I agree it’s not technically the right name, but people generally know what it means which was important for a blogpost. In the paper I actually call it the mitigation obstruction argument. I explicitly discuss the irrationality assumption required for the mitigation obstruction argument in my paper. I think the question of how irrationally people/governments will respond to research is an open one.
3. I have a sceptical prior against EU studies of scientific issues because the EU has taken an anti-science stance on many issues under pressure from the environmental movement—see e.g. the effective prohibition of GMOs. The fact that the report you cite advocates for increased organic farming adds weight to my scepticism. The report also says that the estimate of the economic costs is extremely uncertain and potentially a massive overestimate.
4. There are many things in the world that impose substantial economic costs, including inefficienct taxation, labour market regulation, failure to invest in R&D, etc. While they may indeed create economic costs, I fail to see the connection to existential risk.
5. While it is a small part of your portfolio, there is limited political attention for existential risk, and if CSER does start advocating for the view that biodiversity loss deserves serious consideration as a factor relevant to existential risk, that comes at a cost. In this case, the fact that Partha Dasgupta is an influential person is a negative because he risks distracting policymakers from the genuine risks
There are lots of risk factors for societal resilience to catastrophes, including all contemporary political and economic problems. The key question is how much of a risk they are and I have yet to see any evidence that biodiversity loss is among the top ones.
Can you explain what the mechanism is whereby biodiversity loss creates existential risk? And if biodiversity loss is an existential risk, how big a risk is it? Should 80k be getting people to go into conservation science or not?
There are independent reasons to think that the risk is negligible. Firstly, according to wikipedia, during the Eocene period ~65m years ago, there were thousands fewer genera than today. We have made ~1% of species extinct, and we would have to continue at current rates of species extinctions for at least 200 years to return to Eocene levels of biodiversity. And yet, even though significantly warmer than today, the Eocene marked the dawn of thousands of new species. So, why would we expect the world 200 years hence to be inhospitable to humans if it wasn’t inhospitable for all of the species emerging in the Eocene, who are/were significantly less numerous than humans and significantly less capable of a rational response to problems?
Secondly, as far as I am aware, evidence for pressure-induced non-linear ecosystem shifts is very limited. This is true for a range of ecosystems. Linear ecosystem damage seems to be the norm. If so, this leaves more scope for learning about the costs of our damage to ecosystems and correcting any damage we have done.
Thirdly, ecosystem services are overwhelmingly a function of the relations within local ecosystems, rather than of global trends in biodiversity. Upon discovering Hawaii, the Polynesians eliminated so many species that global decadal extinction rates would have been exceptional. This has next to no bearing on ecosystem services outside Hawaii. Humanity is an intelligent species and will be able to see if other regions are suffering from biodiversity loss and make adjustments accordingly. Why would all regions be so stupid as to ignore lessons from elsewhere? Also, is biodiversity actually decreasing in the rich world? I know forest cover is increasing in many places. Population is set to decline in many rich countries in the near future, and environmental impact per person is declining on many metrics.
I also find it surprising that you cite the Kareiva and Carranza paper in support of your claims, for this paper in fact directly contradicts them:
“The interesting question is whether any of the planetary thresholds other than CO2 could also portend existential risks. Here the answer is not clear. One boundary often mentioned as a concern for the fate of global civilization is biodiversity (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2012), with the proposed safety threshold being a loss of greater than 0.001% per year (Rockström et al., 2009). There is little evidence that this particular 0.001% annual loss is a threshold—and it is hard to imagine any data that would allow one to identify where the threshold was (Brook, Ellis, Perring, Mackay, & Blomqvist, 2013; Lenton & Williams, 2013). A better question is whether one can imagine any scenario by which the loss of too many species leads to the collapse of societies and environmental disasters, even though one cannot know the absolute number of extinctions that would be required to create this dystopia.
While there are data that relate local reductions in species richness to altered ecosystem function, these results do not point to substantial existential risks. The data are small-scale experiments in which plant productivity, or nutrient retention is reduced as species numbers decline locally (Vellend, 2017), or are local observations of increased variability in fisheries yield when stock diversity is lost (Schindler et al., 2010). Those are not existential risks. To make the link even more tenuous, there is little evidence that biodiversity is even declining at local scales (Vellend et al., 2013, Vellend et al., 2017). Total planetary biodiversity may be in decline, but local and regional biodiversity is often staying the same because species from elsewhere replace local losses, albeit homogenizing the world in the process. Although the majority of conservation scientists are likely to flinch at this conclusion, there is growing skepticism regarding the strength of evidence linking trends in biodiversity loss to an existential risk for humans (Maier, 2012; Vellend, 2014). Obviously if all biodiversity disappeared civilization would end—but no one is forecasting the loss of all species. It seems plausible that the loss of 90% of the world’s species could also be apocalyptic, but not one is predicting that degree of biodiversity loss either. Tragic, but plausible is the possibility of our planet suffering a loss of as many as half of its species. If global biodiversity were halved, but at the same time locally the number of species stayed relatively stable, what would be the mechanism for an end-of-civilization or even end of human prosperityscenario? Extinctions and biodiversity loss are ethical and spiritual losses, but perhaps not an existential risk.”
Energy for Humanity is a great underfunded pro-nuclear NGO working in the EU. Clean Air Task Force and Third Way are also great.
I also think the current emphasis on solar and wind in some places could be a barrier to sensible low carbon policies in the long-term, especially as they don’t go very well with nuclear. It also doesn’t make a great deal of sense to combine intermittent renewables with nuclear, as France bizarrely recently considered doing, since it just makes nuclear run below capacity when the sun is shining, which doesn’t make economic sense.
I’ll focus on point 2 because I think it is the most important. I don’t see the argument for it being true that for the vast majority of people, working on climate change promises more leverage on the problem of nuclear war, than does working directly on nuclear war. Nuclear war is easier to make progress on, more neglected and more important than climate change.
Yes I think you are in fact right that plausible priors do seem to exclude ECS above 5 degrees.
You pick out a major problem in drawing conclusions about ECS—the IPCC does not explain how they arrive at their pdf of ECS and the estimate seems to be produced somewhat subjectively from various current estimates from instrumental and paleoclimatic data and from their own expert judgement as to what weight to give to different studies. I think this means that they give some weight to pdfs with a very fat tail, which seems to be wrong, given their use of uniform priors. This might mean that their tail estimate is too high
I agree that the environmental movement is extremely poor at optimisation. This being said, there are a number of very large philanthropists and charities who do take a sensible approach to climate change, so I don’t think this is a case in which EAs could march in and totally change everything. Much of Climateworks’ giving takes a broadly EA approach, and they oversee the giving of numerous multi-billion dollar foundations. Gates also does some sensible work on the energy innovation side. Nevertheless, most money in the space does seem to be spent very badly, e.g. on opposing nuclear power. This consideration might even make the environmental movement net negative wrt climate, though I haven’t crunched any numbers on that.
I would also add that sensible EA answers in this space face substantial opposition from the envionmental movement. I think a rational analysis argues in favour of advocating for nuclear and carbon capture, for energy innovation in general, and for financial incentives for preventing deforestation. All of these things are opposed quite strongly by different constituencies in the environmental movement. Maybe the one thing most people can agree on is carbon pricing, but that is hard to get through for other reasons
On Bayesianism—this is an important point. The very heavy tailed estimates all use a “zero information” prior with an arbitrary cut-off at eg 10 degrees or 20 degrees. (I discuss this in my write-up). This is flawed and more plausible priors are available which thin out the tails a lot.
However, I don’t think you need this to get to there being substantial tail risk. Eyeballing the ECS estimates that use plausible priors, there’s still something like a 1-5% chance of ECS being >5 degrees, which means that from 1.5 doublings of GHG concentrations, which seems plausible, there’s a 1-5% of ~7 degrees
Thanks for this. It’s useful for the community to think about this kind of thing and this is well-argued.
1. It’s a good point that since the top AI fields seem oversubscribed, it might be worth some people moving into the next best causes. Another possibility is that they should wait until the number of organisations catches up with the number of people. It might even be that the most valuable options is having a reserve of a large number of people who could, with some probability, be a good fit for the highest-impact orgs, even though most of these people never end up working for high-impact orgs. This puts a new slant on the demandingness of EA: rather than making sacrifices by donating, EAs make sacrifices by being prepared to accept the substantial probability of themselves never having impact. This would be hard to take psychologically, but might be the right thing to do in a crowded talent space.
2. On indirect risks, another point I make in the FP report is that while climate change is an indirect stressor of other risks, this suggests to me that working on those terminal risks directly would be a better bet than working on climate change since climate change is such an indirect stressor, is very crowded and seems difficult to make progress on. What do you think of that argument?
3. I don’t think it is right that problems with high tractability should be de-prioritised. I think what you mean is that we should focus on things that shift the long-term trajectory of humanity. But these could be highly tractable. e.g. the problem of not starting nuclear war was tractable for Vasili Arkhipov, but plausibly had large long-term effects. Having looked at it in some depth, climate change does look an intractable problem overall and this is indeed a reason not to work on it.
4. Another good point on how there could be increasing returns to scale in climate change, as we could affect the huge pool of funds going to the space through engagement.
5. Really, the ITN perhaps shouldn’t be used when we have cost-effectiveness estimates. On the 80k rendering, ITN is literally a cost-effectiveness estimate. But we now have cost-effectiveness estimates of climate charities. If we can make plausible estimates of the impact of bio, AI and nuclear, then we should use those, rather than appealing to the ITN. similarly, for use of time as well as money.
5. It is premature to say that work on climate change could be tractable. I think careful analysis is needed to figure out whether the things you list are indeed a good bet compared to other things that EAs could do.
6. Climate Action Tracker suggests that on current policy, we are in for 3.1 to 3.5C, which is different to the ‘baseline’ trajectory estimate that you give. I think the current policy trajectory is most relevant for that part of your argument. (But note that this is only by 2100)
7. The impact of climate change on food production is in fact predicted to be fairly modest, as I discuss here. Yields might fall by 10-20% but this will be in the context of rising productivity and improvement in the other factors that determine the supply of food.
8. The emphasis on water shortage throughout is a bit overblown. We don’t need to ration water, we just need to price it properly (which is efficient rationing). If we did that, there would be no water problems today or in the future, anywhere (provided people had enough money).
2. I don’t think this is right, for reasons discussed in this Nature paper. Firstly, solar geoengineering could be used to slow the rate of warming even if it is deployed temporarily. You could deploy it over e.g. a fifty year period and thereby delay the point at which we reach peak warming, and then taper it out gradually. Secondly, as you say, an exception is if CO2 emissions stay above zero. Solar geoengineering could in principle buy us time to abate emissions and to take CO2 out of the atmosphere in which case it would not have to be deployed for the full lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere. In this case, solar geo would slow the rate of warming and reduce peak warming.
Thirdly, I don’t see why solar geoengineering would ever be stopped suddenly once we started. The reasons for this are discussed in the Parker and Irvine piece on solar geoengineering. All countries would have a reason to prevent it from stopping suddenly and would have the means to do so given how cheap it is. A catastrophe causing termination would have to be extraordinarily specific.
3. To clarify, is your point here that we should focus on mitigation because then we’ll be left with some spare oil come a later catastrophe?
I’m not completely sure I follow why your first paragraph is a critique. I don’t expect governance to improve on its own. My claim is that we do not need 50 years of governance research to get governance to a sufficiently good level should we need to deploy solar geoengineering in the future. The hope is that we will be wise enough not to have to use it because we will start serious mitigation, and I’m worried that geoengineering research could be one of many factors that could derail those efforts.
It is true that developing geoengineering technology would create incentives to improve governance mechanisms for geoengineering. I’m not sure why that is a critique of my argument.
I agree that war is unlikely for the reasons you outline.
Was deleted for tone, no interesting content
ok thanks, understood. i hope it wasn’t grasping at straws, but maybe this debate has got too sidetracked and should draw to a close.
We were debating the claim “Hmm, it is not at all clear to me that the accusations that are being discussed here [the Brown accusations] are separate from the accusations that appear to have caused his apology.” Julia Wise’s comments has confirmed that the claims were separate. The term ‘separate’ here means ‘different instance of sexual harassment’.
The question is about probabilities of guilt/innocence. If you have multiple people accuse you of sexual or non-sexual harassment over the course of at least 7 years in different communities, then you are either extremely unlucky or you have actually harassed people. He also admits guilt
I know the two are not the same—this argument was about your claim: “Hmm, it is not at all clear to me that the accusations that are being discussed here [the Brown accusations] are separate from the accusations that appear to have caused his apology.”
I am not disputing the claim that numerous complaints over the course of my life about my behaviour would be strong evidence that I have behaved badly. I have been defending this throughout this whole thread. The outside view is strong evidence, of course. The question is whether I would know the details of these complaints if I were told of this outside view evidence. The answer for the vast majority of neurotypical people is ‘yes’. I would be able to recall specific cases in which I stepped over the line and I would know how I erred.