence is made to se­nior US se­cu­rity offi­cials call­ing cli­mate change a ‘threat mul­ti­plier’, with the fol­low­ing quote from Todd Miller in his book, Storm­ing the Wall: Cli­mate Change, Mi­gra­tion and Home­land Se­cu­rity.

More dan­ger­ous than cli­mate dis­rup­tion was the cli­mate mi­grant. More dan­ger­ous than the drought were the peo­ple who can’t farm be­cause of the drought. More dan­ger­ous than the hur­ri­cane were the peo­ple dis­placed by the storm.

Cli­mate change could limit hu­man­ity’s potential

Or, if we take ex­is­ten­tial risks as those limit­ing hu­man­ity’s po­ten­tial, then con­flicts over re­sources in a world with 5-10C of warm­ing could lead to bad in­sti­tu­tional lock-in, over a few hun­dred years if not longer-term.

For ex­am­ple, the cap­i­tal city of Mon­go­lia, which has warmed by 2.2C, is not look­ing like a place with great MCE (moral cir­cle ex­pan­sion) prospects, or like some­where that can ded­i­cate lots of re­sources to x-risk gov­er­nance.

Cli­mate change could in­crease S-risk

It is also seems pos­si­ble to me that cli­mate change rises the chance of s-risk, e.g. through cre­at­ing global dy­nam­ics in the fu­ture on the ba­sis that we’ve failed to satis­fac­to­rily co­op­er­ate in re­solv­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion is­sues.

8. And some aca­demics work­ing on cli­mate change are pre­dict­ing near-term so­cial col­lapses.

The quote from be­low is from a draft pa­per by Dr Jem Ben­dell (Pro­fes­sor of Sus­tain­abil­ity Lead­er­ship and Founder of the In­sti­tute for Lead­er­ship and Sus­tain­abil­ity (IFLAS) at the Univer­sity of Cum­bria. So­cial col­lapse from cli­mate change in the next few decades might have a sig­nifi­cantly non-zero prob­a­bil­ity. The VICE write-up refer­ences other sus­tain­abil­ity pro­fes­sion­als who broadly agree.

That syn­the­sis leads to a con­clu­sion there will be a near-term col­lapse in so­ciety with se­ri­ous ram­ifi­ca­tions for the lives of read­ers. The pa­per re­views some of the rea­sons why col­lapse-de­nial may ex­ist, in par­tic­u­lar, in the pro­fes­sions of sus­tain­abil­ity re­search and prac­tice, there­fore lead­ing to these ar­gu­ments hav­ing been ab­sent from these fields un­til now.

I think that even if we dis­agree with the sever­ity of these con­clu­sions, we need to as­sign a sig­nifi­cantly non-zero prob­a­bil­ity to some so­cial col­lapse sce­nar­ios in the next few decades, and then act on that ba­sis (e.g. through im­pro­vis­ing re­silience).

Weak­nesses of a crude ap­pli­ca­tion of the ITN frame­work

I think that cli­mate change might have also been ne­glected be­cause of is­sues with the ITN frame­work of cause pri­ori­ti­sa­tion and some in­tel­lec­tual over­sight within early EA.

9. The Im­por­tance—Tractabil­ity—Ne­glect­ed­ness frame­work is flawed when it as­sumes the world is static.

As EA has moved from high im­pact in­di­vi­d­ual philan­thropy to think­ing about broader so­cial changes, I think it needs to ap­pre­ci­ate that the world is dy­namic. In pro­ject man­age­ment, you pri­ori­tise what you need to do based on the ur­gency of when to do them. A bet­ter frame­work would in­clude ur­gency—be­cause if cli­mate change desta­bil­ises civil­i­sa­tion, then it’s go­ing to be a lot harder to progress on moral cir­cle ex­pan­sion, for ex­am­ple. (Thanks to John Bach­e­lor for some thoughts on this, and the idea of ITNU).

And even Will Ma­caskill’s origi­nal anal­y­sis doesn’t rule out the pos­si­bil­ity that cli­mate change causes so­cial col­lapse. When we bring in the as­pect of time, cli­mate change is a more ur­gent prob­lem be­cause there is only around 10 years in which to halve emis­sions in or­der to avoid dan­ger­ous lev­els of cli­mate change. By con­trast, I think the ur­gency point might change our ap­proach to ne­glected trop­i­cal dis­eases, as these could still be cured in the fu­ture, and ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy may make this even eas­ier.

But on cur­rent warm­ing tra­jec­to­ries, it looks like civil­i­sa­tion could be very differ­ent in 100 years, and pos­si­bly much worse, with an in­creased risk of lock-in. So the sooner we tackle cli­mate change the bet­ter.

10. Creative effec­tive al­tru­ists could have a big im­pact in this challeng­ing field.

I think this was well ex­pressed by Chris­tine Peter­son.

Chris­tine Peter­son: My ini­tial ex­po­sure to effec­tive al­tru­ism was to some of the ear­liest doc­u­ments and the ear­liest vi­sions, and there was in some of those, there was a very high em­pha­sis on mea­sure­ment… How­ever, some­how I got the im­pres­sion that it was over-em­pha­sized, and that effec­tive al­tru­ists were per­haps overly fo­cused on mea­sure­ment, overly fo­cused on near-term goals, and I … My gut re­ac­tion was, no, no. You guys are the most in­tel­li­gent, most am­bi­tious, most en­er­getic. You’re at a time of your life where you don’t have a lot of bur­dens on you. You don’t, you’re not rais­ing kids yet. Now is not the time to fo­cus on near-term, easy to mea­sure goals. Now is the time to take on the biggest, hard­est, most rev­olu­tion­ary things you pos­si­bly can, and throw your­selves at them, be­cause some of you will suc­ceed.

To take a prac­ti­cal ex­am­ple, what is the 200 year effect of AMF when there are wa­ter short­ages and heat­waves in the fu­ture, com­pared to the 200 year effect of a GHG re­duc­tion ini­ti­a­tive, car­bon cap­ture pro­gram, and a wa­ter de­sal­i­na­tion plant? This in­tel­lec­tual her­i­tage and the fo­cus on short-term num­bers and re­sults in­fluenced by the short-term world of hedge funds, and this ap­proach could be at the detri­ment of miss­ing out on broader changes.

For this rea­son, we should be think­ing about in­fras­truc­ture, and long-term changes to so­ciety, such as ad­vo­cat­ing for MCE across all sen­tient life. Parfit drew a lot of at­ten­tion to long-term welfare threats from cli­mate change in his work, such as in this talk at Har­vard EA.

11. EA has a bias to­wards in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing ab­stract prob­lems, and cli­mate change is more emo­tively drain­ing and per­haps more bor­ing than oth­ers.

It’s grim to con­sider how your own neigh­bour­hood is go­ing to have to start ra­tioning wa­ter within the next two decades, if not sooner, or to as­sign the prob­a­bil­ity of so­cial col­lapse for where you live in your life­time from cli­mate change.

If you work on risks from nu­clear war, then the odds of this hap­pen­ing next year are quite low, so you can prob­a­bly go about your life un­changed. But 2019, and the next year, and the next, the world will get in­creas­ingly hot­ter.

Em­piri­cal ideas about tack­ling cli­mate change

12. Cli­mate change re­duc­tion could be tractable for many EA read­ers.

Some re­cent posts on this fo­rum have shown how com­pet­i­tive ap­pli­ca­tions for top EA orgs can be, and 80,000 Hours now has read­er­ship of 3m. While a small share of EA fo­rum and 80,000 Hours read­ers might go into biolog­i­cal se­cu­rity and AI re­search, I think a lot can do things to re­duce cli­mate change, e.g. through pe­ti­tions, com­mu­nity work, re­search, di­vest­ment, and many oth­ers—so there are lots of points of at­tack on the prob­lem.

Listen­ers to 80,000 Hours and peo­ple in­volved in EA could do many things:

  • Work at ma­jor en­ergy com­pa­nies on re­duc­ing emissions

  • Develop low-car­bon technology

  • Work on policy ad­vo­cacy in ne­glected areas

  • Cli­mate modelling

  • Re­search on re­duc­ing the risk of so­cial collapse

  • Risk as­sess­ments on flood, heat, fire, and im­pacts to biodiversity

  • Adap­ta­tion and re­silience work to adapt to less wa­ter, and more effi­cient agriculture

13. Im­proved tech­nol­ogy could re­solve the col­lec­tive ac­tion prob­lems of cli­mate change.

The 80,000 Hours cli­mate change page ar­gues that it could be less tractable be­cause of the free rider prob­lem. With im­proved mon­i­tor­ing of emis­sions from space, this may help tackle the free rider prob­lem, and break­throughs in de­car­bon­is­ing in­dus­try could help im­prove effi­ciency. If we take an Elinor Ostrom view, we might be able to build the com­po­nents to re­solve the col­lec­tive ac­tion prob­lems with im­proved tech.

14. There is in­creas­ing pub­lic in­ter­est in cli­mate change.

It is true that cli­mate change is not very ne­glected, and this gives a good ar­gu­ment against work­ing on it, rel­a­tive to ar­eas like biorisk. On the up­side, the pop­u­lar­ity of cli­mate change means that so­ciety already wants to ded­i­cate an huge and in­creas­ing amount of re­sources to tackle this prob­lem.

With global record tem­per­a­tures in 2018 (which seem likely to be yet higher this year), and the BBC chang­ing its guidelines over re­port­ing on cli­mate change (with a David At­ten­bor­ough-pre­sented doc­u­men­tary com­ing out on Thurs­day 18th April), it seems likely to me that there will be huge pub­lic in­ter­est and re­sources which can be al­lo­cated to this prob­lem.

Even if the high­est amount of value of EA is in al­lo­cat­ing 0.01% of global re­sources from peo­ple who can be per­suaded to think about x-risk /​ MCE/​ etc., then if we can cap­ture some of the re­sources flow­ing to tack­ling cli­mate and use things like the ITN frame­work, then this could cre­ate a huge amount of value. Or, if we can in­crease the amount hu­man­ity’s re­sources as a whole ded­i­cated to cli­mate change (rather than lux­ury goods), then this seems highly valuable.

This could also make the so­cial con­ta­gion of cli­mate change re­duc­tion ini­ti­a­tives very high. With ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, your 10% GWWC plan to AMF might fail to mo­ti­vate other peo­ple ap­a­thetic about cli­mate change in your so­cial cir­cle, but if it was 10% to CATF, CFRN, or Cli­mate Works, then you might be able to in­spire many oth­ers. Anec­do­tally, I found that when I Googled “giv­ing what we can”, the most pop­u­lar au­to­com­plete line was for “cli­mate change”, and the friends who I’ve bought Do­ing Good Bet­ter for set up dona­tions to Cool Earth.

15. Even the wealthiest coun­tries are woe­fully be­hind on adap­ta­tion, and this could per­haps be tractable.

Per­haps as a re­sult of failing to weight the fu­ture cor­rectly, and con­fu­sion over the ex­tent of cli­mate change, even some of the rich­est coun­tries in the world are be­hind where they need to be to main­tain cur­rent lev­els of welfare.

Water short­ages are ex­pected in the UK in the next 25 years. How­ever, more re­silient global in­fras­truc­ture (e.g. wa­ter, en­ergy, food) plus in­no­va­tion in this space (e.g. through wa­ter de­sal­i­na­tion) could be highly tractable.

Lack of en­gage­ment with cli­mate change could dam­age EA

16. In­di­vi­d­u­als com­ing to EA might be put-off by the lack of en­gage­ment with cli­mate change.

In look­ing for EA ma­te­rial on cli­mate change, I found the GWWC page hadn’t been up­dated since 2013, and that 80,000 Hours has very lit­tle ma­te­rial on 2-4C of warm­ing, and in­stead chunks up its anal­y­sis of cli­mate change into fo­cus­ing on tail risk. I came to EA try­ing to work out whether I should fo­cus on cli­mate change or an­i­mal welfare, but I’ve been sur­prised by the lack of de­tail on cli­mate change, given the huge pub­lic in­ter­est in it. And this has been frus­trat­ing.

Hav­ing listened to the 80,000 Hours Pod­cast, and listened to Parfit’s ex­tinc­tion ar­gu­ment, I agree that it is much more im­por­tant to work on x-risk (and s-risk), but I won­der whether we are alienat­ing po­ten­tial EAs by not grap­pling with this is­sue.

17. High­light­ing that cli­mate change is prob­a­bly not an ex­tinc­tion risk could re­duce fatalism

As be­fore, I agree with John Halstead’s view that is it not an ex­is­ten­tial risk, and that broadly we can adapt to cli­mate change, and thrive in the long re­flec­tion were there no other ex­is­ten­tial risks. But many of my friends do not agree with this—they would ask what the point of pre­serv­ing the fu­ture if cli­mate change will make it much less pos­i­tive than our cur­rent lives. A BBC ar­ti­cle de­scribes a rise in eco-anx­iety, and feel­ings of de­spon­dency.

But if we can help craft a nar­ra­tive about how civil­i­sa­tion can get through its pre­sent challenges, then we could have a long and flour­ish­ing fu­ture. This pos­i­tivity is one of the many things I love about Parfit and about EA in gen­eral. This might also help re­duce fatal­ism and in­crease the num­ber of peo­ple mo­ti­vated to work on im­prov­ing the long-term fu­ture.

Things I’m un­cer­tain about

  • Whether the scale/​ ne­glect­ed­ness/​ tractabil­ity frame­work should be re­vis­ited or re­placed with a more dy­namic model—ITNU with U for ur­gency

  • Whether cli­mate change can ac­tu­ally be tack­led meaningfully

  • What the level of pub­lic sup­port is for cli­mate change mitigation

  • How much trac­tion there has been with donors for cli­mate change

  • Pros/​cons of soft broad EA on cli­mate change, vs nar­row EA on x-risk

  • Whether bio­di­ver­sity loss is a sig­nifi­cant long-term problem

  • How well we can adapt to cli­mate change over com­ing decades

  • How likely is civil­i­sa­tional col­lapse, or wors­en­ing of morals

  • How cli­mate change could im­pact ex­is­ten­tial risk

  • Whether cli­mate adap­ta­tion could also be po­ten­tially high value for EAs


To sum­marise, I think the im­por­tance/​scale of cli­mate change is un­der­val­ued within EA, the low ne­glect­ed­ness is a good ar­gu­ment against work­ing on it but does mean there is a lot of available re­source, and the tractabil­ity of cli­mate change could be higher than thought. When the ITN(U) frame­work in­cludes ur­gency in se­quenc­ing effec­tive ac­tion, this pri­ori­tises is­sues which can shape the eth­i­cal tra­jec­to­ries of civil­i­sa­tions.

I agree cli­mate change is not an x-risk, and though EA shouldn’t fo­cus on it, we should prob­a­bly dis­cuss it a bit more and bring our crit­i­cal think­ing to help solve the prob­lem more effi­ciently. Not dis­cussing it seems like at best an over­sight, and at worst, harm­ful.

But I’m re­ally un­sure about all of this, and would like to learn more.

Thanks for read­ing and I would ap­pre­ci­ate your thoughts, and any recom­mended read­ing! Like I said ear­lier, I’m think­ing about where my al­lo­cate my time to do the most good. I do see ex­is­ten­tial risk re­duc­tion and the reg­u­la­tion of new tech­nol­ogy as ex­tremely high im­pact, but I won­der whether there’s some more value to be un­locked here in tack­ling cli­mate change.

Fur­ther reading

Cli­mate change

As an x-risk

Tak­ing an EA ap­proach to cli­mate change

  • As be­fore, the Founders Pledge pa­per on cli­mate change

  • The 80,000 Hours page here (which I dis­cuss above)

  • Elinor Ostrom’s pro­file, 1990 book Govern­ing the Com­mons, and No­bel Prize speech

Eco­nomics and cli­mate change

Some or­gani­sa­tions work­ing on this

I also wrote a short ar­ti­cle com­par­ing differ­ent ways for in­di­vi­d­u­als to re­duce their own car­bon foot­print.