Super interesting Karolina! I only took a quick look at the model, but was wondering if it includes the human welfare outcomes? (I didn’t see it, but maybe I missed it.) For instance, we at IDinsight are working on a project based around shrimp farming, and a main pathway of the theory of change is improved tech → improved water quality → increased stocking density → increased farmer profits → increased consumption → increased human welfare. Given that development actors are focusing on this pathway, I think it would be important to take into account.
Hello, Giving Green is hiring a consultant to help us research climate change charities in Australia. For those of you unfamiliar, Giving Green is an EA-inspired organization working to generate cost-effective donation and investment recommendations to fight climate change. For more information and to apply, please see our job post.
Our ideal candidate has a wide range of qualifications, and we understand that our ideal candidate may not exist. We believe that it’s possible to substitute experience in some categories with hard work and dedication to understand the space.
Undergraduate degree in a relevant field. Advanced degree preferred but not required.
Strong understanding of Australian political system and theories of change for policy in Australia.
Extensive experience in conducting desk research.
Understanding of climate change causes and solutions
3+ years of experience working in an applied research setting
Knowledge of the climate change charity space in Australia, with understanding of the roles of various charities. Personal connections in the space is a plus.
Proven ability to work alone and with teams in a dynamic, multicultural environment
Excellent oral and written communication skills in English
Willingness to put in extra effort when required to meet deadlines, ability to work in a start-up environment
Passion for taking action on climate change
Strong values aligned with IDinsight’s stated values
Hello everyone. Well, this forum has blown up, and we (GG) have taken some punches. I want to list a few take-aways on my end:
One thing we’re hearing loud and clear is that there is a lot of worry among this group that having recommendations in categories that are not the most cost-effective will do more harm than good. I think this is worth considering, though I don’t totally agree. What I do agree with is that our site could be designed to lead people to the most cost-effective recommendations, and make deviations from this ideal more obvious. Based on this feedback, we’ve made some changes already to the site, changing ordering and adding text to be clear that we believe policy is the most effective donation category. We would like to make deeper changes in the future.
One argument in this thread that particularly resonated with me is that there would really be a lot of value for conducting some more rigorous cost-benefit analysis for the offset recommendations. While we still believe at this moment that our offset recommendations are solid, I think there is value in performing more explicit cost-effectiveness analysis and using this to re-evaluate our choices. This is something we intend to do in the near term.
There’s clearly a lot of disagreement over activism and our recommendation of the Sunrise Movement Education Fund (TSM) in particular. I’m still on the side of defending this recommendation, but hear and respect the arguments put forth and believe they deserve consideration. At the very least, we need to re-work our materials from this recommendation to lay out our assumptions and arguments better. I’ll write briefly more about activism and TSM a bit below.
Do you want to help? We’re currently at a place of limited funding, so we are not actively conducting research at the moment. That makes it hard to do all the improvements we’d like (and have promised above). Our plan was to spend the next couple of months fundraising before turning back to research, but this thread is making us reconsider that a bit. We’d be interested in taking on a volunteer or short term contract from the EA community to help put some of the legwork in shoring up our existing research (and looking at a couple of new things.) Interested? Have some experience in climate issues and thinking through cost-effectiveness in an EA framework? Reach out at email@example.com
One thing that I’d like to make clear: our mission at Giving Green is to create the most social impact we can through our recommendations. This, notably, does not necessarily mean that we just find the most cost-effective charity and recommend it solely. I truly believe that by offering ‘best in class’ recommendations in different categories, we can reach a wider audience and increase the pie of money that we can influence. That’s why we do offsets. That is (partially) why we felt it important to search for donation options outside of the narrow mechanism of action advocated by Founder’s Pledge (“(i) advocates (ii) focused on accelerating (iii) neglected yet critical decarbonisation and carbon removal technologies” in the US). While we find FP’s arguments clear and compelling, I don’t share the confidence that this is the mechanism of action with the highest expected value of donations (more later on this). This lack of confidence plus the ability to widen the pool of donors we influence is why we think there is a lot of value in exploring other donation categories. I do understand the concern about dilution from the most cost-effective places, but believe this can be mitigated through clear (better than now) design and information on the website.
Now, just a little bit more on the meat of the disagreement, which is the TSM recommendation. If I understand Johannes’ argument, he agrees with the importance of activism for making policy, both for putting electoral pressure on legislators as well as agenda-setting for current legislators. But, if I were to summarize, there are two main arguments against activism: timing, neglectedness, and one more argument against TSM in particular: strategy.
First timing: Johannes declares “Biden has declared climate as one of his top four priorities,” as an argument that activist energy is no longer important in the current situation. First, I think it’s pretty clear the TSM can take huge credit for this being the case. They flexed their political muscles in the last election, won a seat at the Bernie-Biden task force, heavily influenced Biden’s climate strategy, and succeeded in putting it at the top of the agenda. While I understand the argument that this victory is now in place, I don’t think we should take this climate priority as a given and assume that it will stay in place without further activist pressure. Yes Biden has taken some executive actions on climate already, but there’s no concerted push (as far as I can tell yet) for concerted legislation. At one point Johannes asked what success looks like for TSM. My answer: It’s ensuring climate policy is a priority (in executive and regulatory action, as well as legislation), and indeed shifting the Overton window of climate policy. (Agree with Johannes that the “Green New Deal” is not a realistic piece of legislation.) And for that you need continued pressure.
Second, Neglectedness: Ok, we hear you that some of those numbers in our report on activism spending are out of date. Sorry. The late 2020 numbers from the ClimateWorks Foundation helps, but it appears that the quoted category of “Public engagement” spans a lot more than policy-focused activism, so I’m not sure this is so helpful either. We should probably do some work to get some better numbers, but overall I’m not so convinced that the amount of money spent tells us all that much about the marginal benefit of the extra dollar. For TSM in particular, their budget really ballooned in 2020 (financial reports aren’t out but we heard almost $10 million), so that’s a reason to give some pause. That being said, I don’t see a compelling case for diminishing returns at this level of funding, especially since activism relies on sheer numbers to be effective. But yes, I hear this argument and I think it’s something we should consider more closely.
Finally, strategy: A lot of the previous arguments have revolved around TSM potentially having a negative effect due to its polarization of the climate policy. I really think strategy (ie polarization vs compromise) is a deeply difficult issue that is the subject of many debates within US politics. It’s important to realize that this is a feature, not a bug. TSM has chosen to take a “radical” position and linked with other progressive priorities as a way of building a strong and cohesive political movement. It’s a strategy that has historical precedent, and has borne dividends at numerous other times in US History (civil rights movement, tea party). Does that mean it will work this time? Unclear. Is it risky? Sure. But to argue that you need a bipartisan strategy to influence policy in DC I believe ignores political realities. I agree that sometimes the solutions put forth by TSM (no CCS, etc.) are not ideal, but again this is part of the strategy to build a fired-up coalition. Like Johannes said, Sunrise are not going to be the ones at the table hammering out policy anyway. It’s just their job to get people to the table, and put power in the hands of the climate negotiators.
Our recommendation of TSM also stems on our philosophy of supporting multiple theories of change. There are lots of different ways that political change happens, and I think that the best way to enact the desired change is to accept this, be humble about deciding ex-ante which theory is right, and support multiple avenues.
All of this doesn’t really address Johannes’ main concern, which is that one needs to make the case not just for TSM to be “Good”, but to really be better than CATF at the margin. Based on our approach of providing recommendations in multiple categories and subscribing to multiple theories of change, I don’t think we need to show perfectly that TSM is better or equal to CATF. But we should be able to provide a compelling argument that impact is in the same ballpark. Johannes thinks it is not. I think it is. But also I think we need to do a better job of crafting this argument in our documents. That’s something we are going to work on.
Finally, one more thing. I think that there is a little bit of risk as an EA community of over-committing to a single method of action (“(i) advocates (ii) focused on accelerating (iii) neglected yet critical decarbonisation and carbon removal technologies” in the US) and very small set of organizations dedicated to this method. Like I said, I find FP’s arguments compelling and think their central recommendation of CATF is very solid. But I would be careful about overconfidence here. In our research, we interviewed 50+ experts from various sectors of the climate space. At some point in the conversation we always asked “If you could allocate money in the most cost-effective matter to fight climate change, what would you do?” we got a lot of different answers, but notably no one said CATF unprompted. We usually followed up and asked about CATF directly. When prompted, some people said “Oh yeah, they are great.” But others didn’t agree, and pointed out various issues with their approach or influence. I know this is not a scientific approach and don’t want to put too much weight on it, but I do just think it’s important for EAs as a community to approach this space with humility.
Hi Alex, let me clarify my thoughts on the “unsure of sign” argument. Let’s say for a given charity, you are considering the sign of impact on some outcome given an increase in donations. Given inherent uncertainly, you might think of a having a probability distribution reflecting your belief on the effect of a donation on this outcome. In almost any case, you would have to believe that there is some non-zero portion of the probability mass of this distribution below zero (because we’ve seen good intentions backfire so many times.) This is my point: the sign of impact is always unknown, technically.
To make recommendation, one must use gathered evidence and judgment to determine the distribution of impacts, and whether this estimated distribution merits a recommendation. Based on our judgement, the distribution of potential impacts of Sunrise (including the mass of probability that is below zero) merits it a recommendation. You and others certainly can disagree with the estimated distribution of impacts or our judgement or whether it merits recommendation. This stuff isn’t easy. But the fact that there is some probability mass on negative impact is not disqualifying, nor should it be.
As for your first comment, it’s important to note that the local chapters of Sunrise can take policy positions at odds with the centralized movement. I agree that sometimes these are unsavory. But when you make a donation, you make it to the centralized org. Critics trying to take down Sunrise frequently pull out the most radical quote they can find from one of the local chapters and use it to disqualify the whole organization, but I don’t really think that’s valid.
Hi, this is Dan from Giving Green. As you might imagine, I have a lot to say here.
First though, let me thank Alex for going about this criticism in what I would consider the right way: he brought his concerns to us, we had a discussion, and he changed some things based on the discussion. He also offered us a chance to comment on his draft to ensure he hadn’t said anything blatantly factually inaccurate. And then he aired his disagreements in a respectful post. So thanks for that Alex.
That being said, I fundamentally disagree with the majority of Alex’s points, and believe that the judgement calls we have made at Giving Green allow us to be impactful to a wider audience.
But let’s start with something else: Giving Green is a young organization, and I think we have a lot of room to improve and pivot. So criticism is welcomed, and some of Alex’s suggestions did resonate with us.
First, I think we could do a better job in promoting the donation options we think are “better” (ie policy, instead of offsets.) I think the offset research is valuable (as described below), but I agree that it’s not totally obvious to users of the website that we recommend policy over offsets, so that’s something we’d like to improve.
Second, although I do think we have some fundamental disagreements about the value of modeling uncertain situations, I do think there would be value in modeling the cost-effectiveness of offsets more explicitly. I think this is a case where the modeling assumptions are tractable, and we could provide users useful cost-effectiveness data, and may even promote certain offsets over others. This is something we’ve wanted to do for a while, but haven’t had the time to implement. (As Alex noted, we have limited funding and have relied heavily on “side of the desk” work to create Giving Green.)
Now onto the disagreements. I think to respond to every point I would have to write a book, but let me tackle the main ones.
Recommending Offsets: I made an argument defending recommending offsets (even though we believe they are less cost-effective than policy charities) on a comment previously on this post. The main idea is that there’s a tradeoff between certainty and high-risk, high-reward options, and I think there’s a market for both. I’ll paste the most fun part of the argument below.
“Finally, at the risk of going down a rabbit hole, one more point. There are a lot of parallels to this offset debate within international development/global health, an area in which EA is much more developed. Within EA communities, most people are quite comfortable with the recommendations from GiveWell, which are all direct-delivery of health services, and therefore things that can be measured with a high level of certainty. (Like offsets!) So why don’t big international development agencies (World Bank, etc) concentrate only on direct delivery of health services? It’s not because they are just stupid. It’s because they think they can have more bang for their buck investing in systemic changes that can’t be well-quantified with an RCT (like institution-building, macroeconomic stability, infrastructure, etc). Kinda like...funding charities that work on climate policy. So I would find it curious if the final consensus from EAs on global health is all about certainty, but in environment it is firmly for less-certain policy interventions. My argument would be that there is a clear place for both. “
Quantitative modeling: Alex is of the opinion that because we haven’t explicitly quantitatively modeled some of the tradeoffs we face, that the analysis isn’t to be trusted. I think we just have a fundamental difference of opinion on the value of modeling in situations of extreme uncertainty. Look, I’m a trained economist and am pro-modeling in general. But if you’re going to make a model where the outcomes are decided by key parameters that you have to make uninformed judgement calls on, what is the value of the model? Why not just make your judgement call on the outcome?
I know that modeling is in vogue in the EA community so perhaps this makes us outsiders, but I fundamentally believe that modeling in these circumstances leads only to science-y false precision, and does not actually give more clarity.
Let’s take an example, which leads into a discussion below. Let’s say we were trying to weigh the value of a donation to the Sunrise Movement Education Fund (TSM) vs Clean Air Task Force (CATF). Ok, you could model it, but at some point you’re going to have to make a judgement call on the fundamental tradeoff: CATF is more likely to cause incremental change (though some would argue that this is at the expense of entrenching fossil interests and hurting long-term progress), while TSM has a lower chance of causing more fundamental change (though at the potential expense of increasing polarization and jeopardizing incremental progress). So tell me, how are you going to get an unbiased, data-driven estimate of this key parameter that will determine the outcome of your model? I don’t think it’s possible, so don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.
Recommendation of Sunrise Movement Education Fund (TSM): Understanding how donations to organizations lead to policy change is an exercise in fundamental uncertainty, and is going to involve tough judgement calls. I understand that people could make a different judgement call on the tradeoffs with TSM and come to a different conclusion. To be honest, we’ll know a lot more over the next couple of years, as now is the time for TSM to flex its muscles and get climate on the agenda of the Biden administration (and democratic congress.) But for now, we stand by our research and think it’s a good bet. You can read our justification on the site.
A couple of specific points: it’s true that TSM’s budget has grown massively over the last few years (as has CATF’s for that matter), but I think that’s a poor proxy for neglectedness. I think that there is very little effective climate activism happening out there, and there’s huge room for effective growth.
I’m really not compelled by the “uncertainty about the sign of impact” argument, though i don’t really have a way to argue against it quantitatively since it’s theoretically possible. I would just say that this argument is lobbed at a lot of organizations, since people have different theories of political change. For instance, above I linked to an article making a similar argument about the 45Q tax credit, which is one of CATF’s big claimed accomplishments. It’s messy.
Burn Recommendation: I really think that much of the criticism is off the mark here. Berkouer and Dean (2020) focuses a lot of their analysis on credit and demand curves and other fancy economics because that’s how economists get papers published, but underpinning the paper is a strong RCT that convincingly estimates the effect of purchasing a BURN stove on fuel use. Yes, it would be nice if the sample size used for long-term follow-up was larger. And yes, this is just one study but it’s important to realize that it’s a carbon offset certification (which has a number of validation criteria) plus an RCT, which is rare and gives multiple layers of certainty. Given the difficulty of many carbon offsets, I think this is a unique level of rigor that justifies our recommendation of BURN.
The worry that purchasing offsets will not actually lead to more stoves getting distributed is more valid, as this is very hard to verify. But I’m fundamentally willing to believe that if a company like BURN gets more revenue from every stove they sell, they will sell more stoves. In other words, I think the supply curve slopes up, like it usually does.
This one is a little tougher. Like Alex said, we did not take cost into account when recommending offsets, because we were just looking for any offsets that we felt offered near-certainty. And Climeworks really does offer unparalleled certainty and permanence. But yes, Climeworks is expensive (and we are up front about that on the site). In order for it to be worth it, you have to believe that direct air capture and storage of CO2 is going to be an important part of the climate solution in the future. I don’t find those Metaculus numbers Alex listed too relevant, since you are betting on the technology, not the company. But I can see how reasonable people could disagree here.
“The EA movement currently has no organization dedicated full time to exploring and making a strong case for new cause areas. ”
Isn’t this what open phil does?
Hey, Dan from Giving Green here. Nice post, and glad to see more and more EAs thinking deeply about the climate problem. There are a lot of tough assumptions that go into these numbers, but I think the logic is sound that promoting clean energy innovation is among the most cost-effective ways to fight climate change.
That being said, I think the question of how to best promote clean energy is pretty complicated. I don’t know a lot about the MIT Energy Initiative in particular, but I think that directly funding specific research efforts is likely less cost-effective than trying to influence policy. The right policy victory can have huge leverage in terms of allocating government money for research funding (for instance, through the ARPA-E program ), and can also drive innovation through regulations like carbon pricing or fuel mileage standards. This pathway of influencing energy innovation through policy is what we have focused on at Giving Green, and also mirrors the approach of Founder’s Pledge and Let’s Fund.
Another way to drive innovation is through private-sector investments. The issue with this is that the investment space as a whole is not so neglected, with lots of “clean tech” funds popping up every year. But I do think there are likely some neglected pockets, specifically for early, unproven tech that has a long road to profitability. There could be space for philanthropic capital to have important impacts. At Giving Green, we’re planning to study this space in 2021.
Hi Guys, Dan from Giving Green here. Some good comments on our work and how it relates so far. We’re seen a lot of stuff in our research that may fall in the “Play Pumps” category. But if there was one that that really stands out, I think it’s carbon offsets for clean water. Check out our write-up here: https://www.givinggreen.earth/post/water-purification-technology
Johannes and I have debated this at length before, but I’d like to make a plug for the utility of providing recommendations for offsets, as we do at Giving Green. I agree with Johannes that offsets are likely much less effective in the fight against climate change than donations targeting systemic change, such as moving policy or technology. (Though I’m less confident about putting any numbers on this difference, which feels like an exercise in extreme guesswork.)
That being said, I do think that providing recommendations in the offset space is likely to result in less GHGs emitted. Johannes expressed worry about diverting donations from effective charities to offsets, but in my opinion that’s not a large concern. People who are thinking closely about effectiveness of donations will easily read the suggestions by orgs like Founder’s Pledge and Giving Green, pushing them toward more systemic donation options.
But that being said, there is a huge market for certainty, which is why these offsets exist. When we make recommendations on offsets, we generally shouldn’t be thinking about individuals who are choosing between different charities. Individuals are a tiny fraction of the offset market (~3% of the voluntary market, and 0% of the compliance market)- all the action is from corporations (voluntary market and carbon-priced markets like California), countries (at least under Kyoto, still unclear what role offsets will play in Paris). The offset market was >300 million in 2019, and is poised to grow: see the growing list of companies who made carbon-neutral commitments in the past few year. These companies are never going to donate to teh Clean Air Task Force. They want certainty, and their purchases can be made WAY more effective by improving the offset market. THere is tons of social value here.
Now, back to HIA. Despite my belief that making offset recommendations has social benefit, HIA is targeted at athletes, who should have no requirement to enter the offset market. I do think HIA could improve its climate recommendations by trying actively to push athletes away from the offset market toward more effective charities. But given that offsets are likely to be attractive to people for various reasons, I feel like offering them offset options is likely to crowd in money rather than divert from more effective charities. But agreed this is an empirical question that is tough to answer
But if HIA is going to offer a recommendation for offsets, I would encourage you guys to use the recommendations at Giving Green. In my opinion, the options at Atmosfair have not been properly vetted, though I don’t think this is the forum to pick apart their recommendations.
Finally, at the risk of going down a rabbit hole, one more point. There are a lot of parallels to this offset debate within international development/global health, an area in which EA is much more developed. Within EA communities, most people are quite comfortable with the recommendations from GiveWell, which are all direct-delivery of health services, and therefore things that can be measured with a high level of certainty. (Like offsets!) So why don’t big international development agencies (World Bank, etc) concentrate only on directly delivery of health services? It’s not because they are just stupid. It’s because they think they can have more bang for their buck investing in systemic changes that can’t be well-quantified with an RCT (like institution-building, macroeconomic stability, infrastructure, etc). Kinda like...funding charities that work on climate policy. So I would find it curious if the final consensus from EAs on global health is all about certainty, but in environment it is firmly for less-certain policy interventions. My argument would be that there is a clear place for both.
I can’t speak for CE, but we at Giving Green have looked a bit into Wren.
Some thing I like about Wren:
They seem to have put some thought and extra effort into picking offsets they think are better than normal.
They have a nice interface and good publicity, so hopefully that will crowd some money into funding good projects.
Some things I don’t like about Wren:
I fundamentally disagree with the idea that measuring a ‘carbon footprint’ and then offsetting this footprint is a meaningful and productive way to fight climate change. People should be doing what they can to reduce their own emissions, and using their donations in the most effective ways possible. Why should the amount of carbon an individual emits be a meaningful marker for how much one should contribute to the fight? This logic only works if offsets are seen as a way to give someone permission to undo the damage of a high-carbon lifestyle. That’s a dangerous perspective, as we need to reduce emissions from all angles, not just increase on one hand and offset on the others. Plus, no offsets are certain enough to really undo a person’s damage. Giving Green recommends that individuals and organizations view offsets simply as a philanthropic contribution to a pro-climate project with an evidence-based approach to reducing emissions, rather than a way to eliminate their contribution to climate change.
Their selection of recommended offsets seems a bit ad-hoc. Sometimes I get the logic of why a certain project is special in the great sea of offset projects, but other times I don’t really see it. There isn’t much information on their selection process or criteria- it all feels relatively non-transparent to me. Maybe someone would lob the same criticisms at Giving Green, but we’ve tried to be as transparent as possible, and when we re-launch our website in a couple of weeks there will be a bunch more documentation on our process and selection criteria.
Hi Maria, thanks for the note. I understand the point you’re making, but I think the case of forestry and cookstoves are really quite different. The difference is that with clean cookstove (or really any project that improves energy efficiency), you permanently remove demand for energy, which is not reversible.
Let’s take a classic impermanence example around forestry offsets. A project works for a year to conserve a hectare of forest that would have been counterfactually cut down . They are issued X carbon credits for this conservation, and sell these credits as offsets in the market. The next year, the projects shuts down (due to lack of funding, political reasons, whatever). The the trees are simply cut down the next year. So although people bought “offsets” for X tons of carbon, really their purchase only went towards delaying those emissions for one year. And that’s if you’re lucky- maybe two acres get cut down the next year to make up for lost time, feeding pent-up demand for forest products.
Now let’s take the example of stoves. A project distributes clean cookstoves to a bunch of households. After a year they verify that these cookstoves are still in use, and they are issued X carbon credits for fuel that would have been counterfactually consumed. No matter what happens in the future, the demand for fuel the previous year has been erased, and is not coming back. Now, I understand what you are saying- that fuel that has not been burned in the stove in theory flows back up the supply chain and results in fewer trees being cut down. But the demand pressure to cut the tree down has been permanently removed.
I know this isn’t perfect. For instance, if the forest that produces the charcoal burns down, then all the efforts we make to reduce fuel usage go up in smoke. Also, reduced charcoal demand could cause prices to go down causing a rebound effect. But I do think it’s fundamentally better than just temporarily preventing a patch of forest from being cut down without addressing any of the demand issues.
Also, it’s not that we think forestry projects are fundamentally bad. We just think there are so many things that could go wrong that they are fiendishly hard to verify effectiveness. We’re definitely keeping our eyes open for forestry offsets that can address all the issues, and hope to re-open this search next year. (Note that permanence is only one issues. Forestry offsets also suffer from hard-to-validate counterfactuals, and “leakage” in which trees are just cut down in other areas.)
Finally, in the end I don’t want to spend too much time defending any particular offset, even the ones we recommend. I think that fundamentally, the idea that you can buy an offset and causally undo emissions with certainty is simply flawed. The world is too complex, and this level of certainty doesn’t exist. We view “good” offset projects as ones that are doing good work and verifiably reducing emissions, but reject the idea that offsets can or should be used to wash away one’s carbon sins.
Hi Everyone, Dan from Giving Green here. Just a note that we’ll be doing a big re-launch of our website and product (with recommendations for the 2020 giving season!) in about a month’s time. We’re looking forward to sharing more details of our strategy in a post here around that time. In the meantime, happy to answer questions here or chat with interested parties.
I know I’m a bit late to this topic, but at Giving Green (www.idinsight.org/givinggreen) we are trying to answer specifically this problem. We’re building on excellent previous work (like that at Let’s Fund and Founder’s Pledge) to do a comprehensive analysis on giving, investment, and volunteer options to fight climate change. The work is still very early, but there is a lot coming in the pipeline so stay tuned. For now, we have a few recommendations in the offset market.