Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a pretty good introduction to the challenge, very accessible and framing the challenge of climate change in the wider context of a developing world with rising energy needs (something the debate too often forgets).Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air is somewhat dated now, but a classic and available freely on the internet (https://www.withouthotair.com/).The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success by Mark Jaccard is also good, although it does not give a full overview in the way the other books mentioned here do.
My position is roughly the following:1. I agree with this line of reasoning in the way that CATF presents it, i.e. that while there is a possibility that intermittent renewables alone could be sufficient, this is not particularly like and, crucially, this is not where most climate risk is that we should hedge against.Of course there is (and CATF acknowledges this) a future where intermittent renewables solve almost the entire decarbonization challenge, but this requires a lot of things to go right including (1) continued cost reductions, (2) solving the challenge of seasonal storage, (3) massive transmission infrastructure, (4) very cheap conversion technologies to zero-carbon fuels (related to 2) for storage, transport applications and industrial applications, etc., (5) a world where many regions with poor renewable resources are happy to remain / become more energy-dependent, (6) a re-organization of the global energy market that finds a way to provide revenue to zero-marginal-cost resources, etc.This is probably not impossible, but it does not seem very likely. In the same way that we are prioritizing AGI-safety interventions that do not assume that AGI is inherently safe, I don’t think we should assume this to all work out when thinking about high-impact philanthropic interventions. Indeed, because damage is concentrated in world where this does not work out, we should probably focus on stuff that works in those futures.2. Storage would solve some of this, in particular if it is chemical storage (rather than electric) because zero-carbon fuels can also be used to create heat for residential and industrial applications, to power heavy-duty transport, to store energy over seasons, etc. But it needs to get really cheap if we only rely on intermittent renewables (because the storage/conversion tech would not work 24⁄7, i.e. not be optimally economical). It doesn’t solve potential problems around land use and potential energy, of course.3. I would say advanced nuclear & super-hot-rock geothermal are tied for first position from an environmental and public health perspective, gas with carbon capture would be much better than coal with carbon capture (15x less air pollution), comparing this with large-scale hydro or large-scale bio-energy would be tricky and I am a bit out of my depth here. But neither of those second-best options is really great.
Many US-based advanced nuclear companies aim for first commercial plants by end of this decade, here’s an overview over timelines:https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/why-advanced-nuclear-reactors-may-be-here-sooner-than-many-imagine I am not particularly optimistic about nuclear in much of Western Europe (with the possible exception of UK, Netherlands and France) because of the strong anti-nuclear sentiments you mention. But a more serious climate conversation (how to actually reach targets) could also lead to changes here. That said, my main theory of change for advanced nuclear is advanced nuclear innovation in a couple of key jurisdictions (US, maybe UK & Canada, Korea, China, Russia) and then global adoption, particularly in emerging economies where emissions are raising and the costs of air pollution are felt very acutely. Europe is fairly optional in this story (though, of course, things get easier when Europe is less anti-nuclear).
This is one consideration among many, but if low-coordination futures are (a) a significant part of the probability mass (b) and are sufficiently bad (both of which seem plausible) this can be an important consideration in favor of innovation / solutions that work when shit hits the fan.
At FP, we’re trying to get a better handle on the quantitative import of this consideration and others to be able to make more informed statements about how the balance shakes out (e.g. hypothetically, what if policy leadership was really neglected and super high leverage?) That said, policy leadership could also be really good if impactful policy indeed cascades. The main barrier I see to this right now is finding policies that are cascading and are effective in a variety of settings. E.g. carbon pricing policies are arguably cascading, but implemented at such weak levels that they are relatively inconsequential with regards to global emissions. And something like the Climate Change Act, a binding commitment to an emissions trajectory, seems hard to pull off in a developing/emerging economy.
Yes, I (and I think we?) very much agree with that—that’s why we (FP) are supporting Carbon180 as the key advocacy org focused on this solution:https://founderspledge.com/stories/carbon180-high-impact-funding-opportunity
I agree with that answer, I think now is not the time on climate to do something that takes 10 years to have significant effects. Apart from that, it seems unlikely that the marginal climate scientist will have much impact on climate progress.
I am happy to address this tomorrow!It’s a trade-off, for sure, but I tend to believe the differentials are much larger than 10x because of the various independent impact multipliers from advocacy * neglectedness * innovation.
Hi James,thanks for the questions!Re 1:This is a conservative guess (something like 90% confidence that it is at least 2x as impactful, possibly quite a bit more than that). We hope to more analysis on this once we have more data (e.g. the fund running longer). But here are some more of the underlying data and observations:a. Our 250k grant to TerraPraxis grant was the first major (>50k) philanthropic grant to this org (incl. its predecessor, Energy for Humanity) and put it the org significantly more on the map, then being able to crowd in 1 million in funding shortly thereafter. TerraPraxis has also stressed that the initial grant gave them the ability to be way more intentional about their pursuits, so we see this as an example of trajectory-shaping grantmaking that will, over time, have a really large multiplier. There were other similar opportunities with large multipliers.b. In our conversations, charities often stress the importance of funding stability / predictability, something a fund can provide but individual donors cannot as easily (this then leads to less cost-effective ways of using money, such as using part-time consultants rather than staffing up full-time staff when there is no trajectory certainty). So, there is multiplier here from deploying capital more effectively, with more planning certainty.c. There were several instances of time-sensitive opportunities, such as after the Biden victory or—more surprisingly to many (and therefore less prepared for) the Democrats winning Georgia—where there were acute funding needs that required fast decisions (we did not take up all of those instances, sometimes others acted first but we would have if they hadn’t, etc.). So, there’s something here both in terms of some times being particularly important (and timing matters), but also about not overfilling funding gaps.Re 2:Many events that they are linking to on their website are free-to-attend (https://www.terrapraxis.org/upcoming-events). We will also update our TerraPraxis analysis in time (though this is not imminent).Re 3:We are not at the level of identifying orgs yet, we are earlier than that. This is more of an example of the kinds of things we are looking at, right now we are scoping out what seems best to go deeper on and this example—finding orgs that prevent carbon lock-in in emerging economies—appears a fairly promising angle. But the first thing to understand there before recommending orgs would be to identify localities where climate mitigation + overcoming energy poverty are not in conflict, but ideally synergistic (e.g. in geographies where renewable resources are very promising).
It’s true that political action is a necessary step towards achieving meaningful, lasting change. However, the dichotomy between political action and philanthropy is a false one. Both play an important role in improving the world, and they can be mutually beneficial.
This (and the infographic that follows) seem quite contradictory to me—first stating it is a false dichotomy but then reinforcing that false dichotomy but describing the two as distinct components that can be complementary. The article then later focuses on what seems the stronger evidence of the false dichotomy claim—showing how lots of giving opportunities EAs focus on are very political, i.e. that the critique does not really apply, when you decide for high-impact charity you might very well decide to focus on high-impact charity working on systemic change.
The goal is to make this newsletter very accessible and useful both to anyone interested in policy (not just EAs) and get people thinking more about what the most impactful, influential policy really is.
Thanks for this work! Commenting on the climate section (the topic I know most about, not really expert in the other domains you cover), inferring importance and influentialness from the write-up seems hard—it looks like a round-up of interesting developments, but with little prioritization and assessment between them.E.g. the American Jobs Plan is arguably the most important climate legislation right now, > 10x larger than the climate piece of the Recovery Act and quite a momentous shift in the willingness to invest in low-carbon infrastructure, but this is not clear from the write-up which gives similar weight to fairly marginal issues such as methane regulation for new oil and gas fields (short-lived pollutants in a subset of the economy, and only new installations) or state policies (Washington state having a target that is 10-15% more ambitious than what other Democratic-leaning states are doing seems fairly inconsequential).I think this makes sense as a round-up, but I do think it does not meet the goal of focusing on the most impactful / influential developments. So I’d agree with Larks and Evelyn that a narrower, but deeper newsletter could be more accurate and more in line with the goal of highlighting particularly important developments.
Great post, thanks! Some thoughts:1. I agree that the mitigation obstruction argument is over-sold and not particularly strong, for many of the reasons you outline (in the real world, it seems to me that most pressure to do something on climate is not addressed by geo-engineering, so politicians face little incentive to over-emphasize geo-engineering, rather they will underemphasize it compared to potential given the demonization and the perceived strength of the obstruction argument in public discourse).2. That said, you do seem to miss one key aspect of solar geo-engineering compared to other environmental interventions, that it is incredibly cheap and quickly to implement, which is not true of other climate solutions with similar mitigation / damage prevention potential. So there is a way in which the obstruction argument could be stronger “let’s not do this expensive infrastructure investment into clean tech now, let’s do cheap geo-engineering in 10 years if things go bad”. 3. I think the mitigation obstruction argument should not matter much either way for relatively small-scale marginal actions (such as supporting charities that advance geo-engineering research, or carbon dioxide removal, etc.). That is because those ideas exist and it seems implausible that the strength of mitigation obstruction arguments working in public discourse is very sensitive to whether we (societally, globally) spend 5 or 20 million a year working on this, either way you can point to solar geo-engineering as a reason to not act (this is related to 2, the low cost makes this more likely).4. The worlds I am worried about the most are worlds where that mitigation obstruction argument did some work with obstructing (a) climate action and (b) action on geo-engineering, carbon dioxide removal, etc. and then we are actually not ready to deploy even if we wanted to. 5. I think this is a real risk for carbon dioxide removal solutions (hence, supporting Carbon180) as finding things that work reasonably cheaply when we want to mass deploy requires targeted innovation and search now; I am less worried about solar geo-engineering because it can be researched and deployed quickly (that it is too expensive is not a concern with solar geo-engineering, it’s all about risk trade-offs and governance) .
Interesting post! My colleague Stephen Clare (at Founders Pledge) is currently doing an investigation into this topic, it will be great to exchange.
The scope neglect examples in “On Caring”
I would suggest not “naturalizing” diminishing marginal returns (“as it usually is”), this is just an empirical question which, in my experience, often gets baked in as a fact/unquestioned assumption even when there are no substantive reasons to assume a particular slope.
Are “existential risk / security factors” what you’d see as the current frontier in longtermist intervention research?
I asked someone from our impact analytics team to reply here re FP, as he will be better calibrated to share what is public and what is not.But in principle what Ben describes is correct, we have assessments of charities from our published reports (incl. judgments of partners, such as GiveWell) and we relate that to money moved. We also regularly update our assessments of charities, charities get comprehensively re-evaluated every 2 years or so, with many adjustments in between when things (funding gaps, political circumstances) .
So, this critique seems to incorrectly equate headline figure reporting with all metrics we and others are optimizing for.
Indeed. I can speak to Founders Pledge which is another of the orgs listed here: Founders Pledge focusing on the amount of money pledged and the amount of money donated, rather than on the impact those donations have had out in the world. While these are the metrics we are reporting most prominently, we do of course evaluate the impact these grants are having.
Note also that the global catastrophe is the shock (hazard) plus how it cascades through interconnected systems with feedback. We’re explicitly suggesting that the field move beyond ‘is x a catastrophe?’ to ‘how does x effect critical systems, which can feed into one another, and may act more on our vulnerability and exposure than as a direct, single hazard’.
My understanding is that we all agree on that (I certainly do). It just seems that the direct risk to food security is overstated in the article.
I was researching the food security—climate link a couple of years ago for German policy-makers. Two findings stood out:1. While climate has an effect on agricultural productivity, the effects of increasing yields and a decreasing rate of population growth will very likely lead to a less food-insecure future in terms of global food supply (in line with Halstead’s comment).2. Obviously, this does not mean that climate change will not lead to famines in some places, but this will not be an issue of global insufficiency, but of unequal vulnerability and access.I am very worried about the destabilizing effects of climate change because of mechanisms related to 2 and other indirect effects—the risk for civil strife, political instability, migration, knock-on effects etc. But it seems very unlikely that climate change will cause a collapse of the global food system constituting a global catastrophe as a direct effect.