Climate Change Is Neglected By EA

A year ago Louis Dixon posed the ques­tion “Does cli­mate change de­serve more at­ten­tion within EA?”. On May 30th I will be dis­cussing the re­lated ques­tion “Is Cli­mate Change Ne­glected Within EA?” with the Effec­tive En­vi­ron­men­tal­ism group. This post is my at­tempt to an­swer that ques­tion.

Cli­mate change is an in­cred­ibly com­plex is­sue where a change in green­house gas con­cen­tra­tions is warm­ing the planet, which has a long list of knock on im­pacts in­clud­ing heat­waves, more in­tense rain­fall, more in­tense droughts, sea level rise, in­creased storm surges, in­creased wild­fires, ex­pand­ing the ter­ri­tory af­fected by trop­i­cal dis­eases, ocean acid­ifi­ca­tion, shifts in geopoli­ti­cal power as we tran­si­tion off fos­sil fuels.

The con­se­quences of these im­pacts are hap­pen­ing already and will in­ten­sify over the com­ing decades. Pre­dict­ing that fu­ture is very challeng­ing, and our de­sire to have some un­der­stand­ing of the fu­ture makes it tempt­ing to ac­cept sim­plified mod­els that of­ten only look at one as­pect of the greater prob­lem. It is very difficult to have con­fi­dence about any mod­els that we do build, as the world is head­ing into fun­da­men­tally un­charted ter­ri­tory. We have good rea­son to be­lieve that the im­pacts of cli­mate change will be se­vere, quite pos­si­bly even catas­trophic, and so it is crit­i­cal that the world takes ac­tion.

In this post I will ar­gue the fol­low­ing:

  • Due to the in­her­ent difficulty of pre­dict­ing the full im­pacts of cli­mate change, there is limited ev­i­dence about ex­actly what these im­pacts will be (sec­tion 1). EA has drawn ques­tion­able con­clu­sions from the ev­i­dence that does ex­ist (sec­tion 2).

  • EA con­sid­ers Cli­mate Change as “not ne­glected” based on the amount of effort already be­ing made, rather than the re­sults achieved (sec­tion 3).

  • EA down­plays the huge im­pacts from cur­rently ex­pected lev­els of cli­mate change (sec­tion 4), fo­cus­ing in­stead on whether cli­mate change is an x-risk (sec­tion 5). This ap­proach risks alienat­ing many peo­ple from EA (sec­tion 6).

  • Cli­mate change has many differ­ent im­pacts, this is a poor fit for EA which tries to quan­tify prob­lems us­ing sim­ple mod­els, lead­ing to un­der­valu­ing of ac­tion on cli­mate change (sec­tion 7). The EA model of pri­ori­tis­ing be­tween causes doesn’t work for cli­mate change which has a broad and effec­tively per­ma­nent im­pact (sec­tion 8).

The re­sult of all of this is to visi­bly ne­glect and un­der­value cli­mate change in EA pub­li­ca­tions. I well demon­strate this in two case stud­ies—a talk from EA 2019 (sec­tion 9), and some key EA pub­li­ca­tions and ini­ti­a­tives (sec­tion 10).

EA is not unique for ne­glect­ing cli­mate change—hu­man­ity as a whole con­tinues to ne­glect to act on this ur­gent prob­lem. “Don’t Even Think About It” is an ex­cel­lent book about the many rea­sons why this is the case.

Some mem­bers of the EA com­mu­nity are already do­ing great work on cli­mate change. How­ever, in this post I have ar­gued that cli­mate change is gen­er­ally ne­glected by EA. This needs to change. EA should visi­bly pro­mote cli­mate change as one of the most im­por­tant causes to work on. This should be based on more than just dis­cus­sion of un­likely x-risk sce­nar­ios, but also of dis­cus­sion of the se­vere im­pact of the level of cli­mate change which is pre­dicted to hap­pen in the com­ing decades. The next 10 years will de­ter­mine whether a 1.5C world is pos­si­ble—now is the time for ac­tion on cli­mate change.

“The hard part is not wrestling with how bad things could get – it’s un­der­stand­ing how much re­spon­si­bil­ity we still have to make things bet­ter.”—Alex Steffen

1) There is a lack of ev­i­dence for the more se­vere im­pacts of cli­mate change, rather than ev­i­dence that the im­pacts will not be se­vere.

The UK gov­ern­ment com­mis­sioned a 2015 risk as­sess­ment on the topic of cli­mate change. It is rele­vant to quote a sec­tion of this re­port here.

--- (Be­gin quote from 2015 risk as­sess­ment)

The de­tailed chap­ters of the same re­port [AR5] sug­gest that the im­pacts cor­re­spond­ing to high de­grees of tem­per­a­ture in­crease are not only rel­a­tively un­known, but also rel­a­tively un­stud­ied. This is illus­trated by the fol­low­ing quotes:

  • Crops: “Rel­a­tively few stud­ies have con­sid­ered im­pacts on crop­ping sys­tems for sce­nar­ios where global mean tem­per­a­tures in­crease by 4ºC or more.”

  • Ecosys­tems: “There are few field-scale ex­per­i­ments on ecosys­tems at the high­est CO2 con­cen­tra­tions pro­jected by RCP8.5 for late in the cen­tury, and none of these in­clude the effects of other po­ten­tial con­found­ing fac­tors.”

  • Health: “Most at­tempts to quan­tify health bur­dens as­so­ci­ated with fu­ture cli­mate change con­sider mod­est in­creases in global tem­per­a­ture, typ­i­cally less than 2ºC.”

  • Poverty: “Although there is high agree­ment about the het­ero­gene­ity of fu­ture im­pacts on poverty, few stud­ies con­sider more di­verse cli­mate change sce­nar­ios, or the po­ten­tial of 4ºC and be­yond.”

  • Hu­man se­cu­rity: “Much of the cur­rent liter­a­ture on hu­man se­cu­rity and cli­mate change is in­formed by con­tem­po­rary re­la­tion­ships and ob­ser­va­tion and hence is limited in an­a­lyz­ing the hu­man se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions of rapid or se­vere cli­mate change.”

  • Eco­nomics: “Losses ac­cel­er­ate with greater warm­ing, but few quan­ti­ta­tive es­ti­mates have been com­pleted for ad­di­tional warm­ing around 3ºC or above.”

A sim­ple con­clu­sion is that we need to know more about the im­pacts as­so­ci­ated with higher de­grees of tem­per­a­ture in­crease. But in many cases this is difficult. For ex­am­ple, it may be close to im­pos­si­ble to say any­thing about the changes that could take place in com­plex dy­namic sys­tems, such as ecosys­tems or at­mo­spheric cir­cu­la­tion pat­terns, as a re­sult of very large changes very far into the fu­ture.

--- (End quote from 2015 risk as­sess­ment)

2) EA has drawn ques­tion­able con­clu­sions from this limited ev­i­dence base

I pre­vi­ously re­viewed two at­tempts to com­pute the cost effec­tive­ness of ac­tion on cli­mate change and found that both of these were based on sources which are si­mul­ta­neously the best available ev­i­dence, and also deeply flawed as a ba­sis for mak­ing any kind of pre­cise cost effec­tive­ness es­ti­mate. I con­cluded:

One of the cen­tral ideas in effec­tive al­tru­ism is that some in­ter­ven­tions are or­ders of mag­ni­tude more effec­tive than oth­ers. There re­main huge un­cer­tain­ties and un­knowns which make any at­tempt to com­pute the cost effec­tive­ness of cli­mate change ex­tremely challeng­ing. How­ever, the es­ti­mates which have been com­pleted so far don’t make a com­pel­ling case that miti­gat­ing cli­mate change is ac­tu­ally or­der(s) of mag­ni­tude less effec­tive com­pared to global health in­ter­ven­tions, with many of the re­main­ing un­cer­tain­ties mak­ing it very plau­si­ble that cli­mate change in­ter­ven­tions are in­deed much more effec­tive.

This con­tra­dicts the con­clu­sion of one of the un­der­ly­ing cost effec­tive­ness anal­y­sis which con­cluded that “Global de­vel­op­ment in­ter­ven­tions are gen­er­ally more effec­tive than Cli­mate change in­ter­ven­tions”.

3) Cli­mate Change is deemed “not ne­glected” based on the amount of effort already be­ing made, rather than the re­sults achieved

The EA im­por­tance, tractabil­ity, ne­glect­ed­ness (ITN) frame­work dis­counts cli­mate change be­cause it is not deemed to be ne­glected (e.g. scor­ing 212 on 80K Hours). I have pre­vi­ously dis­agreed with this po­si­tion be­cause it ig­nores whether the cur­rent level of ac­tion on cli­mate change is any­where close to what is ac­tu­ally re­quired to solve the prob­lem (it’s not).

The IPCC pre­dicts that emis­sions must reach net zero by 2050 to limit warm­ing to 1.5C. How­ever, global emis­sions con­tinue to in­crease, apart from short term eco­nomic shocks. We are a long way from achiev­ing sus­tained global re­duc­tions in emis­sions.

Cli­mate change is a uniquely difficult prob­lem to tackle be­cause it is so mas­sively de­cen­tral­ised. Agri­cul­ture, trans­port, build­ing stan­dards, en­ergy, man­u­fac­tur­ing, etc—all need to be rein­vented to work with­out emit­ting CO2 and other green­house gasses. There’s no way of avoid­ing that this will re­quire the work of a very large num­ber of peo­ple.

It seems to me that the cur­rent ap­pli­ca­tion of the ITN frame­work is akin to ar­gu­ing dur­ing a war against join­ing the army be­cause there are already lots of sol­diers fight­ing. This ar­gu­ment may make sense at the in­di­vi­d­ual level (will one per­son re­ally make much differ­ence?) but seems ob­vi­ously wrong at the pop­u­la­tion level—the war must be won.

4) EA of­ten ig­nores or down­plays the im­pact of main­stream cli­mate change, fo­cus­ing on the tail risk instead

The 80,000 hours “Cli­mate change (ex­treme risks)” prob­lem pro­file says:

More ex­treme sce­nar­ios (say, warm­ing of 6 ºC or higher) would likely have very se­ri­ous nega­tive con­se­quences. Sea lev­els would rise, crop yields could fall sig­nifi­cantly, and there would likely be large wa­ter short­ages. If we fail to adapt, hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple could die from short­ages, con­flict, or in­creased vuln­er­a­bil­ity to dis­eases, and billions of peo­ple could be dis­placed.

This pro­file is fo­cused on these ‘tail’ risks — the chance that the planet will ex­pe­rience ex­treme warm­ing. Though un­likely, the chance of warm­ing over 6 ºC still seems un­com­fortably high. We fo­cus on this pos­si­bil­ity, rather than the is­sue of cli­mate change in gen­eral, be­cause pre­vent­ing the most ex­treme lev­els of warm­ing helps pre­vent the worst pos­si­ble out­comes.

This frames ac­tion on cli­mate change as be­ing fo­cused on pre­vent­ing the risk of a se­vere but un­likely out­come. The tail risk is a se­ri­ous con­cern but I think it is a mis­take to ne­glect the avoid­able harms that will be caused from the lev­els of cli­mate change which we think are very likely with­out much more rapid global ac­tion.

The 80K Hours prob­lem pro­file makes no men­tion of the IPCC SR15 re­port, our best available ev­i­dence of the in­cre­men­tal im­pact of 1.5 vs 2.0C of cli­mate change, which pre­dicts that hun­dreds of mil­lions more peo­ple will be severely im­pacted. As stated pre­vi­ously, we have very lit­tle re­li­able ev­i­dence about what the quan­tified im­pact would be of warm­ing more than 2C, and yet ac­cord­ing to Cli­mate Ac­tion Tracker, we are head­ing to­wards a fu­ture of 2.3C − 4.1C of warm­ing.

In 2011 the Royal So­ciety con­sid­ered the im­pacts of more se­vere cli­mate change in a spe­cial is­sue ti­tled “Four de­grees and be­yond: the po­ten­tial for a global tem­per­a­ture in­crease of four de­grees and its im­pli­ca­tions”. This in­cluded state­ments that we could see 4C as soon as the 2060s:

If car­bon-cy­cle feed­backs are stronger, which ap­pears less likely but still cred­ible, then 4°C warm­ing could be reached by the early 2060s in pro­jec­tions that are con­sis­tent with the IPCC’s ‘likely range’.

And that a 4C world would be in­cred­ibly difficult to adapt to:

In such a 4°C world, the limits for hu­man adap­ta­tion are likely to be ex­ceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adap­ta­tion for nat­u­ral sys­tems would largely be ex­ceeded through­out the world. Hence, the ecosys­tem ser­vices upon which hu­man liveli­hoods de­pend would not be pre­served. Even though some stud­ies have sug­gested that adap­ta­tion in some ar­eas might still be fea­si­ble for hu­man sys­tems, such as­sess­ments have gen­er­ally not taken into ac­count lost ecosys­tem ser­vices.

The 80K Hours prob­lem pro­file makes no men­tion of the con­cept of a car­bon bud­get—the amount of of car­bon which we can emit be­fore we are com­mit­ted to a par­tic­u­lar level of warm­ing. Since 1751 the world has emit­ted 1500 Gt CO2 and SR15 es­ti­mates a re­main­ing car­bon bud­get of 420 Gt CO2 to have a 66% chance of limit­ing warm­ing to 1.5C. We’re emit­ting ~40Gt CO2/​year, so we’ll have used this bud­get up be­fore 2030, and hence com­mit­ted our­selves to more than 1.5C of warm­ing. Ad­di­tion­ally, SR15 pre­dicted that to limit warm­ing to 1.5C global emis­sions need to have ac­tu­ally de­clined by 45% by 2030. Global emis­sions are gen­er­ally con­tin­u­ing to grow and yet to meet this tar­get they must de­cline by ~8% a year, ev­ery year, globally.

All of the CO2 which is emit­ted is ex­pected to per­sist in the at­mo­sphere for cen­turies un­less we can de­ploy nega­tive emis­sions tech­nolo­gies at enor­mous scale. This means that the im­pacts of cli­mate change are effec­tively ir­re­versible.

5) EA ap­pears to dis­miss cli­mate change be­cause it is not an x-risk

EA has re­peat­edly asked whether cli­mate change is an x-risk.

  • 2019-12 - EA Global Lon­don—Could cli­mate change make Earth un­in­hab­it­able for hu­mans? [link]

  • 2019-12 - Linch − 8 things I be­lieve about cli­mate change, in­clud­ing dis­cus­sion of whether cli­mate change is an x-risk [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-06 - Vox—Is cli­mate change an “ex­is­ten­tial threat” — or just a catas­trophic one? [link]

  • 2019-04 - Tessa Alex­a­nian, Zachary Ja­cobi—Rough Notes for “Se­cond-Order Effects Make Cli­mate Change an Ex­is­ten­tial Threat” [google doc]

  • 2019-01 - ozy­man­dias—Cli­mate Change Is, In Gen­eral, Not An Ex­is­ten­tial Risk [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2018-10 - John Halsted—is Cli­mate an x-risk? [google doc]

  • 2018-03 - John Halsted—Cli­mate change, geo­eng­ineer­ing, and ex­is­ten­tial risk [EA Fo­rum]

This is an im­por­tant ques­tion for the EA com­mu­nity to con­sider. The an­swer so far has been that cli­mate change is not likely to be an x-risk. How­ever, this ap­pears to of­ten re­sult in cli­mate change be­ing writ­ten off as a wor­thy cause for EA. Without the x-risk la­bel, it gets stacked up against other more im­me­di­ate causes, and the bet­ter quan­tified short term in­ter­ven­tions like global health are able to provide much more straight­for­ward ev­i­dence for sup­port­ing them.

6) EA is in dan­ger of mak­ing it­self a niche cause by loudly fo­cus­ing on top­ics like x-risk

My first in­tro­duc­tion to EA was read­ing The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer. This made a com­pel­ling case that I had the abil­ity, and the moral re­spon­si­bil­ity, to do con­crete good in the world. The first char­ity that I started giv­ing reg­u­larly to was the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion.

My im­pres­sion over the last few years has been that EA has loudly in­vested a lot of en­ergy into re­search­ing and dis­cussing long term causes, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on x-risks. Work­ing to bet­ter un­der­stand and miti­gate x-risks is an im­por­tant area of work for EA, but my own ex­pe­rience is that it feels at times like EA is not a broad move­ment of peo­ple who want to do the most good in what­ever cause they are work­ing on, but a nar­row move­ment of peo­ple who want to do the most good by fo­cus­ing on x-risks. This con­cern was ex­pressed by Peter Singer in an in­ter­view in De­cem­ber 2019:

“I cer­tainly re­spect those who are work­ing on the long-term fu­ture, and ex­is­ten­tial risk and so on, and I think that is im­por­tant work, it should con­tinue. But, I’m trou­bled by the idea that that be­comes or is close to be­com­ing the pub­lic face of the EA move­ment. Be­cause I do think that there’s only this much nar­rower group of peo­ple who are likely to re­spond to that kind of ap­peal.”

This con­cern has also been ex­pressed be­fore by Dy­lan Matthews at Vox, with a re­sponse from sev­eral other mem­bers of the EA com­mu­nity here.

Essen­tially, there is a chance that a rea­soned fo­cus on x-risk has the risk of limit­ing the growth of EA as a move­ment to the set of peo­ple who can be con­vinced to be in­ter­ested in x-risks.

The same ar­gu­ments ap­ply about the way that cli­mate change is dis­cussed within EA. At a time when many in­di­vi­d­u­als and groups are talk­ing about cli­mate change as one of the most im­por­tant is­sues of our time, it is strik­ing that EA of­ten down­plays the im­por­tance of cli­mate change. I’m cer­tainly not the only per­son to have this im­pres­sion of EA, as was ev­i­dent in some of the com­ments on “Does cli­mate change de­serve more at­ten­tion within EA?” from last year:

“The biggest is­sue I have with EA is the lack of at­ten­tion to cli­mate change. I am sup­porter and mem­ber of the EA but I take is­sue with the lack of at­ten­tion to cli­mate change. Add me to the cat­e­gory of peo­ple that are turned off from the com­mu­nity be­cause it’s weak stance of cli­mate change.”

“I would like to offer a sim­ple per­sonal note that my fo­cus and en­ergy has turned away from EA to cli­mate change only. I now spend all of my time and en­ergy on cli­mate re­lated mat­ters. Though I still value EA’s ap­proach to char­ity giv­ing, it has be­gun to feel like a voice from the past, from a world that no longer ex­ists. This is how it reg­isters with me now.”

“I agree that I fall closer into this camp. Where the ac­tion tends to be to­wards cli­mate change and that im­me­di­ate threat, while I play in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cises with EA. The fo­cus on an­i­mal welfare and eat­ing a ve­gan diet help the planet and fight­ing malaria are re­lated to cli­mate change. Other is­sues such as AI and nu­clear war seem far fetched. It’s hard for me to see the im­pacts of these threats with­out prey­ing on my fears. While cli­mate change has an im­pact on my daily life.”

“quickly af­ter dis­cov­er­ing EA (about 4 years ago) I got the im­pres­sion that cli­mate change and threats to bio­di­ver­sity were un­der­es­ti­mated, and was sur­prised at how lit­tle re­search and dis­cus­sion there seems to be.”

“Yes, ab­solutely...the 80K pod­cast oc­ca­sion­ally pays it lip ser­vice by say­ing “we agree with the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus”, but it doesn’t seem to go much fur­ther than that”

It is of course im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge that cli­mate change was voted as the no. 2 top pri­or­ity cause in the EA sur­vey 2019. I find this re­sult both re­as­sur­ing and sur­pris­ing. My sur­prise is due to ev­ery­thing that I am talk­ing about in this post.

7) EA tries to quan­tify prob­lems us­ing sim­ple mod­els, lead­ing to un­der­valu­ing of ac­tion on cli­mate change

Every ex­tra ton of CO2 in the at­mo­sphere con­tributes to many effects, in­clud­ing:

  • Changed weather pat­terns—more in­tense rain, more in­tense droughts, more heatwaves

  • In­creased wildfires

  • In­creased sea lev­els, higher storm surges, more in­tense hurricanes

  • Melt­ing glaciers, melt­ing sea ice, re­duced snowpack

  • Ocean acidification

All of these effects have com­plex dy­nam­ics that in­ter­act with spe­cific ge­o­graph­i­cal and hu­man pop­u­la­tion fea­tures around the world.

To prop­erly weigh up the im­pact of cli­mate change would re­quire a cost func­tion that we don’t know. All of these effects have di­rect and in­di­rect im­pacts on hu­man lives around the world.

They also have im­pacts be­yond those on hu­mans. SR15 pre­dicted that at 2C of warm­ing, 99% of all coral reefs will die. How does EA value that loss? There’s ob­vi­ously not a sin­gle an­swer, but it is at least true that in both of the pre­vi­ous cli­mate change cost effec­tive­ness anal­y­sis, con­sid­er­a­tions like this were com­pletely ab­sent.

8) EA model of pri­ori­tis­ing be­tween causes doesn’t work for cli­mate change which has a broad and effec­tively per­ma­nent impact

A choice be­tween buy­ing a malaria net or a de­worm­ing tablet is a rel­a­tively sim­ple to model choice. How­ever, re­gard­less of which you choose, the product you buy, and how you de­liver that product to the peo­ple who need it, will have a car­bon foot­print. In this way, cli­mate change does not fit in neatly with an EA wor­ld­view which pro­motes the pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of causes so that you can choose the most im­por­tant one to work on. Global health in­ter­ven­tions have a cli­mate foot­print, which I’ve never seen ac­counted for in EA cost effec­tive­ness calcu­la­tions.

Cli­mate change is a prob­lem which is get­ting worse with time and is ex­pected to per­sist for cen­turies. Limit­ing warm­ing to a cer­tain level gets harder with ev­ery year that ac­tion is not taken. Many of the causes com­pared by EA don’t have the same prop­erty. For ex­am­ple, if we fail to treat malaria for an­other ten years, that won’t com­mit hu­man­ity to live with malaria for cen­turies to come. How­ever, within less than a decade, limit­ing warm­ing to 1.5C will be­come im­pos­si­ble.

9) Case study: Could cli­mate change make Earth un­in­hab­it­able for hu­mans?

Con­sider this talk from EA 2019. I am us­ing this talk as an ex­am­ple rather than be­cause I think my crit­i­cisms are unique to this talk.

  • As an EA talk about Cli­mate Change, of course it fo­cuses on whether cli­mate change is an x-risk.

  • At 1:30, the speaker pre­sents three pos­si­ble mechanisms for cli­mate be­ing an x-risk - (1) Mak­ing Earth Un­in­hab­it­able, (2) In­creas­ing Risk of Other X-Risks, (3) Con­tribut­ing to So­cietal Col­lapse. The speaker makes it clear that (2) and (3) are likely to be higher im­pact, but are less tractable to study, and so the talk will fo­cus on (1). This is a clas­sic EA choice which will lead to the dis­cussed risks re­lat­ing to cli­mate change be­ing sub­stan­tially re­duced.

  • At 4:55, the speaker makes the ar­gu­ment that we are plan­ning to cre­ate set­tle­ments on the moon and mars, and that sur­viv­ing on a warmer earth will surely be eas­ier. This kind of tech­nol­ogy based re­as­surance is some­thing I’ve en­coun­tered be­fore such as this com­ment which sug­gested that a warmer world could be made hab­it­able by “ice vests” or “a sys­tem which burns fuel and then uses ab­sorp­tion chilling to cool the body”. This seems to miss the point that the cur­rent world cli­mate makes life very com­fortable and easy, and that our abil­ity to sur­vive in a more hos­tile cli­mate doesn’t make that avoid­able out­come much more ac­cept­able.

  • In the Q&A, at 21:00, the ques­tioner said “… the main­line ex­pec­ta­tion is not so bad, is that a fair read­ing of your view?”. In the speaker’s an­swer they de­scribe deaths from cli­mate change as be­ing likely to be of the same scale as the num­ber of peo­ple who die in traf­fic ac­ci­dents. This feels like a re­ally triv­ial­is­ing com­par­i­son, and one which I’m highly scep­ti­cal about the ve­rac­ity of. The speaker goes on to frame cli­mate change as be­ing a low pri­or­ity x-risk. This is a perfect ex­am­ple of the way that EA down­plays the sever­ity of the main­line im­pacts of cli­mate change.

  • At 22:40 the ques­tioner asked “do you feel that it is time now to be mo­bil­is­ing and trans­form­ing the econ­omy, or do you feel like the jury is still out on that…” (which seems like an in­cred­ibly sur­pris­ing ques­tion at this point in the cli­mate move­ment—the ques­tioner sounds a bit like a cli­mate skep­tic based on this ques­tion). In the speaker’s an­swer they state’s that we can emit as much in the fu­ture as we have emit­ted in the past. This makes it sound like we have plenty of time to ad­dress cli­mate change. If we wish to limit warm­ing to 1.5C this is definitely false—as stated above, at cur­rent emis­sions lev­els we will have spent our re­main­ing car­bon bud­get for a 1.5C world be­fore 2030.

10) Case study: Cli­mate is visi­bly ab­sent or down­played within some key EA pub­li­ca­tions and initiatives

On the front page of https://​​www.effec­tivealtru­​​ there are seven ar­ti­cles listed. Cli­mate Change isn’t men­tioned, but AI, Biose­cu­rity, and An­i­mal Welfare are.

On the linked Read more… page there is a list of Promis­ing Causes listed. Cli­mate Change is not on this list.

In April 2018 Will Ma­caskill gave a TED talk ti­tled “What are the most im­por­tant moral prob­lems of our time?”. The an­swer he pre­sented was 1) Global Health, 2) Fac­tory Farm­ing, 3) Ex­is­ten­tial Risks. He men­tions “Ex­treme Cli­mate Change” in his list of x-risks and goes on to make the ar­gu­ment that none of these are very likely, but that the moral weight of ex­tinc­tion de­mands that we work on them. As de­tailed above, this is the clas­sic lens that EA views cli­mate change through—as an un­likely x-risk, rather than as a press­ing prob­lem fac­ing the world to­day.

There are cur­rently four available Effec­tive Altru­ism Funds:

None of these di­rectly fund work on cli­mate change. The Long-Term Fu­ture fund is cur­rently fo­cused on cause pri­ori­ti­sa­tion and AI risk.

80,000 Hours has a sum­mary of the cause ar­eas they have stud­ied. The first sec­tion is “Emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and global catas­trophic risks” and this makes four recom­men­da­tions. This is un­usu­ally good for EA as cli­mate change makes it into the top 4 within this first sec­tion. How­ever, as dis­cussed ear­lier, the prob­lem pro­file is fo­cussed on the “ex­treme risks”.

Ap­pendix 1) Timeline of cli­mate re­lated EA publications

In an effort to quan­tify how much at­ten­tion cli­mate has re­ceived within EA, I have com­piled a list of rele­vant ar­ti­cles and pub­li­ca­tions from the last few years. This list is cer­tainly not com­pre­hen­sive but was com­piled as part of writ­ing this ar­ti­cle.

  • 2020-05 − 80K Hours—Cli­mate Prob­lem Pro­file [link]

  • 2020-04 - Louis Dixon—Cli­mate Shock by Wag­ner and Weitz­man [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2020-02 - John Halstead, Jo­hannes Ackva, FP—Cli­mate & Lifestyle Re­port [pdf]

  • 2020-01 - Lous Dixon—What should EAs in­ter­ested in cli­mate change do? [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2020-01 - EA Sur­vey 2019 - Cli­mate Change is no.2 votes cause [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-12 - EA Global Lon­don—Could cli­mate change make Earth un­in­hab­it­able for hu­mans? [link]

  • 2019-12 - Giv­ing Green launched [link]

  • 2019-12 - Linch − 8 things I be­lieve about cli­mate change, in­clud­ing dis­cus­sion of whether cli­mate change is an x-risk [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-12 - Vox—Want to fight cli­mate change effec­tively? Here’s where to donate your money. [link]

  • 2019-11 - Im­pactMat­ters launched [link]

  • 2019-11 - Tay­lor Sloan—Ap­ply­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism to cli­mate change [blog part 1, blog part 2]

  • 2019-10 - Martin Hare Robert­son—Re­view of Cli­mate Cost-Effec­tive­ness Analy­ses [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-10 - Martin Hare Robert­son—Up­dated Cli­mate Change Prob­lem Pro­file [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-10 - Hauke Hille­brandt—Global de­vel­op­ment in­ter­ven­tions are gen­er­ally more effec­tive than Cli­mate change in­ter­ven­tions [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-09 − 2019-11 - Fu­ture of Life—Not Cool, 26 epi­sode pod­cast [link]

  • 2019-08 - Fu­ture of Life—The Cli­mate Cri­sis as an Ex­is­ten­tial Threat with Si­mon Beard and Haydn Belfield [pod­cast]

  • 2019-08 - Will MacAskill—AMA Re­sponse: Do you think Cli­mate is ne­glected by EA? [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-07 - Danny Bressler—How Many Peo­ple WIll Cli­mate Change Kill? [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-07 - kbog—Ex­tin­guish­ing or pre­vent­ing coal seam fires is a po­ten­tial cause area [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-06 - Vox—Is cli­mate change an “ex­is­ten­tial threat” — or just a catas­trophic one? [link]

  • 2019-05 - John Halsted + oth­ers—EA com­ment thread: Is bio­di­ver­sity loss an x-risk? [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-04 - Louis Dixon—Does cli­mate change de­serve more at­ten­tion within EA? [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2019-04 - Tessa Alex­a­nian, Zachary Ja­cobi—Rough Notes for “Se­cond-Order Effects Make Cli­mate Change an Ex­is­ten­tial Threat” [google doc]

  • 2019-03 - Let­sFund—Clean En­ergy In­no­va­tion Policy [link]

  • 2019-03 - EA Global Lon­don—Toby Ord Fireside chat, incl Cli­mate Tail risk is un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated [link]

  • 2019-01 - ozy­man­dias—Cli­mate Change Is, In Gen­eral, Not An Ex­is­ten­tial Risk [EA Fo­rum]

  • -> 2019-08 - Pawn­toe4 - Cri­tique of Halsted’s doc [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2018-10 - John Halsted—is Cli­mate an x-risk? [google doc]

  • 2018-03 - John Halsted—Cli­mate change, geo­eng­ineer­ing, and ex­is­ten­tial risk [EA Fo­rum]

  • 2018-05 - John Halsted/​FP—Cli­mate Change Cause Area Re­port [pdf]

  • 2017-12 - CSER—Cli­mate Change and the Worst-Case Sce­nario [link]


  • 2016-07 - Fu­ture of Life—Op-Ed: Cli­mate Change Is the Most Ur­gent Ex­is­ten­tial Risk [link]

  • 2016-04 − 80K Hours—Cli­mate Prob­lem Pro­file [link]

  • 2016-04 - Giv­ing What We Can—Cli­mate Prob­lem Pro­file [link]

  • 2016-01 - mdahlhausen—Search­ing for Effec­tive En­vi­ron­men­tal­ism Can­di­dates [blog post]

  • 2015-11 - Effec­tive En­vi­ron­men­tal­ism FB Group Created

  • 2015-11 - Fu­ture of Life—Cli­mate Prob­lem Pro­file [link]

  • 2015-04 - CSER—Cli­mate Change and The Com­mon Good [link]

  • 2013-05 - Open Philan­thropy—An­thro­pogenic Cli­mate Change [link]