Johannes Ackva: An update to our thinking on climate change

In this talk and Q&A, Jo­hannes Ackva, a re­searcher at Founders Pledge, pre­sents the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s think­ing on effec­tive cli­mate solu­tions. He shares in­sights from their lat­est re­search, in­clud­ing a novel fram­ing of the is­sue, key con­clu­sions from their re­port on cli­mate and lifestyle, up­dates on their re­search on high-im­pact char­i­ties, and more.

We’ve lightly ed­ited Jo­hannes’ talk for clar­ity. You can also watch it on YouTube and read it on effec­tivealtru­ism.org.

The Talk

Ar­den Koehler (Moder­a­tor): Hello, I’m Ar­den. Wel­come to this ses­sion on cli­mate change with Jo­hannes Ackva. Fol­low­ing a 20-minute talk by Jo­hannes, we’ll move to a live Q&A ses­sion in which he will re­spond to [au­di­ence mem­bers’] ques­tions. [...]

Let me in­tro­duce the speaker for this ses­sion. Jo­hannes Ackva has been in­volved in en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivism since his teens. He joined the re­search team at Founders Pledge last year, bring­ing five years of ex­pe­rience work­ing in a think tank, where he ad­vised de­ci­sion mak­ers on cli­mate policy. He first started think­ing about cli­mate from an EA [effec­tive al­tru­ism] per­spec­tive in 2016 as a side pro­ject, and now it’s the fo­cus of his re­search at Founders Pledge.

Jo­hannes holds an MA in so­cial sci­ences from the Univer­sity of Chicago and an MSc in so­ciol­ogy with a fo­cus on re­search meth­ods from the Univer­sity of Gron­ingen. Here’s Jo­hannes.

Jo­hannes: Hello ev­ery­one, my name is Jo­hannes Ackva, I’m with Founders Pledge and I’m look­ing for­ward to talk­ing with you about how we think about cli­mate change and what we think we should do about cli­mate change from an effec­tive al­tru­ism per­spec­tive.


Ackva2

I’ll start with a con­clu­sion. We think the best thing to do around cli­mate is fund­ing char­i­ties with lev­er­age on global emis­sions. Over the course of this pre­sen­ta­tion, I’m go­ing to ex­plain how we [ar­rived] there and what this means con­cretely, but this is my top-level mes­sage.

Ackva3

What can you ac­tu­ally do about cli­mate change? The nat­u­ral thing to think of first is our lifestyle de­ci­sions, like chang­ing our con­sump­tion be­hav­ior, switch­ing to elec­tric cars, fly­ing less, buy­ing cleaner en­ergy, et cetera.

Ackva4

Our cli­mate lifestyle re­port shows the im­pact of this [and in­cludes the as­sump­tion] that you’re in­spiring 10 other peo­ple to do the same thing. For ex­am­ple, by switch­ing to an elec­tric car and in­spiring 10 other peo­ple to do the same, you can save around 20 tons of car­bon.

Let’s com­pare this to donat­ing $1,000 to our top cli­mate char­i­ties. In this case, our as­sump­tions are very pes­simistic; [we’ve as­sumed that] you’re not go­ing to in­spire any­one else. And even though the cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mate [for lifestyle de­ci­sions] is [mul­ti­plied by 10 as a re­sult of the above as­sump­tion], a $1,000 dona­tion has 100 times the im­pact on cli­mate.

The point of this is not that you shouldn’t make lifestyle changes. The point is that when you think about the ac­tions available to you, [you should con­sider] dona­tions as well, be­cause they’re very im­por­tant and al­low you to lev­er­age [your im­pact] far be­yond what you can do by chang­ing your lifestyle. [There’s much more in the] re­port, but this is the [mes­sage I’m em­pha­siz­ing] to­day.

The key phrase is, of course, “our cli­mate char­i­ties.” Like other good EA or­ga­ni­za­tions, we be­lieve that the very best char­i­ties are 10 to 100 times bet­ter than the worst char­i­ties, or even av­er­age char­i­ties. But to un­der­stand which char­i­ties are the very best, we need to un­der­stand the na­ture of the challenge, which af­fects the strate­gies and char­i­ties in [the cli­mate change] space.

Ackva5

The first thing to know is that cli­mate change is [about more than the cli­mate], even though we talk about that the most. It’s part of a triple challenge, be­cause cli­mate change is mostly about solv­ing an en­ergy prob­lem.

Ackva6

Car­bon en­ergy con­tributes to about 80% of global hu­man-based emis­sions. This is key, and it in­ter­acts with other is­sues that I’m go­ing to talk about.

Be­fore I do, though: we’re cur­rently on a path [lead­ing to] three de­grees of warm­ing, and there’s a more than 1% chance [that we’ll ex­pe­rience] six de­grees of warm­ing. Three de­grees would cer­tainly be re­ally bad. Six de­grees of warm­ing would cre­ate an al­most uni­mag­in­ably differ­ent world from the one that we’re liv­ing in now.

Ackva7

Of course, we also want to know ex­actly how bad this could be. And how does this [threat] com­pare to other is­sues that [the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity] cares about?

I think there have been roughly three kinds of ques­tions posed in re­la­tion to that in the EA com­mu­nity:

1. Is cli­mate change a di­rect ex­is­ten­tial risk? I think that there’s a bit of dis­agree­ment. In 2019, Neil Bow­er­man gave a talk at EA Global in which he came to the con­clu­sion that it could be, even though it’s un­likely. And there’s prior work my col­leagues have done in-house; they sep­a­rately came to the con­clu­sion that it’s prob­a­bly not. In any case, this is not a very likely sce­nario.
2. Is cli­mate change an in­di­rect ex­is­ten­tial risk? There is agree­ment that there could be in­di­rect ex­is­ten­tial risk fac­tors re­lated to cli­mate change — and that this is wor­ri­some. Cli­mate change can in­crease poli­ti­cal in­sta­bil­ity and con­flict, which makes other ex­is­ten­tial risks, such as great-power risk, more likely. But as far as I know, there’s no solid quan­tifi­ca­tion of the ex­tent to which that adds to the im­por­tance of cli­mate change in our think­ing. This is very much a re­search fron­tier, and un­for­tu­nately, I can’t say any­thing smart about it right now.
3. How does cli­mate change com­pare to more near-term in­ter­ven­tions, such as global health in­ter­ven­tions? Hauke Hille­brandt made the ar­gu­ment in 2019 that it prob­a­bly com­pares rel­a­tively poorly. My col­league Stephen Clare and I are also work­ing on this ques­tion. [Our over­all] view is that it de­pends; ac­tu­ally, it’s quite imag­in­able that cli­mate com­pares very fa­vor­ably. The main differ­ence is [in how we calcu­late the] so­cial cost of car­bon. I can go into more de­tail on this in the Q&A.

Ackva8

This is just the first part of the triple challenge.

Ackva9

The sec­ond part is air pol­lu­tion. There are at least 5 mil­lion pre­ma­ture deaths per year from air pol­lu­tion, [an out­come that] is split rather evenly be­tween [fos­sil fuel-based] air pol­lu­tion and in­door air pol­lu­tion from bio­mass. This is a sig­nifi­cant pub­lic health prob­lem — one that we talk about much, much less than cli­mate change. But from a near-term per­spec­tive, air pol­lu­tion is of similar im­por­tance. And you can see this [on the slide be­low].

Ackva10

The x axis [shows the pas­sage of] time, and [the y axis] shows the [im­pact of hu­man health co-benefits on the evolu­tion of global cli­mate policy]. The benefits in red are those re­lated to air pol­lu­tion, and the benefits in blue are re­lated to more con­ven­tional [im­pacts of cli­mate change]. As you can see, for at least the next few decades, the air pol­lu­tion benefits out­weigh the cli­mate benefits. This changes over time be­cause [there’s a lag with many] cli­mate im­pacts, but there’s strong rea­son to think that air pol­lu­tion is an im­por­tant [con­sid­er­a­tion]. We’re [plan­ning to pub­lish] work on this later this year; we’ve come to the rough con­clu­sion that this co-benefit can be a sig­nifi­cant ad­di­tion to the cost-effec­tive­ness of cli­mate char­i­ties.

Ackva11

The third part of the triple challenge is around en­ergy poverty. Right now, about 3 billion peo­ple are cook­ing with bio­mass, and one billion peo­ple don’t have ac­cess to elec­tric­ity. Th­ese statis­tics hide a much wider amount of en­ergy poverty. This is im­por­tant be­cause hav­ing more en­ergy is very closely tied to hu­man de­vel­op­ment.

Ackva12

This graph [shows] the hu­man de­vel­op­ment in­dex [rel­a­tive to] our en­ergy foot­print. Most of the global poor [are rep­re­sented] in the area of the graph be­tween zero and 100 [on the y axis]. That [in­di­cates] a very strong re­la­tion­ship be­tween hav­ing more en­ergy and bet­ter hu­man de­vel­op­ment. This is not a one-way street in terms of causal­ity; if you’re work­ing for a world where the av­er­age hu­man is much richer than they are to­day (es­pe­cially the global poor), you should ex­pect the global en­ergy de­mand to mas­sively in­crease.

Ackva13

The bot­tom line, when think­ing about cli­mate as a triple challenge, is that the very best cli­mate op­por­tu­ni­ties solve for much more than just cli­mate. They have other sig­nifi­cant benefits, and we also need to look for solu­tions that work in a world where en­ergy de­mand is in­creas­ing. In­creas­ing clean en­ergy can also help with en­ergy poverty — but it also some­times cre­ates ten­sion. That’s some­thing to be aware of.

Ackva14

So how are we ac­tu­ally do­ing? Where are we in ad­dress­ing the prob­lem of cli­mate and the re­lated prob­lems around en­ergy poverty and air pol­lu­tion?

Ackva15

En­ergy growth has, to this point, [pri­mar­ily been] fos­sil fuel growth. You can see in this graph that en­ergy de­mand has mas­sively in­creased since 1950. Low-car­bon en­ergy is about 10% right now, and that hasn’t changed very much. So­lar and wind have gone up, but over­all, low-car­bon sources have gone down, and their share [of en­ergy growth] is still very low. That’s where we are right now.

Ackva16

This is a beau­tiful chart [show­ing] where we need to go. Essen­tially, if you take cli­mate policy tar­gets se­ri­ously, by about 2050, 90% of high-car­bon en­ergy needs to go down to zero. At the same time, by the end of the cen­tury, we need to dou­ble — or maybe even triple — the over­all amount of low-car­bon en­ergy. This gives you a sense of how vast this challenge re­ally is. It’s daunt­ing.

Ackva17

For me, the key mes­sage from this is to look for solu­tions that can make an im­pact on global emis­sions — and that are as effec­tive as pos­si­ble. If we all do just a lit­tle bit, [or im­ple­ment solu­tions] that are just okay (but not great), we’re not go­ing to solve this prob­lem. This is where the im­pe­tus for find­ing the high­est-im­pact op­tions comes from.

Ackva18

There are three differ­ent strate­gies that we think can [provide] global lev­er­age:

Ackva19

The first is cli­mate fi­nance. Fi­nanc­ing emis­sions abate­ment in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries could be high-im­pact; it tar­gets lo­ca­tions where emis­sions rise, where avoid­ing emis­sions is usu­ally cheap, and where it’s of­ten difficult to [take ac­tion] at the re­quired scale. But there seems to be very lit­tle ap­petite for fund­ing this — for ex­am­ple, the Green Cli­mate Fund has the goal of reach­ing $100 billion per year to dis­perse to­ward in­ter­na­tional cli­mate fi­nance, but has only col­lected about $10 billion (and that’s in to­tal, not per year).

There are also very real is­sues that make [cli­mate fi­nance] hard: the de­gree of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion re­quired and the need to [fre­quently de­ter­mine] which ad­di­tional cli­mate ac­tions to fi­nance. Rea­son­ing about coun­ter­fac­tu­als is hard in the best of wor­lds, but with over 200 coun­tries and so many differ­ent in­ter­ests, it’s even harder. This is not to say that there can­not be effec­tive solu­tions. But it’s not as good as it looks at first glance — which ex­pe­rience with the Clean Devel­op­ment Mechanism has shown.

Ackva20

The sec­ond highly effec­tive lever is policy lead­er­ship in high-in­come coun­tries. This is not mo­ti­vated by the emis­sions math in those coun­tries, be­cause as I’ve shown, most of the growth in emis­sions is not go­ing to be in OECD [Or­gani­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment] coun­tries. And the OECD economies of­ten already have strong cli­mate policy in place, so you should be quite skep­ti­cal. But — and this is a big “but” — it can be very effec­tive if there’s a strong dom­ino effect, and a lot of other coun­tries adopt similar poli­cies in re­duc­ing emis­sions. We’re cur­rently in­ves­ti­gat­ing one char­ity that falls into this bucket: the Cli­mate Lead­er­ship Coun­cil. The dom­ino effect [is at the heart of] the ar­gu­ment in their TED Talk. The idea is to push car­bon pric­ing in the US, in­spiring other coun­tries to fol­low suit. We’re also in­ves­ti­gat­ing the trade com­po­nent. I’d be happy to talk more about this dur­ing the [Q&A].

Ackva21

The third lever, which has been the pri­mary lever that we’ve been work­ing on, is en­ergy in­no­va­tion. Why would this be great? It’s a lever that works in a world of ris­ing en­ergy de­mand and low co­or­di­na­tion. Essen­tially, a few coun­tries could de­cide that they wanted to make so­lar and wind en­ergy cheap. And they did that. This changed the game, which makes this an at­trac­tive [op­tion].

But the ques­tion, of course, is, why should we fo­cus on that now? You could say that it’s not nec­es­sary any­more, be­cause wind and so­lar have already suc­ceeded. Or you could say it’s too late, be­cause [the prob­lem of] cli­mate change is too ur­gent. So we need a bit more jus­tifi­ca­tion for why [en­ergy in­no­va­tion] would be such a good lever. That’s what I’m go­ing to talk about next.

Ackva22

First, in the cur­rent cli­mate policy situ­a­tion, we’re still quite far from the goal of net-zero emis­sions. About a quar­ter of emis­sions are from clas­si­cal in­dus­trial sec­tors like iron and steel, ce­ment, elec­tric­ity, avi­a­tion, and ship­ping. Ex­ist­ing solu­tions to de­car­bonize those are not great. They’re ei­ther too ex­pen­sive or not scal­able — or both. We need more tech­nolog­i­cal in­no­va­tion in those spaces.

Ackva23

The challenge is much deeper, though. [Re­searchers at] the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency, which pro­vided the anal­y­sis [in the slide above], think that only seven out of the 39 tech­nolo­gies [deemed] nec­es­sary for cli­mate suc­cess are on track.

Ackva24

It makes sense to look at those seven, [which in­clude] so­lar, elec­tric ve­hi­cles, rail, and light­ing — a lot of tech­nolo­gies that we know and like. We think this is no co­in­ci­dence. Many of these suc­cess sto­ries are tech­nolo­gies that have been widely pop­u­lar for a long time — long be­fore they were eco­nom­i­cally vi­able. For ex­am­ple, so­lar has ar­guably been very pop­u­lar since the 1970s, which has en­abled a lot of sup­port for in­no­va­tion policy and de­ploy­ment sub­sidies. Both of those have re­ally helped to drive down the cost of those tech­nolo­gies and make them com­pet­i­tive. But we must pay more at­ten­tion to the ne­glected tech­nolo­gies.

Ackva25

[This slide shows] spend­ing in the US by ma­jor philan­thropists per mega­ton [of emis­sions] averted, by tech­nol­ogy. You can see there has been a lot of fund­ing for so­lar and wind, light duty trans­port, elec­tric cars, forestry, and en­ergy effi­ciency, but al­most no sup­port for car­bon cap­ture and stor­age, or to de­car­bonize the heavy duty trans­port, in­dus­trial, and nu­clear sec­tors. This is tragic be­cause [im­prov­ing] all of these tech­nolo­gies is nec­es­sary to get to zero emis­sions. We need to shift at least some of the philan­thropic at­ten­tion to [the ne­glected ar­eas in or­der to] go for­ward. There’s huge lev­er­age to be had there.

Ackva26

This is our main con­clu­sion about in­no­va­tion: We need to take the same steps we’ve already taken in so­lar and wind for other tech­nolo­gies. The good news is we be­lieve that’s [fea­si­ble].

Ackva27

There­fore, our top char­ity in the space is the Clean Air Task Force, which com­bines three things. It’s fo­cused on:

1. Ne­glected tech­nolo­gies
2. In­no­va­tion (i.e. mak­ing those ne­glected tech­nolo­gies bet­ter)
3. Ad­vo­cacy (i.e. in­fluenc­ing Amer­i­can en­ergy in­no­va­tion policy)

The com­bi­na­tion of those three differ­ent el­e­ments makes us think that this is an out­stand­ing op­por­tu­nity in the cli­mate space and can very likely abate a ton of car­bon for $1 (and prob­a­bly quite a bit less). We’re also look­ing at other op­por­tu­ni­ties that go in similar di­rec­tions.

Ackva28

But to zoom out, the key take­aways from this talk are:

Ackva29

1. Cli­mate is deeply in­ter­wo­ven with other causes and this [af­fects] how we think about it from an EA per­spec­tive.
2. Im­pact­ful cli­mate philan­thropy is re­ally about lev­er­age on global emis­sions.
3. There are var­i­ous strate­gies to achieve lev­er­age. I talked more about en­ergy in­no­va­tion, but not for any in­her­ent rea­son; it makes sense to look at other solu­tions, like policy lead­er­ship and cli­mate fi­nance, as well. The im­por­tant thing is that it’s plau­si­ble to achieve lev­er­age on global emis­sions in a very cost-effec­tive way.

This is where my talk ends. I’m look­ing for­ward to dis­cussing this more and hear­ing from you. Thank you very much.

Ar­den: Thanks for the talk, Jo­hannes. I see we have a num­ber of ques­tions [from the au­di­ence] already, so let’s start with the first one. In your talk, you dis­cussed the fund­ing gap for en­ergy in­no­va­tion, es­pe­cially when it comes to ne­glected tech­nolo­gies like ad­vanced nu­clear. Is there other low-hang­ing fruit for ad­dress­ing cli­mate change that you think EAs should work on?

Jo­hannes: Ab­solutely. On the re­search side, we’re cur­rently look­ing at more op­por­tu­ni­ties in en­ergy in­no­va­tion, but there are other strate­gies that I high­lighted in my talk that we’ve spent less time think­ing about. In par­tic­u­lar, I think it would make sense to [de­ter­mine] whether policy is a space in which there are highly effec­tive op­tions.

Similarly, I think [EAs could look for] op­tions to in­crease in­ter­na­tional cli­mate gov­er­nance and in­ter­na­tional cli­mate fi­nance. Those are the re­search fron­tiers in terms of EA recom­men­da­tions, but I do want to stress that right now there’s still a [huge] fund­ing gap to be filled in en­ergy in­no­va­tion. I think en­ergy in­no­va­tion should be our fo­cus in terms of what we’re try­ing to fund at this point.

Ar­den: The sec­ond ques­tion: Do you see any com­mon ground be­tween the effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ment and move­ments like Ex­tinc­tion Re­bel­lion?

Jo­hannes: I think there’s some com­mon ground, but it’s fairly limited. Some­thing that I would like to un­der­stand bet­ter is what role these broad cli­mate move­ments [play]. From what I know so far — es­pe­cially with move­ments such as ex­tinc­tion re­bel­lion — they’re of­ten not very closely tied to sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion. A lot of the ad­vo­cacy and pres­sure go in the right di­rec­tion, [fo­cus­ing] more at­ten­tion on cli­mate, but of­ten in a way that is re­moved from the sci­ence. For ex­am­ple, the claim that we need to reach net-zero emis­sions by 2030 is some­thing that [those par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the] ex­tinc­tion re­bel­lion move­ment would say, and it’s not the re­sult of cli­mate sci­ence. Th­ese kinds of things make me skep­ti­cal.

Also, these are very broad move­ments. I tend to be­lieve that the main prob­lem with cli­mate change is not the lack of over­all so­cietal at­ten­tion, but rather a lack of effec­tively fo­cused ac­tion. This is why I think sup­port­ing highly effec­tive ad­vo­cacy char­i­ties is prob­a­bly more im­pact­ful at the mar­gin. At the same time, those move­ments are, of course, use­ful, be­cause they in­crease the over­all at­ten­tion [that goes to] to the is­sue.

Ar­den: I sup­pose in­creas­ing the over­all at­ten­tion will prob­a­bly [be benefi­cial], un­less there’s some rea­son to think it won’t [di­rect] at­ten­tion to [solu­tions that are] low-hang­ing fruits and those that we think are most effec­tive.

Jo­hannes: I would dis­agree a bit. I do think there are ways to in­crease over­all at­ten­tion that are ac­tu­ally coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. [One ex­am­ple is] fram­ing that is [pre­sented in] catas­trophic or ex­tremely ur­gent [terms] — for ex­am­ple, a fram­ing like, “We have to act now to cut emis­sions in half by 2030.” That weak­ens the en­ergy in­no­va­tion ar­gu­ment and pub­lic dis­course, be­cause it’s easy to then say, “We have to throw ev­ery­thing into act­ing right now. We don’t have to do the smart things that are good for de­car­boniz­ing by 2050.”

Also, in my home coun­try, Ger­many, Fri­days for Fu­ture es­sen­tially has been co-opted by the gen­eral green main­stream, which is heav­ily anti-nu­clear and anti-car­bon cap­ture. Even though that su­perfi­cially in­creases at­ten­tion to the is­sue [of cli­mate change], you’re not re­ally im­prov­ing the solu­tions [be­ing sought]. So the effect is not nec­es­sar­ily one-to-one pos­i­tive.

Ar­den: That’s a helpful clar­ifi­ca­tion. Speak­ing of catas­trophic fram­ing, do you have thoughts on cli­mate change in­creas­ing global in­sta­bil­ity, and there­fore driv­ing other catas­trophic risks? I know you men­tioned in the talk that peo­ple think it’s plau­si­ble that cli­mate change is a risk fac­tor for other catas­trophic risks, but could you say more about that — es­pe­cially [re­gard­ing the risk of] global in­sta­bil­ity?

Jo­hannes: I think ev­ery­one agrees [that’s an is­sue], but it’s re­ally hard [to quan­tify]. I do think that if you’re wor­ried about cli­mate from a longter­mist per­spec­tive, [the po­ten­tial for global in­sta­bil­ity is] the main rea­son [for con­cern]; there’s a lot to be de­cided in the next 200 years, and cli­mate change could be a sig­nifi­cant driver of con­flict, mass dis­place­ment, etc., in that time. It’s a very se­ri­ous con­cern. But I do find it hard to be more pre­cise.

I also think, in the wider dis­cus­sion of cli­mate risks be­yond the EA com­mu­nity, that [global in­sta­bil­ity] is of­ten used as a jus­tifi­ca­tion to mod­ify ac­tion on cli­mate change — for ex­am­ple, with “threat mul­ti­plier” fram­ing. On the one hand, I’m quite con­fi­dent that this is a sig­nifi­cant part of the rea­son we should care about cli­mate change. On the other hand, I do have a cer­tain amount of skep­ti­cism, be­cause [the ex­tent of the threat] is es­sen­tially un­know­able, and [there are cur­rently few] in­cen­tives [in place] to find the op­ti­mal truth. So I think this is a re­search fron­tier.

Ar­den: But it sounds like you’re not that op­ti­mistic about it; you said that [de­ter­min­ing] how big the effect is seems un­know­able.

Jo­hannes: Yes, be­cause this is way more com­pli­cated than cli­mate physics.

Ar­den: Which is already pretty com­pli­cated.

Jo­hannes: Yes. I think the is­sue is com­pli­cated be­cause we know that re­ac­tions, even to rel­a­tively small dis­tur­bances, can be am­plified in so­cietal pro­cesses. How does cli­mate change trans­late into en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts? How se­vere are those for hu­man so­cieties? There are huge un­cer­tain­ties around how so­ciety re­acts. It’s pos­si­ble to con­struct a plau­si­ble story in which this could be re­ally bad; it’s also pos­si­ble to con­struct a plau­si­ble story in which this is not a big is­sue. And it’s hard to make progress on that [re­search topic]. I think it would take a lot of effort and ad­di­tional re­search.

Ar­den: Yeah, or maybe an in­no­va­tive way of go­ing about it.

Another pop­u­lar [au­di­ence] com­ment is this: It seems like fac­tory farm­ing and meat con­sump­tion aren’t a big part of the cli­mate con­ver­sa­tion. I’m not sure if this ques­tion [per­tains to] the broader con­ver­sa­tion or to your talk in par­tic­u­lar, but could you [ad­dress] why that is, in both cases?

Jo­hannes: Ac­tu­ally, I think it has be­come quite a big part of the broader con­ver­sa­tion over the last three or four years. For en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, in prin­ci­ple, it’s easy to blame big busi­ness. It’s much harder to blame con­sump­tion spaces in terms of the poli­tics; most mem­bers of Green­peace, for ex­am­ple, eat meat. That’s why they haven’t fo­cused very much on it.

There are two kinds of emis­sions that are mostly re­lated to meat con­sump­tion. One is land use change emis­sions, which falls un­der cli­mate fi­nance and re­lates to one of [Founders Pledge’s] recom­men­da­tions: the Coal­i­tion for Rain­for­est Na­tions.

The other kind of emis­sions [tied to peo­ple’s] con­cern about an­i­mal agri­cul­ture is methane emis­sions. Those are short-lived cli­mate pol­lu­tants. They will be po­tent over the next 12 years, but they’re not nec­es­sar­ily de­ci­sive for long-term warm­ing. That’s the main rea­son why we’re not pri­mar­ily fo­cused on them right now.

Ar­den: Okay, thanks. Speak­ing of lifestyle choices, [au­di­ence mem­bers] want to know: If they have to fly, would you recom­mend donat­ing to one of the effec­tive char­i­ties that Founders Pledge recom­mends in­stead of pay­ing air­line-spe­cific offset­ting pro­grams?

Jo­hannes: Ab­solutely. I think that nor­mally, air­line-spe­cific offset­ting pro­grams are not very good, be­cause a lot of the offset­ting is in in­ter­na­tional cli­mate fi­nance mechanisms, where it’s very difficult to make sure that the emis­sions saved are truly [adding value]. And even if they are, they are much less cost-effec­tive than the most effec­tive cli­mate char­i­ties. So [if you want to] max­i­mize the ex­pected value of your con­tri­bu­tions — al­though, of course, for ad­vo­cacy char­i­ties, there is a risk of no progress — you should definitely pre­fer to give to cli­mate char­i­ties over offset­ting pro­grams.

Ar­den: Here’s a re­lated ques­tion about differ­ent char­i­ties’ effec­tive­ness: What do you recom­mend that peo­ple in the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity do to di­vert dona­tions from less effec­tive char­i­ties to the top cli­mate change or­ga­ni­za­tions?

Jo­hannes: From less effec­tive char­i­ties in the cli­mate space?

Ar­den: Yes.

Jo­hannes: My the­ory of change is that im­prov­ing knowl­edge helps. And what I’ve tried to do in this talk is [ex­plain] why there are spe­cific char­i­ties that are much, much bet­ter — and more widely [share the con­cept of] di­men­sion math, and [is­sues around] en­ergy and poverty in differ­ent coun­tries. This can hope­fully move peo­ple to­ward more effec­tive solu­tions, in a similar way that you would hope to be able to move peo­ple from [fund­ing] cat shelters to [fund­ing] ad­vo­cacy against an­i­mal agri­cul­ture.

I’m not sure this is a good an­swer. If there’s a bet­ter an­swer out there, I’d re­ally be cu­ri­ous. I think this is what we are try­ing to do at Founders Pledge. We spend a lot of time speak­ing to mem­bers, try­ing to shift their per­spec­tive and ed­u­cate them about the na­ture of the challenge and [how they can best con­tribute].

Ar­den: You talked a bit about why donat­ing to effec­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions looks much more [im­pact­ful] than mak­ing choices about your lifestyle, or do­ing things like switch­ing to clean en­ergy your­self. Can you talk a lit­tle bit more about why that is and what ex­actly those dona­tions end up trans­lat­ing into, such that they’re more valuable?

Jo­hannes: Ab­solutely. First, why do we think a lot of lifestyle choices are not very im­pact­ful? If you switch to clean en­ergy in Europe, for ex­am­ple, a lot of the en­ergy emis­sions are already on an emis­sions-trad­ing sys­tem. They’re capped; the to­tal amount of emis­sions is set. Also, there are re­new­able tar­gets set, so the ex­pan­sion of re­new­ables has already dic­tated policy. This is a sim­plified [way of say­ing that] there isn’t a very clear link be­tween your be­hav­ior and the over­all amount of en­ergy [used]. The prob­lem is that policy of­ten miti­gates [peo­ple’s be­hav­iors].

But there’s a deeper is­sue. Even if that [were not the case], ad­vo­cacy char­ity — and we spend hun­dreds of hours try­ing to get the track record of these char­i­ties right — can in­fluence billion-dol­lar in­no­va­tion bud­gets, un­like sin­gle-mil­lion-dol­lar or­ga­ni­za­tional bud­gets. And they can fo­cus on solu­tions that will have big global im­pacts, such as driv­ing down tech­nol­ogy costs. That’s usu­ally just not [pos­si­ble] in your lifestyle ac­tions, be­cause your lifestyle ac­tions are mostly lo­cally con­strained.
Ar­den: Thanks. [Shift­ing to] a differ­ent sub­ject, what is your view on car­bon cap­ture right now?

Jo­hannes: On ev­ery­thing [re­lated to] nega­tive emis­sions or just [car­bon cap­ture]?

Ar­den: The ques­tion says “car­bon cap­ture,” but I think he’d prob­a­bly be in­ter­ested in your view on nega­tive emis­sions tech­nolo­gies in gen­eral, and car­bon cap­ture in par­tic­u­lar.

Jo­hannes: There are two kinds of car­bon cap­ture. One makes fos­sil fuel power plants car­bon-neu­tral. This tech­nol­ogy has been ne­glected, but whether or not it takes off is less clear. It would be re­ally rele­vant if it did, but it’s also con­ceiv­able that it won’t.

But I think car­bon cap­ture as a more gen­eral [cat­e­gory] — as in, ev­ery­thing that sucks car­bon out of the air and [per­tains to] nega­tive emis­sions — [is crit­i­cal]. Every model [es­ti­mat­ing how to] reach cli­mate tar­gets tells us that [car­bon cap­ture] is a cru­cial part of the pic­ture. And ev­ery­thing that we know about the poli­ti­cal econ­omy tells us it’s ne­glected, be­cause the in­dus­tries around it don’t ex­ist yet.

It’s not a very sexy tech­nol­ogy, com­par­a­tively speak­ing. It’s just clean­ing up a mess, and there’s noth­ing in­spiring about clean­ing up a mess. But it’s some­thing we ab­solutely need to do. We’re look­ing at one char­ity speci­fi­cally, Car­bon180, that’s fo­cused on ad­vo­cacy around this is­sue. We think im­prov­ing sup­port for such tech­nolo­gies is po­ten­tially a very high-lev­er­age op­por­tu­nity, be­cause they’re go­ing to be cru­cial.

Ar­den: That’s a good name, Car­bon180.

Jo­hannes: Yes. They re­branded; they had a much clunkier name be­fore: Cen­ter for Car­bon Re­moval. So they op­ti­mized.

Ar­den: I agree. This is an im­prove­ment.

Okay, I think this should be our last ques­tion: Look­ing for­ward, what are the pri­ori­ties for fur­ther re­search on this topic, as you see them?

Jo­hannes: Right now, Fun­ders Pledge is fo­cused on iden­ti­fy­ing more high-im­pact char­i­ties in the space and cov­er­ing a broad range [of them]. There­fore, [we want to] iden­tify more en­ergy in­no­va­tion and ad­vo­cacy char­i­ties, but also go into these other ar­eas that I’ve men­tioned to see whether high-im­pact op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­ist there.

Some­thing else that’s not a pri­or­ity for us right now, but I’d be re­ally happy to see some­one do is get­ting more pre­cise about in­di­rect risks from cli­mate change. I think this will be cru­cial to im­prove our un­der­stand­ing, as a com­mu­nity, of how we pri­ori­tize cli­mate change in­ter­ven­tions ver­sus other things.

Ar­den: One fol­low-up on that: Do you think the main value of get­ting more pre­cise about how cli­mate change might be desta­bi­liz­ing comes from helping us figure out how much to pri­ori­tize cli­mate change in gen­eral? Or is it that we could dis­cover some in­ter­ven­tions that ac­tu­ally make cli­mate change a bit less desta­bi­liz­ing?

Jo­hannes: I don’t think we’ll know, ex­actly. [This re­minds me of] the think­ing Open Philan­thropy [did when they were] fo­cus­ing on so­lar geo­eng­ineer­ing, which has its own kind of prob­lems. That’s the only spe­cific recom­men­da­tion that [comes to mind] based on worst-case sce­nar­ios.

Broadly speak­ing, I think this is more about cause pri­ori­ti­za­tion within EA. It’s much less im­por­tant for the gen­eral pub­lic, which I don’t think is [as] sen­si­tive to how bad cli­mate change is. There’s broad con­sen­sus that cli­mate change is re­ally bad, but the de­gree of ac­tion is not de­ter­mined by, or pro­por­tional to, the bad­ness. It’s more [de­ter­mined by] what’s fea­si­ble to do poli­ti­cally.

Ar­den: Yes, and if the broader com­mu­nity di­verted en­ergy from work­ing on cli­mate change, they wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily di­vert it to work­ing on catas­trophic biolog­i­cal risks or some­thing [equally press­ing]. It doesn’t have the same ur­gency, per­haps, as in the EA com­mu­nity, where peo­ple are re­ally flex­ible with their dona­tions.

Jo­hannes: Yes.

Ar­den: That’s helpful. Well, I think that con­cludes the Q&A part of this ses­sion. [...] Thank you all for watch­ing.

Jo­hannes: Thank you.

No comments.