I am a forecaster, and occasional independent researcher. I also work in a volunteer capacity for SoGive, which has included some analysis of the climate space in order to provide advice to some individual donors interested in this area. This work has involved ~20 hours of conference calls over the last year with donors and organisations, one of which was the Clean Air Task Force, although for the last few months my primary focus has been internal work on moral weights. I began the research for this piece in a personal capacity, and the opinions below are my own, not those of SoGive.
I received input on some early drafts, for which I am extremely grateful, from Sanjay Joshi (SoGive’s founder), as well as Aaron Gertler and Linch Zhang, however I again want to emphasise that the opinions expressed, and especially any mistakes in the below, are mine alone. I'm also very grateful to Giving Green for taking the time to have a call with me about my thinking here. I provided a copy of the post to them in advance, and they have indicated that they'll be providing a reponse to the below.
I think that Giving Green has the potential to be incredibly impactful, not just on the climate but also on the EA/Effective Giving communities. Many people, especially young people, are extremely concerned about climate change, and very excited to act to prevent it. Meta-analysis of climate charities has the chance to therefore have large first-order effects, by redirecting donations to the most effective organisations within the climate space. It also, if done well, has the potential to have large second-order effects, by introducing people to the huge multiplier on their impact that cost-effectiveness research can have, and through that to the wider EA movement. I note that at least one current CEA staff member took this exact path into EA. With this said, I am concerned about some aspects of Giving Green in its current form, and having discussed these concerns with them, felt it was worth publishing the below.
Concerns about research quality
Giving Green’s evaluation process involves substantial evidence collection and qualitative evaluation, but eschews quantitative modelling, in favour of a combination of metrics which do not have a simple relationship to cost-effectiveness. In three cases, detailed below, I have reservations about the strength of Giving Green’s recommendations. Giving Green also currently recommends the Clean Air Task Force, which I enthusiastically endorse, but who Founders Pledge had identified as promising before Giving Green’s founding, and Tradewater, who I have not evaluated. What this boils down to is that in every case where I investigated an original recommendation made by Giving Green, I was concerned by the analysis to the point where I could not agree with the recommendation.
Despite the unusual approach, especially compared to standard EA practice, the research and methodology are presented by Giving Green in a way which implies a level of concreteness comparable to major existing charity evaluators such as Givewell. As well as the quantitative aspect mentioned above, major evaluators are notable for the high degree of rigour in their modelling, with arguments being carefully connected to concrete outcomes, and explicit consideration of downside risks and ways that they could be wrong. One important part of the more usual approach is that it makes research much easier to critique, as causal reasoning is laid out explicitly, and key assumptions are identified and quantified. When research lacks this style, not only does the potential for error increase, but it becomes much more difficult and time-intensive to critique, meaning errors in the analysis are less likely to be identified and publicised.
There being considerable room for improvement in Giving Green’s analysis is not, of itself, a major issue. Giving Green is a new organisation, which is primarily the work of two people in their spare time, and mistakes as a new organisation should be expected, let alone a new organisation with considerable time constraints. For example, GiveWell made many mistakes in its early years; in addition, concerns were raised productively about poor research quality at ACE a few years ago, and the impression I have from people who were involved at the time is that things have since substantially improved.
Media coverage risks overselling
Giving Green has, however, had an extremely successful launch, and has enthusiastically been promoted as a highlight of the effective giving/EA community. In some cases, I think that this promotion has implied a level of certainty behind Giving Green’s recommendations beyond that which is warranted, and indeed beyond that which they themselves have.
For example, this Atlantic article describes Giving Green as follows, before directly comparing them to Givewell:
Giving Green is part of the effective-altruism movement, which tries to answer questions such as “How can someone do the most good?” with scientific rigor. Or at least with econometric rigor…
This Vox article lists recommendations by Giving Green alongside Founder’s Pledge recommendations, describing both as:
the most high-impact, cost-effective, evidence-based charities to donate to if you want to improve US climate policy
Giving Green has also been highlighted in various more internal EA discussion, including an extremely positive post on the EA Forum, as well as a more neutral writeup in the Effective Altruism and Giving What We Can newsletters. The (even newer) organisation High Impact Athletes mentions Giving Green alongside Founders Pledge as a source of recommendations in their FAQ, though they do not feature prominently elsewhere. Edit: the reference to Giving Green has now been removed. While this piece was being drafted, another new organisation launched, with the aim of promoting and facilitating effective giving in Sweden. They list GiveWell, Giving Green, and ACE with equal prominence, again strongly implying an equivalence between the three. Having started this post with the case for why I am excited to see the emergence of an organisation like Giving Green, especially given this media success and their extremely slick website (seriously, go look at it), I am concerned that, especially among EAs, the lack of quantitative and rigorous analysis, even though it has been implied, poses a nontrivial reputational risk, especially if the headline recommendations are promoted without adequate qualification.
Finally, it feels like both Giving Green, and the EA community, could have seen this coming. Cool Earth was, for a long time, something like the default EA answer to the question “I really want to give to a climate charity, which is the best one?”, despite what turned out to be significant flaws in the analysis. It is still, as far as I know, the only climate charity mentioned in “Doing Good Better”. Thanks to the excellent work of Founders Pledge, among others, it is no longer the case that any recommendation is better than none.
My goal with this piece
I hope that Giving Green will, at least while they are still growing and learning, consider changing the priority with which the organisations they have researched are displayed, so that potential donors are strongly encouraged to donate to organisations where Giving Green concurs with the research of the more established effective climate researcher, Founders Pledge. My current personal recommendation for individual donors interested in climate change, or for EAs talking to friends who are looking for donation advice, is the one organisation recommended by both Giving Green and Founders Pledge, Clean Air Task Force.
Details of what I’m concerned about, including questions I put to Giving Green and details of their responses, are below.
Giving Green’s overall approach
- Giving Green’s analysis of offsets consists of assessing five factors, none of which consider cost. Their approach is described in this document, from which the image below outlining their framework is taken.
- When I asked why cost was not explicitly modelled, Giving Green responded that the cost estimates produced by the organisations themselves are often unreliable, and that the true cost per ton of carbon is very uncertain and difficult to estimate. I agree with both claims.
- However, something being difficult to model is not, in principle, a reason not to try. It could well be the case that optimistic estimates of the cost-effectiveness of one organisation clearly underperform pessimistic estimates of the cost effectiveness of another, and in such cases there seems to be little reason to continue to recommend the first.
- Giving Green agrees with the consensus EA view that the framing of “offsetting personal emissions” is unhelpful, stating, for example, in their launch post that:
Carbon offsets are a mechanism to contribute to certified projects in an attempt to “undo” climate damage done by individuals or businesses. We find this framing unhelpful, and instead argue that individuals and organizations should 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.
- Despite this, Giving Green has decided to make recommendations in the offset space, noting in the same article that:
In 2019 the voluntary carbon offset market transacted $330 million, and it looks poised for massive growth.
I would be very excited to see research by Giving Green into whether their approach of recommending charities which are, by their own analysis, much less cost effective than the best options is indeed justified. This analysis has not yet been performed by Giving Green, although they stated that they were very confident it would turn out to be the case.
Specifically, I’m interested in estimates/analysis of:
- What fraction of Giving Green’s donors will be people who come to Giving Green via EA or EA adjacent routes (where the most likely donation they would have made otherwise is to one of the FP top charities), and end up donating less effectively?
- What fraction of people who would otherwise not have come across EA climate change analysis, but who come across Giving Green, would have donated more effectively if Giving Green had presented them with only those recommendations where there is consensus on their effectiveness?
- Giving Green has not yet quantitatively modelled either aspect, although their impression of the climate donation space, which they view as comprised of several distinct groups, each with markedly different worldviews, gives them confidence in the portfolio approach.
Activism vs. Insider policy influence
From Giving Green’s “Recommendations” page:
Similarly to the above, there has not yet been any quantitative analysis by Giving Green of the tradeoff between making better, narrower recommendations but risking putting some people off, and making donations that appeal to more people but include some options which are much less effective than others. This is concerning, as if organisations differ considerably in cost-effectiveness then ranking them equally is potentially a significant mistake. This would be a concern even if Giving Green currently recommended only one option, or made multiple recommendations with very similar EV. As the discussion below lays out, however, I think that Giving Green’s current recommendations do in fact differ dramatically in cost-effectiveness.
In Giving Green’s approach to policy recommendations, they lay out three reasons behind their choice not to rank organisations with different approaches: quantitative cost-effectiveness analysis is uncertain, not everyone agrees on the correct theory of change, and that donating to multiple organisations offers the opportunity to Hedge against political uncertainty.
- As discussed above, quantitative estimates potentially having wide error bars is not in itself a reason not to perform the analysis. It is possible that the difference between organisations is clearly larger than the size of the error. Secondly, the process of producing quantitative models forces an organisation to be explicit about their reasoning, in a way which makes it much easier to analyse and respond to.
- The existence of disagreement is similarly not, on its own, reason enough to eschew quantitative analysis, even if that disagreement is about political futures and/or moral weights. As a stand-out example of how the second can be handled, see Givewell’s work. As for political uncertainty, considering the way different political futures might affect the effectiveness of potential recommendations is exactly the sort of analysis it would be great to see from Giving Green.
- Hedging has been the subject of much previous discussion, so I won’t go into much detail here, other than to say that in general hedging arguments are not sufficient alone to justify spreading donations across options with significant differences in EV.
The Sunrise Movement Education Fund (TSM)
- The description of TSM as a “High-Potential” organisation (as opposed to Clean Air Task Force (CATF), which is described as a “Good Bet”, and is one of the organisations recommended by Founders Pledge), implied to me that Giving Green’s position was that the choice with the highest EV currently is CATF but that it is worth presenting both options.
- When I asked Giving Green about this, they made it clear that this was not the case. They believe that a direct comparison of the cost effectiveness of CATF and TSM would be too uncertain to be meaningful, and hence they fully endorse donations to either. In the Vox piece linked above, Dan Stein explicitly states:
I would push for a two-part strategy, because I think the way policy gets made is through these insider-outsider coalitions
- There are strong reasons, laid out below, to believe that TSM does indeed significantly underperform CATF. They can be thought of as having two key themes: low confidence in marginal impact, and uncertainty about the sign of the impact.
Low confidence in marginal impact:
- The case for donations to TSM being impactful on the margin feels thin; The Sunrise Movement has thousands of volunteers and is not obviously funding constrained. Similarly, within the field of climate change, progressive climate activism hardly seems neglected. If anything, grassroots climate activism has been the single most visible feature of the Western fight against climate change in the few years.
- Giving Green’s ITN analysis of US policy change ranked climate activism as the most neglected area, but the justification they provide is is based on data from six years ago:
Between 2011-2015, the largest donors in environmental philanthropy allocated about 6.9% of all their funding to grassroots activism and mobilization efforts, which are generally not as well funded as “insider” methods such as campaigns and lobbying
- Giving Green do not discuss the impact on neglectedness of the large and rapidly growing number of volunteers for TSM. More importantly, there is no mention of how different the activism landscape looks now compared to 2015. As one concrete illustration of how different progressive activism looks in a wider sense, Greta Thunberg is a household name. Her first protest was in 2018.
- The data I was able to find on TSM’s revenue from 2015 to 2018, show that it grew almost tenfold. It then, according to guidestar, quadrupled just from 2018-19.
Uncertainty about the sign of impact:
- Even in a world where potential CATF and TSM donors are different enough that recommending TSM does not meaningfully impact donations to CATF, and where marginal donations to TSM help them achieve their goals, this does not mean the recommendation of TSM is necessarily good in expectation.
- I have some concerns about TSM’s historic opposition to nuclear technology and CCS, despite broad consensus that both will be vital to keeping global warming at manageable levels.
- More worrying, TSM’s explicit strategy of attempting to polarise the debate rather than looking for consensus, seems like it could backfire extremely easily.
Making climate change a partisan issue might look promising in the short-term given the current Democratic trifecta, though the wafer-thin majority and existence of the filibuster somewhat dampens the case even there, but in even the medium term there is an obvious and potentially very large downside to such an approach. This would be concerning anyway, but given the proven track record of groups like CATF at achieving exactly the sort of bipartisan consensus that political polarisation could permanently damage, it seems very unwise to recommend both.
- The potentially negative effects highlight again the advantage of a quantitative model over merely picking “the best of each different approach”. It is no use that an intervention is the most promising for its particular strategy, if there is a significant chance of that strategy being actively harmful. It is notable that CATF, Giving Green’s other policy recommendation, who not only were first recommended by Founders Pledge but have since in addition been recommended by SoGive and Legacies Now, does not pose a significant downside risk, strongly indicating that it does better in expectation.
- While not directly related to the concerns discussed above, a choice of language in the TSM writeup is also concerning. Giving Green refers to TSM’s “non-partisan get-out-the-vote activities”. While, on a technicality, one could argue that these activities were non-partisan, writing in this way risks making Giving Green appear either naive or disingenuous. Though The Sunrise Movement Education Fund is registered as a non-partisan arm of the broader but obviously partisan Sunrise Movement, this line doesn’t feel integral to the analysis and consequently feels like it would be a good idea to cut.
Here, again, I have split the discussion into two sections. The first describes why I think the strength of the RCT evidence has been overstated, the second details why extremely strong evidence would be needed to recommend BURN given the specifics of how offsets work in this case:
Concerns about the presentation of RCT evidence:
- From Giving Green’s recommendation:
[We recommend] BURN stoves on the weight of strong Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) evidence in support of the causality of emissions reductions, as well as demonstrated co-benefits.
- The single RCT being referred to studied the effect of different pricing systems on willingness to pay. While evidence was also collected on fuel use, and a 154-person subsample was studied 18 months later, calling this “strong RCT evidence [of emissions reductions]” risks appearing sloppy or even deliberately disingenuous. When people hear “Strong RCT evidence in support of X”, it is reasonable for them to assume that the primary aim of the RCT was to investigate X, and this is not the case.
- Basing the analysis on a single RCT and then referring to this as “strong RCT evidence” does not appear consistent with the norms of other evaluators in the EA space (I believe this would be atypical for GiveWell, and can confirm that it would be atypical for SoGive). All the more so when the rest of the evidence base is highly heterogeneous.
- Giving Green does not recommend cookstoves in general due to a wider review of the evidence:
We do not feel comfortable recommending cookstove offsets in general, as the RCT literature shows that the required assumptions are frequently not satisfied.
When I asked Giving Green about this recommendation, they replied that the wider literature on cookstoves is heterogeneous, rather than outright negative. As the two principal uncertainties about the usefulness of cookstoves are with respect to fuel use reduction and long-term adoption, and the RCT above provides evidence about both of these, they feel it makes a strong case for BURN. I am less skeptical about BURN than I was following this exchange, however I still think that there is an important difference between
evidence about X extracted from an RCT studying Y
an RCT about X.
As well as the concern about transparency above, I note that picking the best looking intervention from a heterogeneous set makes you particularly susceptible to the optimiser’s curse, and that multiple hypothesis testing is a nontrivial risk even when dealing with RCTs directly investigating variables of interest. Most importantly, for the reasons detailed below, the evidence would need to be extremely strong in order for BURN to be worth recommending overall.
Specifics of donating to BURN:
- Even ignoring the concerns above, there is no concrete mechanism by which donations to BURN will lead to more cookstoves being sold. BURN themselves state donations will be
used to invest in research and development, as well as to fund certain aspects of customer engagement, branding, and warranty services.
There’s a plausible causal mechanism here which may lead to more stoves being sold, but isn’t Giving Green’s model of carbon offsets that people prefer them due to increased certainty? Again, if this was modelled quantitatively it would be useful to see, but without such modelling the recommendation is hard to understand.
- Furthermore, BURN is a company, not a charity, so there is less recourse to ensure that the marginal effect of a donation is to do good (as opposed to increasing profits).
- BURN plausibly saves its customers money in the long run. It was unclear to me whether this was the primary reason behind the recommendation, as the approach to recommending offsets claims the following:
Giving Green only uses GHG reductions to determine which offsets to recommend, and therefore it is not necessary for an offset to have co-benefits to gain our recommendation. However, as many offset purchasers would like to buy offsets with co-benefits, we highlight them in the analysis of our recommended offsets.
However, BURN’s endorsement on the Carbon Offsets page has the following label:
Decrease emissions and save families money
Giving Green confirmed when asked that this was not a factor in BURN’s recommendation.
- Not mentioning the substantial funding pipeline Climeworks has from Stripe seems like a significant oversight, especially if (as discussed below) the principal reason to fund Climeworks is that they might be better in the future. I expect almost all of the value of offsetting with Climeworks right now to be in marginally increasing the chance they end up as a successful company, given the tiny amount of carbon sequestered for the price. Stripe's involvement seems to notably reduce the risk they fail due to lack of funds, which is the main lever that buying offsets has to pull.
- Giving Green confirmed that the long-term effects of donations to Climeworks were the principal reason for the recommendation, however they did not agree with me that these effects being positive were conditional on Climeworks’s survival and eventual cost competitiveness. They argued that donations were able to send a price signal about permanent carbon capture which was important even if Climeworks ultimately failed.
- Giving Green state:
The main drawback of Climeworks is that it is currently very expensive (around $1000/ton) to remove carbon relative to other options. This may be justified by the fact that supporting Climeworks will hopefully go toward reducing the cost of their frontier carbon-removal technology. (emphasis mine)
- Giving Green confirmed that they have not attempted to model the expected value of the various long-term effects discussed above, or even the probability of Climeworks ultimately being successful. Some public forecasts on related topics do exist. Metaculus currently puts the chance of Climeworks’ pricing dropping below $50/T, by 2030, at 3%, conditional on its survival. Climeworks itself only has a long term price target of $100-200/T, though it is not clear whether this is adjusted for inflation. Metaculus currently puts the chance of it still existing in 2030 at 1 in 3.
- It is finally noteworthy that directly purchasing overpriced (in immediate terms) offsets is not the only way to try to positively affect the future of the offset market. Carbon180, another Founder’s Pledge recommendation, focuses on policy advocacy, business engagement, and innovation support for carbon removal/negative emissions technology.
Thanks, Alex, for writing this important contribution up so clearly and thanks, Dan, for engaging constructively. It’s good to have a proper open exchange about this. Three cheers for discourse.
While I am also excited about the potential of GivingGreen, I do share almost all of Alex’s concerns and think that his concerns mostly stand / are not really addressed by the replies. I state this as someone who has worked/built expertise on climate for the past decade and on climate and EA for the past four years (in varying capacities, now leading the climate work at FP) to help those that might find it hard to adjudicate this debate with less background.
Given that I will criticize the TSM recommendation, I should also state where I am coming from:
My climate journey started over 15 years ago as a progressive climate youth activist, being a lead organizer for Friends of the Earth in my home state, Rhineland Palatinate (in Germany).
I am a person of the center-left and get goosebumps every time I hear Bernie Sanders speak about a better society. This is to say I have nothing against progressives and I did not grow up as a libertarian techno-optimist who would be naturally inclined to wanting to solve climate change through technological innovation. Indeed, it took me over a decade of study, work in climate policy, and examination to get to the positions I am holding now which are very far from what I used to believe.
I should also state upfront that my credence in CATF and other high-impact climate charities does not come primarily from the cost-effectiveness models, which are clearly wrong and also described as such, but by the careful reasoning that has gone into the FP climate recommendations. John spent nine months working on the original FP Climate Report (to which I advised), I spent the majority of the last year reviewing many charities -- including CATF, CfRN, CLC, ITIF, Carbon180 and TerraPraxis -- and recommending some of those as high impact. Do I literally believe any of John’s or mine or anyone else’s model of an advocacy charity? No, of course not.
But the process of building these models and doing the research around them -- for each FP recommendation there is at least 20 pages worth of additional background research examining all kinds of concerns -- combined with years of expertise working in and studying climate policy, has served the purpose of clearly delineating the theory of value creation, as well as the risks and assumptions, in a way that a completely qualitative analysis that has a somewhat loose connection between evidence, arguments, and conclusions (recommendation) has not.
The fundamental concern with Giving Green’s analysis that I, and I think (?) Alex, have is not the lack of quantitative modeling per se, but the unwillingness to make systematic arguments about relative goodness of things in a situation of uncertainty, rather treating each concern as equally weighted and taking an attitude of “when things are uncertain, everything goes and we don’t know anything”. The impression one gets from reading the Sunrise recommendation and its defense is that a grassroots activism recommendation was needed for organizational variety reasons (given Giving Green’s strategy to reach a wider audience of segmented donors).
While one can have different opinions about the value of that given dilution concerns that Alex also mentioned, this is in principle not problematic with regards to the analysis. Where it becomes problematic is when pretending that the same rigor and reasoning that underlies a recommendation of CATF has been applied to the Sunrise analysis, which does not seem to be the case (while I lead the climate work at FP now, I should state here that John Halstead did the original analysis recommending CATF, so this is not quite as self-serving as it sounds).
While I am concerned about recommending offsetting in general and --as Alex mentions in his post -- think we should be very carefully modeling dilution effects before advertising offsets alongside high-impact options (or generally, before advertising low impact options), I did not read the offsetting recommendations in detail, so I will leave my comments to the TSM and TSM-CATF aspects in this comment.
I think there are a bunch of ways in which CATF is wrongly portrayed here and, in addition, many additional reasons beyond Alex’s that should make one doubtful about the claim that “we dont know whether TSM or CATF donations are better at the margin”.
While we do, of course, not know for certain, the evidence that we have points in a clear direction -- that donating to CATF and other similar charities (such as those featured in the FP Climate Fund) is much more impactful than donating to the Sunrise Movement Education fund (TSM in the following). Indeed, from the evidence we have, I would argue that there is a significant probability that donating to TSM at this point is net-harmful. Luckily, there is also a high probability that it is very low-impact at the margin.
Let me explain (after the summary).
As I stated in my EAGx Virtual talk last year, I would like to understand the goodness of grassroots activism better. As such, I was quite excited to know Giving Green to be working on this and to read the analysis.
But reading the analysis, I don’t find myself having learned a lot about the expected goodness of the Sunrise movement because it appears more like an analysis of the positive case rather than a balanced all-things-considered-view.
As Alex has raised and I have expanded here, there are serious concerns both about (a) low marginal impact and (b) about the direction of that impact. These find no parallel in recommendations such as CATF.
While not impossible, it would be very surprising if something with (a) low marginal additionality and (b) severe uncertainty about the direction of marginal impact -- whether it is positive or not -- was the best thing we could fund in climate (or, undistinguishable from the best thing).
The main claim why we should expect that -- if I understand Giving Green correctly -- is the transformative nature of Sunrise, what they are doing just being that good. As I discuss below in the sections on “misconceptions about CATF” the claim that what Sunrise is doing is more transformative than what CATF is doing is -- at the very least -- controversial and not obviously true.
This leaves me in a situation where I would like to learn more about the goodness of the Sunrise movement from an all-things-considered analysis but where -- with the current information -- I don’t see strong reasons to think that Sunrise is anywhere close to the best things we can fund.
We are very confident that CATF and similar charities are an excellent translator of money into climate impact. We don’t know this for TSM and the weight of the evidence does not point in the direction of it being particularly likely that it is high-impact to donate to TSM at the margin.
SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CATF
Before diving into the detailed comparison between CATF and TSM it is worth noting some misconceptions about CATF that matter for this comparison.
1. Is CATF “incrementalist”?
The dominant frame in Dan’s comment and in the Vox piece with regards to CATF v. TSM is that CATF is “incremental”, “moderate” vs. TSM being “radical” and more likely to lead to transformative change. That there is something essential that can only happen if Sunrise and other progressive climate activists have more success.
I think this framing, while discursively resonant in current American debates between progressive and moderate Democrats, misses the point.
This is because the challenge of climate change is one of global technological transformation, not national politics and, as such, this frame is a lot less applicable than in issues where this framing might be more helpful (such as, say, civil rights).
While it is true that what CATF is doing -- not focusing primarily on a national target for the US etc. or advocating for a symbolic Green New Deal -- looks moderate and incremental, it is not when we consider the nature of the climate challenge which is allowing 9 billion humans to live poverty-free lives without cooking the planet. Solving this challenge has one necessary and, almost sufficient, condition -- ensuring that across all use cases low-carbon energy/industrial products are preferable to high-carbon ones or are so minimally inferior that realistic climate policy can bridge the differential even in settings with low willingness-to-pay for climate.
Because the US energy innovation system is so powerful and because the leverage from cost reductions and improvements is so large (~85% of global energy is fossil, US has a declining share of emissions and is now around 15%, cost reductions are the main driver of lowering carbon intensity in electricity etc., technological spillovers are the best way to make progress in a low-coordination, low willingness-to-pay setting), stuff that looks incremental -- advocating for tax credits for neglected technologies etc here., for a clean energy standard that also includes nuclear and CCS there etc -- is indeed quite transformative.
A better frame to compare CATF and TSM, in my view, than “incremental” vs. “transformative” is to understand CATF as an organization mostly taking political realities as a given (though doing some coalition building) that is laser-focused on ways in which they can make important differences -- with “important” informed by their deep knowledge of the issues and their proto-EA focus on things that are overlooked by the mainstream but critical to the overall puzzle. This is a transformative proposition of thought leadership, of changing the conversation, changing policy and, ultimately, the underlying technological base that allows us to decarbonize.
Indeed, it is quite plausible that this type of “quiet” climate policy -- focused on accelerating globally neglected technologies -- is far more potent than a Green New Deal that would primarily be focused on solutions that are far down the learning curves, already popular, selected for co-benefits such a job creation, etc.
TSM’s proposition is also transformative, though in a different way -- trying to increase attention to climate far more than what it is and push ambitious climate policy, embedding it in priorities that Democrats already have. This is also a transformative proposition.
In other words, we should not let our perceptions of “incremental” vs. “transformative” be guided by partisan conceptions of those terms; if we look at the climate issue closely and understand the importance of technological change at the heart of achieving global net-zero emissions those meanings might very well switch. Even if it doesn’t switch then at least both what CATF and what TSM are doing is transformative.
2. Is there a serious chance that CATF is negative?
There is also the assertion that CATF might be negative because, by heavily focusing on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other technologies that help existing industries become close to carbon-neutral, they are giving a life line to fossil fuels or otherwise inhibiting climate progress.
While it is true that if we got CCS to work cheaply and efficiently, this would reduce the argument for transitioning away from fossil fuels for part of the energy mix, that’s a feature not a bug. The goal of climate policy is net-zero emissions, not 100% non-fossil fuels.
Leaving aside that OilPriceInternational is not exactly a neutral voice, let’s put their estimate into perspective.
They estimate that the 45Q tax credit could lead to something like 50 million tons of additional US emissions per year in 2035 through enhanced oil recovery (EOR) emissions. (Given the trajectory of US climate policy, this seems implausible). At the same time, right now 45Q is the most important carbon capture incentive policy in the world and it is the median expert view that -- if we are to achieve climate targets -- different forms of carbon capture (all of which covered by 45Q) will be used at Gigaton scale and that government incentives will be essential to drive down the cost and increase adoption.
So, if 45Q only leads to moving forward CCS deployment by 1GT a year, this “cost” of also including enhanced oil recovery in the 45Q bill would be a 5% cost on what would still look like an amazingly good outcome for the climate. Sure, it would be better if there were no increased emissions, but in the grand scheme of things -- and given how policy works -- better to have that policy with that negative side effect rather than having no CCS incentive policy at all.
This kind of cost is not analogous in magnitude to the very real cost of risks around Sunrise, such as an additional increase in polarization gridlocking important incrementally looking but transformative (see above) climate policy progress. It appears like a case of false equivalence.
REASONS TO EXPECT LOW MARGINAL IMPACT WHEN DONATING TO TSM
3. Grassroots activism might be good on balance, but still an implausible recommendation at the margin
This is an important point that is easily missed when discussing TSM as some of the discussion on TSM here and elsewhere is focused on non-marginal arguments, grassroots activism being generally useful as an outside-pressure force in an outsider -- insider model.
I would probably agree with the argument that the rise of progressive climate activism over the past four years has been net-positive, though there are also important caveats to this such as increased polarization of the climate issue, increased focus on catastrophic framings that are not in line with climate science, overly focused on 100% renewables vs. technology-inclusive decarbonization visions etc. But I take it as a given for the remainder that “on the whole” the world is better with Sunrise than without.
However, this does not at all mean that we should donate to TSM at this point. I agree TSM could have been a great philanthropic bet 4 years ago.
4. Grassroots activism might have been neglected ten years ago, but it is not neglected now
As Alex points out, the data for the neglect of grassroots activism are outdated -- and importantly so. Using data from 2011-2015 to evaluate the neglectedness of climate activism today is like using data from the nineties to say that the internet is not a big deal. Climate activism as a mass form of engagement has risen to the prominence with Greta Thunberg, with Extinction Rebellion, with Sunrise, with the Paris Agreement and the subsequent IPCC 1.5 degree report -- all of those happening at the earliest in late 2015 and many significantly later.
Luckily more current data on climate activism philanthropy are readily available.
For example, the ClimateWorks Foundation published a report in September 2020 which shows that US-focused public engagement -- the category under which grassroots activism falls -- received about 100 million on average between 2015-2019, which is about 27% of total US-focused climate philanthropy by foundations, a lot more than what the 2011-2015 numbers that underlie the neglectedness analysis suggest. It is also the largest share of any item in the US and far larger than the total global philanthropic spending for key neglected technologies such as negative emissions tech (25 million) and CCS or advanced nuclear (not even having their own positions, buried under clean electricity, but this will be heavily focused on renewables).
Importantly, this does not even include individual giving -- the major component of climate philanthropy -- which is likely tilting more towards grassroots activism and mainstream green solutions than elite advocacy for unpopular but critical solutions such as CATF’s. We discuss this more and why this makes it unlikely that grassroots activism is neglected in our report, quote from here (quoting in full as this is from a long report no one reads, but contains lots of material relevant here):
“According to this analysis, in the 2015-2019 period, about 100 million have been spent on public engagement in the US per year, more than a quarter of the climate philanthropic spending by foundations in the US in total. What is more, Jeff Bezos -- now the largest climate philanthropist in the world -- has focused his first round of grants on well-known Big Green groups that have a long history of raising awareness of the climate challenge, probably making that “public engagement” bucket significantly larger in future iterations of the ClimateWorks report.
Beyond philanthropy, the largest environmental NGOs have hundreds of thousands of members and even relatively new grassroots movements, such as Sunrise, have volunteers in the 10,000s, making environmental NGOs and grassroots a major political force.
At the same time, global philanthropic support for decarbonising sectors that are usually considered among the hardest to decarbonise -- transport and industry -- is less than that USD $75 million.12 Carbon dioxide removal, the technology considered most in need of additional innovation policy support, received only USD $25 million in global philanthropic support. These numbers do not allow differentiating by type of philanthropy so only a subset of these overall numbers will be focused on advocacy increasing overall societal resource allocation to these approaches; in other words these numbers are an overestimate for the type of advocacy work we are interested in assessing.
We tend to think that this presents an imbalance, given the large value of improving the allocation of public funds towards neglected technologies providing a strong proposition for advocacy. But, of course, increasing the pie is also critical and the imbalance proposition is, ultimately, a fairly hard-to-test hypothesis and almost philosophical question (we will attempt to gain some traction on this in 2021).”
Note that, while this states some uncertainty about assessing neglect, this was published before I had a chance to look in detail at the trajectory of Sunrise and progressive climate activism -- given Alex’s numbers and analysis, I would be fairly confident (> 80%) at this point that grassroots activism right now is significantly less neglected than CATF-style work.
5. Neglect is only a proxy, but it informs a prior on the usefulness of funding margins for which the TSM analysis provides little update
As an EA working on climate, I am very sympathetic to the argument that neglectedness is a proxy and can lead astray.
But in Dan’s comment above this mostly reads like shifting goal-posts, the argument for neglect was justified with financing numbers that were outdated. Even if they are just a proxy, the fact that those numbers are importantly outdated and wrong should lead to changes in the analysis (an advantage of quantitative analysis).
While it is true that the funding for CATF has increased strongly over the last few years, it has not increased by orders of magnitude. More importantly, the reason it has increased has been -- to a large part -- because of the EA community starting with John’s 2018 report and, as such, is not reflective of a wider societal trend towards the CATF-style of advocacy leading us to expect everything of that style to be funded (And, CATF has increased its geographic reach thereby extending productive funding margins (because funding margins for advocacy are a function of the goodness of improving resource allocation / policy in a jurisdiction).
Indeed, it is more likely that the opposite is the case.
After the failure of cap-and-trade in 2010 it became conventional wisdom in climate philanthropy that more grassroots activism was needed, as also stated in Giving Green’s Deep Dive.
While it is not clear that this belief was true -- the failure of Waxman-Markey in 2010 was severely over-determined with lots of plausible interpretations -- this belief had causal force.
It is thus no accident that attention to public engagement funding has increased so strongly. In other words, in climate philanthropy, the grassroots wing has been winning rather than being most neglected.
In addition, Sunrise has emerged as an important flank of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the Democrats having outraised Republicans on much smaller average donations (more grassroot-y) in the recent elections.
As such, saying Sunrise is neglected is -- absent more current numbers that make the case -- similar to saying “Jon Ossoff’s Senate campaign is neglected” in late December after he raised more than 100 million USD. Sure, it is conceivable that there are things that Jon Ossoff would have funded with marginal donations that would have been highly effective, but we should be skeptical of such arguments precisely because a reasonably strategic actor that is not obviously funding-constrained will have a funding margin with relatively low-value activities.
In that way, neglectedness serves as a prior on the expected goodness of the funding margin. That prior can be updated by additional considerations that make something in a non-neglected field good, but this requires strong arguments. In a field that is financially well-resourced or easy to be well-resourced (when you have 10,000 volunteers and you have lots of high-value funding gaps at the margin, some more of those volunteers should focus on fundraising), it would be surprising if there are great marginal funding opportunities.
Of course there could be.
Indeed, the argument that John Halstead, Hauke Hillebrandt, and myself have been making in various forms over the last years is that there are such opportunities within climate -- namely, around supporting (1) neglected technologies and (2) a neglected part of technology support, support for innovation, via (3) decision-maker focused advocacy that improves how the vast resources allocated to climate are better spent.
The long and short of it is that there are systematically neglected technologies and many ideological and other reasons for this neglect, that innovation is generally neglected for reasons of various market failures, as well as ideological factors, etc. In other words, there is a systematic argument for why the CATF/C180/ITIF/TP style of advocacy should be really high impact despite climate not being neglected overall.
But there is no parallel argument made -- to my knowledge -- for why in case of Sunrise we should move away from the prior that something that has increased 40x-fold in funding over the last years and has captured the public imagination and support of an entire wing of a major US political party, would have great room for funding left.
Dan’s response to this concern raised by Alex is this:
“I think that there is very little effective climate activism happening out there, and there’s huge room for effective growth.”
Essentially, the only argument for why it should be particularly high impact to give to TSM right now is a claim about the ineffectiveness of current climate activism and a proclaimed large effective growth potential, without any justification that spending more money on climate activism will lead to more effective climate activism.
With this level of unspecific justification, almost anything can be declared a highly effective funding margin to fill.
REASONS TO BE UNSURE ABOUT THE SIGN OF IMPACT
6. The positive marginal case is pretty unclear
It is not clear how we would evaluate success of the Sunrise Movement -- whether this would be passing the Green New Deal or whether it is just generally shifting the Overton window of climate policy. The more charitable interpretation is probably to say “Sunrise shifts the overton window of climate policy” given that the Green New Deal is mostly a symbolic policy without real prospects of passing.
This is the approach we took in our Biden report -- conceptualizing grassroots movements as “increasing the pie” (the opportunities, not only strictly budgets) and orgs such as CATF focused on improving how the pie is utilized for maximal decarbonization benefits. Quoting here (emphasis new):
“But, while it is difficult to make a statement about the relative balance [between pie-increasing and pie-improving], we think it is clear that now that we have a very climate-friendly administration -- likely under divided government, if not with razor-thin majority [this was published in November] -- the value of policy advocacy to improve how the attention to climate is spent strongly increases, easily by a factor of 4 or more (taking a conservative average from the advocacy value of the next four years, based on our timing analysis above) compared to a second Trump term.
At the same time, it is difficult to see how the value of funding advocacy focused on increasing the pie could have increased by the same amount based on the outcomes of the election.
Indeed, insofar as mass mobilization and climate grassroots activism are strongly tied to the Democratic party and making Democrats more ambitious on climate, it seems likely that the value of this advocacy has decreased due to the relative underperformance of Democrats in Congressional races and the likely less Democratic-leaning environment in the midterm elections.13
On balance, we think that the election directionally shifts the balance towards advocacy to improve resource allocation and policy rather than advocacy focused on increasing overall resource allocation (increasing the pie), so we feel more certain in the relative prioritisation of this kind of advocacy in our philanthropy.”
Now that we have more information with the Georgia win and the laser-thin Democratic majority we can say a bit more than this directional shift, about the marginal impact of Sunrise in this moment.
We are now in a situation where Biden has declared climate as one of his top four priorities, where the pivot in the Senate is Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, who really likes CCS and really doesn’t like the Green New Deal.
In this situation, any passage of bills requires support from very conservative Democrats and, if not all Democrats are on board, of some Republicans (even for reconciliation, filibuster-proof climate policy is out of the question anyway).
Unless Sunrise has a great way to influence fairly conservative Senators, which is not what they have focused on to do to date, it seems a bit unclear what good a marginally stronger TSM at this moment accomplishes.
To be sure, the pressure of TSM and others is very valuable, in principle. But now that climate is on top of the agenda of things and we face a pretty thin majority situation for the party aligned with Sunrise, is it really plausible that making this movement marginally stronger is very important?
While one could make that case, e.g. that a stronger TSM is needed now because pressure on relatively progressive legislators is still a bottleneck, or because Biden will forget about climate if we do not further strengthen TSM, this does not seem very plausible.
While arguments have been made that TSM is sitting at the table with the Biden administration and that this is a reason to fund them, this kind of reasoning would require confidence that TSM directs Biden’s climate action in the best direction.
TSM is a grassroots organization specialized in raising attention to climate, not in advising on effective climate policy. That is something that CATF et al. specialize in. Furthermore, funding the Sunrise Movement Education Fund would not directly influence the already existing representation of TSM at the table.
When stating confidently that giving to TSM right now is highly impactful, it would be good to clarify what the exact path to impact is.
The broad description in the theory of change of “climate change becomes a government priority” and “climate bills that reduce emissions get passed” is not very clear, and -- in particular -- does not refer to a marginal case, that more is needed to make this as likely as TSM can make those outcomes.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the answer to all of these questions is negative for TSM. I am just pointing out questions that would need analysis to make claims of high impact more credible.
7. Ways in which Sunrise could be negative at the current margin
Indeed, there are many ways in which existing or additional support for TSM can contribute to negative outcomes:
The list could go on.
Again, my point is not that these are all damning concerns but that these large uncertainties about the severity and probability of negative effects of marginal TSM donations pushes the estimate downwards.
8. Ways in which Sunrise could be negative (in general)
More generally, beyond the current marginal case, there are other more general concerns.
Alex makes valuable points about how Sunrise could have negative impacts and I have mentioned some of them as well before (e.g. in my talk at EAGx Virtual last June) and in other contexts. Dan adds some additional ones.
So, there are at least the following five pathways in which Sunrise could be negative:
A. Sunrise further polarizes the US climate debate thereby reducing the chance of useful climate legislation to become reality.
B. Sunrise promotes a view of the climate challenge that reduces the support for effective solutions
From spending the last ten years studying and working in climate policy, I can say with confidence that both of those lines of concern are major considerations, major ways in which -- in the past -- climate activism has been harmful and major worries of very serious climate analysts about current grassroots climate activism.
These are serious concerns that warrant thorough investigation rather than a false equivalence reply claiming there is a similarly serious concern with CATF and similar orgs.
Of course these concerns are not all there is, there is a positive case, too. But those concerns need to be integrated when forming a view on TSM as a funding opportunity.
How does this all fit together?
Size of impact
The assumption in the TSM analysis is that there is something transformative / unique / high value in TSM that only TSM or grassroots activism can deliver. As I argued in the “Some misconceptions about CATF” section above, this claim does not seem well-supported because both technological change driven through incremental policies and climate laws could be transformative. There is no reason to assume that TSM > CATF on this at this point. One could try to model this.
Low marginal additionality (neglectedness)
Because of the explosion of attention to TSM and the increase in TSM and general grassroots funding, additional dollars change relatively little about TSM’s activities (relatively speaking), are more likely to not be counterfactually additional (if funding goals are just met in any case), and are likely to fill activities that are relatively far from the most valuable ones.
Sign of impact
If one does not study those concerns about direction in detail and convincingly shows that these are not applicable to marginal TSM funding, then what Alex states is totally justified -- there is uncertainty about the sign of the impact.
Crucially, that uncertainty is about the expected mean, not particular outcomes (something that, I think, Dan misunderstood in his reply to Alex).
Even if that uncertainty does not move us into negative territory with regards to the mean, it pushes the expected value downwards. There are just many plausible futures where marginal TSM funding is negative and that pushes the expected value towards zero or into negative territory.
If one combines these three factors what emerges is a funding opportunity where we should expect a low expected value; whether we fund or not makes little difference and it is relatively unclear whether it will have a positive impact.
It would be pretty surprising if that was anywhere close in marginal impact than giving to CATF.
It could, of course, be the case, though. But to state that as likely would require a lot more research and, with current information, it does not seem warranted.
I made a comment replying to this post generally but there were some specific issues I had with this comment I also wanted to flag. I will copy some across as they're relevant but also add some more thoughts. For context, I've been working with Extinction Rebellion UK (XR UK) full-time for almost two years, since just after they launched, as well as with the slightly newer Animal Rebellion.
To start with, I'll reply to some specific comments:
Different types of activism: Speaking from my experience at XR, I definitely do think that certain kinds of impactful climate activism are neglected. To give some anecdotal evidence to start, let's talk about XR. XR was found to be the largest influencer on public awareness around climate change according to Twitter research conducted at COP25 (this sentence was edited due to an incorrect statement). Yet, I would say XR is extremely funding constrained currently, having just an income of £46,000 in December 2020, whilst still having thousands of volunteers across the UK. If XR UK, at their level of popularity and significance are under-funded, I would make an assumption that it is the same for other climate movements. Two key points I would like to make here are:
1. That not all progressive activism is equal. Something I believe that both you and Alex allude to (or directly say) is that we can lump together a groups such as Friends of the Earth and WWF with TSM and Extinction Rebellion under umbrellas like public engagement. I think there is a huge distinction between your traditional NGO (FoE and WWF) versus a movement whose priority is shifting public support, mobilising volunteers and using civil disobedience as a theory of change.
On this point, I think there is an abundance of traditional NGO climate campaigning - WWF, Greenpeace, FoE and so on. I would say the main theory of change they apply is advising policy and public education. Whereas if you look at the number of groups who are trying to mobilise a large base of people to engage in non-violent direct action for the climate, I would say there is only two meaningful groups left in this regard: TSM and XR. This is a huge topic that I might make another post generally on the EA Forum about but for the time-being, I'm going to link to an article by someone from Open Phil discussing the necessity for an ecology of change that includes mass protest and civil disobedience as a key and neglected piece in recent times. In addition, here is a full report funded by Open Phil on the topic of funding social movement doing civil disobedience. In short, I think that it's not possible to equate the money given to other progressive "activist" groups and money given to TSM as being given for the same theory of change, as they are fundamentally different. So whilst climate NGOs are not neglected, social movements for the climate are.
CATF vs TSM - Transformative vs Incremental: Some comments I have on this is that there are way that TSM are societally transformative in ways that CATF legislation is not. Fundamentally, groups like TSM and XR work to shape public opinion around an issue and build public support for a general cause. This then creates the public weather for groups such as CATF to incrementally change legislation. However, I think where incremental policy fails is when it is premature relative to the public sentiment of the country/world, and open to reversal by future politicians or leaders. A perfect example is the Paris Agreement; a great piece of legislation for the climate - what could go wrong? However when leaders such as Donald Trump choose to leave behind such policies, they are effectively nullified. If the climate was such a central issue to the majority of the American public, such as freedom to marry, then Trump couldn't have withdrawn from similar legislation due to risk of committing political suicide. In this way, I believe TSM do have more transformative and long-lasting effects on the climate as they generate broad-based public support for climate which is generally permanent and continuous, whereas specific policies are open to change every 4 years with each set of new politicians.
Funding constraints: here seems to be an assumption that because that because the funding has grown by X amount, that Sunrise is no longer funding constrained. The argument I would make the change the prior is that Sunrise has built capacity, through networks of thousands of volunteers, 400 local hubs and so on that have been mentioned, to demand larger policy change from the Biden administration compared to what was previously possible. Regarding funding constraints, I would actually argue the opposite; As TSM has thousands of engaged volunteers, if it had greater funding capacity, it could look to take on some volunteers into full-time staff positions and greatly increase the capacity and impact of TSM. This alludes to a point I'll make later on and a general theme I see is that yes, this is not as easily quantifiable as the achievements by CATF, yet they are a high-risk and potentially very high-impact investment if it pays off.
Risk aversion to social movements: I couldn't find the exact quote from yourself however I get the general gist from your post and comments that funding groups like TSM is sub-optimal relative to CATF due to the difficulty in qualitatively measuring the outcome of such a complex system. I worry this risk-aversion in our funding will constrain us to options that are limited to technological innovation and very discrete policy change (CATF basically) whilst excluding the more opaque, yet still valuable, systems of social movements and people-powered campaigns.
Whilst slightly off-topic from the current TSM conversation, I believe this has been a large problem throughout EA for years and I can't recall any EA groups giving money to social movements in the past 4-5 years (besides Open Phil giving to Ayni Institute in 2016) which seems ridiculous, given that we've just been talking about the huge impact that groups like TSM, XR, Fridays for Future or people like Greta have had on the climate movement. Generally it seems EA funders are too risk averse (or maybe averse to hits-based giving is more accurate) to fund social movements early on for potentially a few reasons:
1) because they don't have enough quantifiable metrics to prove impact or people just don't understand certain practices (the latter was said to me in a grant application to ACE). Then 3-5 years down the line, we see comments, saying that groups like TSM would have been a great bet 4 years ago. Whilst this is a more general point and off the topic of TSM specifically, it seems like we should reconcile this and start funding social movements earlier.
2) EAs think that social movements aren't effective and therefore assign them a low expected value due to both low probabilities of success and low impact if successful. It seems this we should change our minds on the scale of impact as historically, it's been quite significant. I read higher up about your background in Friends of the Earth so it would be interesting to hear your take on this!
Again, thanks for your work on XR and Animal Rebellion and for your comment!
With apologies for the delay, here are my responses:
1. My criticism of the TSM recommendation is of a particular funding opportunity at a particular time and place -- my view on XR could be quite different (I actually don’t have strong views on XR at this point).
I think it’s important to recognize some important differences here between TSM and XR, namely TSM’s association with a very well-funded movement (progressive Democrats), something that doesn’t really have a clear equivalence in case of XR as far as I am aware.
I think the argument for funding (a) a partisan grassroots organization in the US (b) at a time where this organization is relatively mature, (c) has lots of support from progressives, (d) and where there is a lot of risk from backfiring because the most effective actions require some level of bipartisan support (and, ideally, a continuing Democratic majority rather than a severe backlash due to perceived progressive over-reach), is implausible to be the best thing we can fund in climate at face value and the analysis by GG doesn’t alleviate those concerns.
This is quite different from saying that XR should not be funded or that TSM would not have been worth funding some years ago. It is even different from saying TSM should not be funded, just that it is fairly unlikely to be the best use of marginal climate dollars.
2. We regularly fund high-risk high-reward bets with the FP Climate Fund. We are very much into hits-based giving, e.g. last year we made the first larger grant to TerraPraxis/Energy for Humanity (they had no received more than 45k/year in philanthropic support before, we granted 250k for that organization to achieve a step change). We are evaluating another such grant at the moment. I certainly would have considered funding Greta had I been a climate philanthropist some years ago.
3. As Alex points out, not funding grassroots is not necessarily reflective of risk aversion -- it can just be because of low expected value.
4. Should we automatically assume high expected value of social movements?
You seem to suggest that the rise of progressive climate movements proves their high expected value and, thereby, the mistake to not fund them.
While I think this is a bit of a different question (see 1, 2; it is totally consistent to be positive about those movements without wanting to fund them now), I would also want to challenge the assertion a bit that social movements are definitely always positive.
This is a bit more anecdotal than the rest, but I think one of the big mistakes of the environmental movement -- for example -- has been its ideological narrowness and framing environmental problems in very particular terms (I have a bit more about this in my new comment). I think on balance modern environmentalism and progressive grassroots activism are probably good, but it is not as obvious as it seems at first glance -- for example, we would probably have a lot more nuclear if not for the modern environmental movement which would greatly help with the problem this movement now cares the most about. I say this as someone who literally walked through the streets of Frankfurt protesting against nuclear power in my FoE days.
While somewhat anecdotal, this shows the risk of funding social movements which will often have ideological or other lock-ins that may create a lot of damage. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fund social movements, it just means that it has a lot more uncertainty attached to it than more targeted interventions and we need to reflect that (not with risk aversion, but including it in our EV calcs).
5. Neglectedness is a tricky beast. I go into this a bit more in my new comment but I don’t think we should just infer from low funding levels of XR in December that it is underfunded.
Ultimately, we are interested in high marginal returns to funds -- i.e. in this case that giving more to XR would make a meaningful difference to XR’s success and that XR’s success would lead to less emissions, in expectation. There’s uncertainty along the way with each step.
The point is not that it cannot be true that XR is high impact to fund at the margin, the point is that such an argument would require a lot of additional evidence such as (a) productive funding margins, (b) impact of XR on emissions, (c) absence or low relevance of downside risks, etc.
As I lay out in my new comment, I think it is quite implausible that a large organization has very productive funding margins, this has nothing to do with grassroots per se, but just the size of the overall effort. Do we really think that a movement with thousands of people willing to give their time could not mobilize more than 50k if they had great use for it? This seems quite implausible to me.
6. Type of activism. It is true that WWF et al. are different from TSM and XR, but they fundamentally serve the same purpose -- mass mobilization / building public support / engagement (shifting the Overton window). They do so with different approaches, but it is not clear that the TSM approach, in particular, highly partisan mobilization, is the most useful one at the margin.
If it is, we should expect more of that public engagement funding to go into that direction, that part of climate philanthropy is in principle open to TSM. Also, note that as I stressed in my initial comment, that ⅔ of climate philanthropy or so are from individuals, many of which will be quite happy to fund grassroots in the US. This is really quite different from the situation in the UK, I think.
7. Incremental vs. transformational.
[Aside: Hopefully without being too nitpicky, the Paris Agreement isn’t legislation, in the case of the US it is not even a binding treaty, but an accord that any President can choose to commit to or not (effectively). Also, the President has little power to enforce emissions targets, this would either need executive orders that could be revoked by the next President or a binding law that seems infeasible in the US (would need 60 votes in the Senate or getting rid of the filibuster).]
Ultimately the point for CATF not being incremental is exactly that those policies that CATF et al advance are often very robust -- tax credits, innovation budgets, etc. -- a lot more robust than executive orders; while Trump scrapped almost all of Obama’s executive orders (or tried to so), he failed to reduce innovation budgets (defended by Senate Republicans), he even approved lots of new essential innovation policy (such as 45Q and bills on advanced nuclear innovation) and, crucially, even the tax credits for renewables are constantly being renewed.
Ultimately, of course, the goal is not for legislation to exist, but for emissions reductions to materialize. But this makes the point even stronger: If we woke up tomorrow and California and Germany would be governed by climate-denying psychopaths, we would still have cheap solar, electric cars approaching market parity etc. Which is to say there are a lot of transformative benefits from seemingly incremental policies and the evidence for this is much clearer than for the benefits or more bindingly looking policies that would also always be unstable in the US.
No worries about the delay, now it's my term to apologise as it's been a while on my side too! I am finding this quite fascinating and informative so I really appreciate you taking the time to write such detailed and thorough comments. I also wanted to thank you for your work at FP as everything I've read from FP regarding climate has been extremely rigorous and interesting.
1. Differences between TSM and XR: These points make sense so thank you for the explanation. It seems like the main concern you have about TSM is their partisanship and allegiance with the Democratic Party so I definitely understand how that’s both quite different to XR and also a potential problem. Interestingly enough, I previously thought that was a positive that TSM had over XR as XR being apolitical in that it doesn’t endorse specific parties or political candidates, often gets touted as an organisation that raises the alarm about the problem of the climate crisis, yet doesn’t provide tangible steps forward through policy or politics (with the exception that there was a CEE Bill introduced to UK Parliament recently which actually does those things). I would also say it can enable greater mobilisation to a degree as people are much more used to turning out for electoral politics where local groups within XR may not have as tangible organising points locally.
That’s really interesting and I didn’t know about this. I’ve now found a page on your website explaining the funding for TerraPraxis (I missed it initially as it was referred to as Terra Praxis and not Energy for Humanity). Interestingly enough, a friend/colleague of mine from XR is now working for them, small world. You mentioned elsewhere that you often have 20 or so pages of research for each charity recommendation and I was wondering if these were accessible at all as I would be interested in reading more about the reasons behind funding for TerraPraxis and Carbon180 beyond the summaries on the website, specifically if you had any quantification of EV/ the possible impact of these two groups on carbon emissions? And are there other examples of hits-based giving from previous years you can point me towards that FP Climate Fund has funded as I can seemingly only find the usual suspects of CfRN and CATF on your climate page!
3. Progressive movements impact
The rise of progressive climate movements recently is only one example of where I was drawing the general high expected value of social movements. The other being historical research from Harvard researcher Erica Chenoweth which found that any nonviolent social movement that garnered over 3.5% of the population in active support, never failed to achieve their aims. There were some limitations to this study in terms of audience (primarily Global South countries) however I believe it is worth noting nonetheless. Then of course there is a slight element of anecdotal evidence from history i.e. Civil Rights Movement, Indian Independence, Serbian revolution and so on.
I would agree about the unintended risks and uncertainties around movements, especially decentralised ones such as TSM and XR where it is more likely you’ll have individuals or groups that could go AWOL to put it bluntly and come out against certain important solutions i.e. CCS or nuclear like you said. To a degree I think this could be mitigated by the approach taken by the movement in terms of levels of decentralisation and central opinions on certain policies (or having none, such as XR)
4. Neglectedness and quantifying expected values
I definitely agree about the marginal returns to funds and it was implied but not obvious in my comment that in my opinion, XR could achieve a lot more given an increase in funds and that its main bottleneck to success currently was financial. The second point about the impact of XR on emissions is much more tricky to calculate and one I wanted to ask you about.
How would you even go about doing an EV calculation for a group such as TSM or XR where the causal link from the work they do to change in emissions seems so distant and vague? For example, if I had to try break down very crudely, it would be something like:
Direct action -> Media coverage -> change in attitude of public/policy maker -> growing public support for climate -> pressure on policymakers for more green legislation -> green legislation passes -> climate emissions affected.
Obviously this is very basic but not only are the uncertainties for the second and third links (most of them actually) quite large in my opinion, this whole chain could have a time lag of 5-10 years with subconscious effects on people so how can we quantify things like that in our EVs appropriately? Not to mention that there would be 100s of other factors that can lead to a change in attitudes of the public or policy makers so how do we determine how much of that was a movement vs other factors?
5. Incremental vs. transformational.
Apologies for the bad example of the Paris Agreement, yes it’s not legislation but hopefully it made the point well enough. I can see presidents wouldn’t scrap certain policies that are favourable to both parties (such as innovation budgets or tax credits for businesses that Republicans are likely to support) however surely this would break down for some climate legislation. Another example I’m plucking out of thin air would be a policy to divert subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable sources. I’m fairly certain that there is a swath of examples that would fit the bill in terms that most Republicans would oppose but Democrats would support and are good for the environment, such as the above one. Surely then all of these policies would be up for reversal if leadership of a country changed, whereas if 70-80% of the population, including Republicans, supported climate change legislation sufficiently (via a successful social movement) then even Republican representatives would not want to endorse reversals.
It seems like we’re slightly talking about different things though as what you say is true for groups such as CATF who (probably) only support robust policies that are favourable by both sides. However where I think the difference would like is other green policies as the one I mentioned above that could be essential in reducing emissions but are more divisive politically currently, where a social movement could (but could also not) work to increase general public support for climate legislation.
Thanks for your work for XR and Animal Rebellion and for your comment!
I wanted to reply but could not find the claim that XR is the largest influencer on climate change in your link. Could you clarify what you mean?
They are linked as #1 in Twitter (?) influence on the sub-topic of education in climate change at one climate conference which is quite a bit different from "XR was found to be the largest influencer on climate change according to research presented at COP25" which suggests large impact on emissions.
Am I missing something?
Thanks for your reply - I don't think you're missing something, it seems like I was guilty of misinterpreting that data (I assumed the analysis and mapping wasn't just limited to Twitter but wider media) and subsequent poor word choice!
So yes, I should have said something more like: XR was the largest influencer on public awareness around climate change at COP25, according to Twitter analysis. The "on public awareness" is a key bit I missed out so my bad there. Also, I guess I extrapolated slightly as one would assume that if you're the largest influencer around public awareness of climate change at one major climate conference, you would probably be quite prominent in that area for some time afterwards too (and it's only been just over a year since COP25 so I was implying XR has been one of the largest influencers on public awareness of climate change for the past 18 or so months).
Apologies for the confusion and thanks for pointing it out nicely. I'll edit my original post for clarity.
Thanks, James! This is very clarifying. Always curious for studies that systematically study the impact of things, so if you come across something for XR that more directly links it to changes in opinion, political opportunity windows, feasibility, emissions etc. please do send (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Will reply to your comment in full soon, hopefully tomorrow.
This was helpful to me (knowing nothing about climate policy) in terms of ideas about how to break down TSM's "transformative change" into more tractable parts. I guess I'd been treating "transformative change" and what Dan said about "fundamental uncertainty" as something like semantic stopsigns.
One thing I'm confused about:
I feel like I'm missing something—can you explain the mechanism here? Is this based on the possibility that TSM could hurt Democrats' election chances ("A stronger TSM could make it more likely that pressure on Democrats [...] leads to shifts towards the left that lead to losses in the House in 2022 and the loss of the trifecta"), and so it would have positive impact only when Democrats have a strong majority?
To answer your question there are two pieces here:
1) Sunrise is most useful right now in pressuring Democrats, it is quite partisan and does not hold as much sway over Republicans. As such, when the overall situation is less Democrat-leaning, the usefulness of Sunrise is lower overall. Sunrise-candidates will not challenge Republican incumbents so an important mechanism of creating pressure on Democratic officials does not exist.
2) Yes, of course Sunrise could hurt Democrats' election chances. This was, with regards to moderates and progressives more generally, an active debate after the disappointing (compared to expectations) election in November. One mechanism would be that pressure on Democratic candidates moves them closer to the left to deal with that pressure, which then reduces their election chances. Another mechanism would be that the progressive wing's perception hurts candidates in moderate/conservative districts. Going forward, a mechanism would be that the Sunrise/progressive agenda is perceived as a partisan overreach that leads to a "punishment" in the mid-terms.
Just to be sure, these are active debates within the party and I am not suggesting that the moderates blaming progressives are always right. I am just saying that when we form a distribution over outcomes of the goodness of Sunrise we should include those mechanisms as well, because they are a plausible part of the overall story (they are explanations held by many people, and the TSM analysis by GG does not refute it). That is a mechanism that pushes the EV of funding Sunrise down.
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.
Other than the clarification in my other comment, I think the most important disagreement we have is about Sunrise, so I'm going to primarily talk about that.
TSM's budget growing by 1.5 orders of magnitude since 2015 isn't sufficient to show that they aren't neglected, but I think it is sufficient to show that donations data from 2015 should not be relied on to make the case for neglectedness, especially as arguably the most famous activist in the cause area also didn't start campaigning until 3 years later.
The claim that "there's very little effective climate activism happening" is very different from the claim that climate activism in general is neglected, and I think may well be true, but that claim only applies to TSM if their activism is unusually effective compared to progressive activism more broadly (which is far from neglected), and I don't think you've shown that. To the extent that TSM has goals, which is somewhat limited, those goals seem to be very typical of progressive climate activism in general, which as discussed is extremely far from being neglected. Sunrise Seattle's open opposition to cap and trade is one recent example.
Sign of Impact
Isn't the whole point of doing charity evaluation as opposed to just donating wherever you like that you can evaluate whether these sorts of claims are credible? I appreciate that you're time pressured and am grateful for the time you've already given but I was really hoping for more than just "other organisations have this lobbed at them too".
It doesn't really feel consistent to me to take the position when comparing [donate to TSM] and [donate to CATF] that "there's loads of uncertainty so we won't make the call", but then when comparing [Recommend TSM as they are +EV] to [Don't recommend TSM as they are -EV], take the position "sure there's loads of uncertainty but on balance the former is the best option". What's the difference I'm missing between the two cases?
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.
It feels like we're talking past each other a bit, so I'm going to try to clarify my position below but not add anything new. I don't think the reply above adresses it, but that could well be due to lack of clarity on my part.
Sign of impact
I agree with this. In fact, I still agree with it when the following words are added:
I think both the quote from you and the one I've added bold text to are true.
Individual chapters of Sunrise
I pulled that quote to indicate that the decentralised nature of Sunrise means any claims about its work being in any sense atypical of progressive activism more broadly are hard to believe. This is relevant not because one bad quote should discredit an organisation, but because I showed above that climate activism in general is not neglected, and you responded that effective climate activism is not neglected. But both statements can only simultaneously be true if Sunrise's activism is meaningfully different from progressive activism more broadly, and it doesn't appear to be.
Thanks Dan, I'm glad to see the comment and will have a more thorough look later. I wanted to clarify one thing though.
This isn't quite right. I don't agree with some of your analysis, but the reason I don't agree is not the lack of quant models, it's the things detailed above.
Separately, I do think we disagree on whether quantitative modelling is useful even in cases of very high uncertainty (I think it is). I also think that the act of trying to quantify models tends to improve analysis, and that making explicit models makes analysis much easier for others to critique, which is a good thing if our end goal is having correct analysis.
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 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.
Thanks again, Dan & team, for your gracious and constructive comment! This is what I love about this community most. I think there are still lots of misunderstandings on the nature of the criticisms and severe and consequential disagreements on epistemics and empirics to which I reply to below. But before I do so, just a meta-point on why I engaged in this criticism in the first place.
Why I engage in this criticism
I do not enjoy criticizing. The fact that I engage in criticism is impact-related and not personal. Indeed, John (Halstead) and I spent much of the last year criticizing each other’s reasoning which is one of the reasons I believe the FP climate recs are very robust.
It is also not a criticism that I make as an FP-representative, it just happens to be the case that the goals of FP and of myself are perfectly aligned which is why I joined FP and why I now happen to lead its climate work.
So, that said, my criticism serves two purposes:
That said, and with constructive intent, onwards to the disagreements. I first discuss key-takeaways from the debate and then dive into one particular fundamental area of disagreement that is prominent in GG's comment -- on what we know and can now.
What are the key take-aways from this debate?
You write “Johannes thinks” a lot which, in my view, makes the debate unnecessarily personal but, more importantly, also misrepresents the debate. (I will use “GG” in the following exactly to make it less personal).
I did not add any new points in my original comment, I just expanded on points that were already in Alex’s original post, made them more explicit and explained them in a more stepwise manner, giving more evidence and context to make it easier to follow (though arguably tediously long, apologies!).
But essentially, Alex and I, and, by their comments, Sanjay and John Halstead, as well as many other commenters all agree on the critiques. In other words, rather than writing “Johannes thinks” it would be more accurate and less personalizing to say that ~all EAs that have expertise in climate charity evaluation disagree with GG on TSM and broadly think the same thing namely that:
1.From the weight of the evidence, it does not seem justified to think that we are unsure whether TSM or CATF is better, the evidence points in the clear direction of CATF > TSM
a. Note that saying “the weight of the evidence points in direction CATF > TSM” is not equivalent to saying “we know that CATF > TSM” or “we know that TSM = CATF”, it just says that, based on what we know now, we should assume that CATF > TSM. This is a more humble position than implied in the comment, about our current state of knowledge -- not final truths.
b. This also means, to your point about humility, that further analysis into TSM is welcomed. Our work is never finished. I am open to finding TSM > CATF or that TSM and CATF are incomparable but both certainly good (which seems your position).
It would make my life a lot easier, because people like TSM so much and I could then treat directing people to TSM as high impact rather than convincing them of the opposite. This is another reason for skepticism on TSM being highly impactful, it would be a case of “suspicious convergence” is something that is like the “cat shelters” of climate change in terms of popularity would also be the highest impact option.
c. But it also means, via humility, that even if GG does not believe our criticisms, given that lots of people -- many of which with significant experience in climate and on advocacy-charity evaluation -- disagree with GG, it would be reasonable for GG to update rather strongly from that.
2.There are serious and, in our view, unaddressed concerns that marginal donations to TSM are net-negative, making the world worse, in expectation (not only about particular realizations, which, as you point out and everyone agrees, will always be true and should not be disqualifying).
3.Even if TSM is not net-negative, there appears near-consensus that -- from what we know -- it is likely that the impact of marginal TSM donations is very low -- maybe positive, maybe negative -- and unlikely to be large either way. This is quite different from CATF which means that there is concern that dollars that could go to CATF will go to TSM instead, with the TSM recommendation being net negative via that mechanism even if TSM alone is not.
4.When offsets and TSM are seen as a lot-lower impact than CATF or other high-impact recs, then “dilution” becomes an issue that needs to be modeled and managed to understand how good GG is from an EA perspective, how “dilution” plays out against crowding in additional money and how much that money is optimized.
I do understand the value proposition of Giving Green and I can imagine worlds where Giving Green’s approach, “meeting people where they are”, creates a lot of benefit even if these will often be comparatively low-impact options, because a lot of people are not willing to change their mind very much.
Indeed, I can imagine and hope for a world where the approach of Giving Green (optimizing giving of people not willing to change their mind much) and the approach of the wider EA community (incl. FP) focused on the highest-impact options is complementary.
So, I am not suggesting you should de-recommend TSM, I am just saying you should be clear to the EA community and -- ideally, but I know this is a stretch -- to your wider audience (e.g. on the website) that you have reasons to think that TSM < CATF in terms of expected benefit, just like offsets < policy.
To meet EAs “where they are”, GG should enable EAs that want to maximize positive impact in expectation. The charity that is most likely to lead to that in the climate space right now happens to be CATF.
On the flipside, I think this would also make many people here quite concerned about GG somewhat less concerned with GG if the risk -- that impact-maximizing EA climate dollars go to TSM or offsets that are considered clearly worse -- would be mitigated.
Also note that our theory of change is not only focused on energy innovation -- we also examine other paths that lead to global leverage such as policy leadership and cascading effects (we evaluated CLC from that angle but came to the view that it won't work).
What do we know and what can we know?
A lot of the discussion and disagreement seems to be about what we know and what we can know.
As I alluded to above, I agree with GG that humility is super-important -- the entire endeavor of EA is doomed without epistemic humility.
I do, however, think humility in this context mostly points to GG trusting EA climate mainstream more (see above) for four reasons (which also explain a bit more how FP is thinking about research).
The TL,DR of it is as follows:
1. There is a lot of expert support for the CATF recommendation and there is a lot more uncertainty regarding TSM.
2. CATF looks very good on the theory of change/frame most relevant to effective climate action -- maximizing global decarbonization benefit -- and the argument for TSM on that frame is not made.
3. Charity evaluation methodology is our friend and allows us to draw useful inferences even in highly uncertain situations.
4. The length and depth of engagement that led to the CATF and similar recommendations should itself be a reason for confidence, more so than the GG comment suggests.
1. What can we learn from which experts?
As GG rightly points out, asking 50 climate (policy) experts for their favorite charities isn’t a scientific approach to identifying effective charities, but of course it is evidence of some kind for something. In this section, I will ask “what for?” as well as what I would consider the relevant expert evidence in support of CATF.
Why typical US climate experts are not experts for the question at hand
For the question “what are the most effective charities to support to have the most positive impact on climate?” – the questions that EAs asks when trying to identify the highest-impact opportunities – the typical US-based climate (policy) expert is not an expert. This is so for at least three reasons:
1. The US-debate is focused on the US, the typical expert does not ask “what is the most effective thing one can do to have an effect on global decarbonization?” but rather “what seems best in the US?”. As per theory of change discussion, those two things aren’t necessarily related very much at all.
2. The overall climate debate in Western countries is quite biased – and predictably and importantly so. Compared to their real importance, there is an overemphasis on renewables, energy efficiency, and electric cars, there is an over-emphasis on lifestyle changes vs technological changes and there is an underappreciation of the technological challenge – but rather an emphasis on the political challenge and a typical framing that all that is missing is political will.
All of this makes sense (is predictable) if we think about where mainstream environmentalism comes from – ideologically speaking – from an egalitarian philosophy that prefers to solve problems with virtue rather than technology, that prefers “small is beautiful” and “in harmony with nature” over big centralized solutions (such as nuclear power or large dams), that has a moral need to demonize large centralized structures such as the state or capitalism, etc. Of course, not all experts are steeped in this ideology and not all experts that are follow it to the fullest extent. But it is notable that the overall climate debate is very biased by a particular worldview, an egalitarian / green view, that systematically hypes solutions that fit into the ideological priors – such as decentralized renewables and micro-grids and appealing to individual morality – and, equally systematically, disregards others – such as nuclear power build outs or CCS or a large-scale innovation agenda in line with the climate challenge.
Of course, a naïve narrative that solely focuses on technological innovation is equally biased, which is why I stressed so much in my original comment that I did not come to this topic with techno-optimist priors. All of those simplified ideological stories have kernels of truth to them and we need to judge the overall bias of the debate.
But if you look at the overall climate debate in Western countries it is hard to argue that the innovation arguments are getting their fair share – that innovation is emphasized enough compared to its importance (also see theory of change section).
It is not surprising that in this biased conversation Sunrise comes out on top – it serves all the ideological priors of those voices dominating the climate conversation – but that does not make it correct.
[Aside: Indeed, I would argue that because of the unfortunate situation that the innovation arguments tends to be made by those more that do not really want to act, the innovation agenda is neglected compared to its importance.
Climate activists downplay it because they like existing solutions as well as a framing of the problem as one of evil corporations and the need for fundamental societal change (rather than a severe technological challenge that needs strengthened innovation policy and a move away from “100% renewables”), whereas they often suspect – and often rightly so – that arguments for innovation on the right are made in bad faith, as discursive responses justifying inaction.
This leaves us in a terrible situation where we are severely underinvesting in technological innovation despite it being the only solution to get to net zero globally. This is one of the reasons why at FP we focus on funding innovation advocates that are on the center left but that are more serious about innovation than the green mainstream and that are able to work with people making innovation arguments on the right]
3. The typical climate (policy) expert is not an impact-focused philanthropist – indeed they are not philanthropists at all.
The best philanthropic options are those with the highest expected marginal returns to additional funding, something that a typical climate (policy) expert has very little insight into. Rather, the expert – when prompted with that question – will likely answer with something that seems good to them, that is top-of-mind, that fits with the ideological inclinations of the expert, etc. This is not data about high-impact philanthropy, this is data about the discourse.
What is this evidence for?
I am not sure that the fact that CATF does not come out on top of many of those experts is evidence of anything, but, if it is evidence of something, it seems weak evidence in support of CATF -- if it were popular with everyone we should not be funding it!
Indeed, this points to the “suspicious convergence” point on TSM v CATF. The fact that TSM is so popular and that CATF is not should make us fairly skeptical, by itself, that we should fund TSM rather than CATF, and that TSM is the most effective thing to fund.
In comparatively non-neglected causes such as climate we should be quite wary of funding the popular things. Indeed, the entire theory of value of CATF and other charities that FP champions is that these are charities that improve societal resource allocation in a field that receives a lot of resources but where those are spent fairly inefficiently.
In other words, it is precisely because CATF is focused on inconvenient and neglected things – CCS, advanced nuclear, zero-carbon fuels, industrial decarbonization, etc. – that we should not expect them to be popular but very much worthy of support.
Who are the relevant experts for the question at hand?
There are two types of experts that seem most relevant for finding high-impact climate philanthropy options:
1. Aligned climate philanthropists
Among aligned climate philanthropists – those that want to have the maximum impact on global decarbonization solutions with their dollars and approach this topic rigorously – CATF and/or the approach it stands for has a lot of supporters.
Most prominently that would be Bill Gates who does not get tired to advocate for innovation and technology pluralism. But there are also many climate philanthropists at US and European foundations that are strong supporters of CATF for exactly the reasons that we support them (not sharing publicly here, but happy to share in PM). As such, there are many relevant experts that would support CATF as a top choice.
2. Experts on sub-topics that help inform the theory of change, identify effective interventions, etc.
Experts are of course essential to form a view of effective interventions in the climate space and of effective organizations pursuing these.
Indeed, as I mentioned, the FP research is informed by hundreds of conversations with experts.
But apart from experts on particular organizations or interventions, the way expert views flow into the research is mostly via getting a sense of the most effective interventions, the bottlenecks, the neglected areas, the overall theory of change. There is a lot of information and expert opinion out there supporting the choice of CATF more generally that does not mention or is even aware of those organizations at all which leads me to my next point, “what is the appropriate theory of change?”
2. What is the appropriate theory of change?
Global decarbonization, not US policy change
GG states that there are several theories of (political) change and this is undoubtedly true.
It is important to recognize, though, that the theories of change that GG focuses on – theories of change in the US political context – are not directly related at all to a theory of change that focuses on maximal global decarbonization impact.
While this would be fine if the goal would be to identify the best charities reducing emissions in the US, it becomes problematic when it is claimed based on GG analysis that we are entirely ignorant about the expected value of donations to CATF or TSM.
If we ask “what’s the most effective climate funding opportunity to support at the margin that we know of?”, theories of political change in the US only matter insofar as emissions reductions “travel” – in a causal sense -- through US political change.
Given that US emissions are only ~15% of global emissions and that this share is declining as the rest of the world gets richer and the US is decarbonizing (even if on current trajectory), but that the US has roughly half of the world’s energy innovation budget, is generally considered the most capable innovation economy, and that the US is – for the moment, in any case – the leading global power, it stands to reason that the most effective things one can focus on in the US with regards to climate are interventions that maximize indirect effects and that might be quite different from those maximizing US emissions reductions (in expectation).
This is at the heart of the misunderstanding of CATF as “incrementalist”. CATF might be framed in that way if one is focused on US emissions and US political change. OK.
But the reason that most EAs support CATF as high-impact climate org is not because of the reduced emissions in the US but, precisely, because of the large international benefits that innovation policy targeted at neglected technologies brings.
All of the major success stories we have seen in climate over the past 20 years – solar, wind, coal > gas in the US, electric cars and batteries – have been the result of relatively narrow and targeted policies, the kind of which CATF advances for technologies that are less popular with greens for reasons of ideology, not merit.
Indeed, to make this more explicit, a lot of my skepticism about TSM at the margin comes from scenarios where TSM right now is relatively close to its maximum potential – lots of sway on Democrats, little sway on Republicans – but where binding climate legislation or more sweeping legislation still remains off the table and will remain so for relevant periods (getting a binding climate target in the US in 2035 is not that useful).
In that world, TSM will put lots of pressure on Biden and Democrats to advance executive orders (we can already observe that) that are ultimately unstable and open to court challenges rather than seizing the opportunity that presents itself to make much stronger innovation policy happen. This is a real danger and this is why I am very wary of stating certainty of positive impact in expectation of marginal TSM donations.
While one might be quite fatalistic about mandatory climate targets of the kind we have in Europe for the US, the response to that shouldn’t necessarily be – just push harder and harder and some day the Democrats will get rid of the filibuster or find a way to make executive orders robust and then we will win – but rather to make the most of the opportunity that the US presents for climate – an unparalleled energy innovation system that has a serious shot at breakthroughs in CCS, advanced nuclear, etc. Ambitious economy-wide climate legislation in the US is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for climate progress globally.
Climate is not, fundamentally, a problem like civil rights or the other analogies where a solution will need a strong legislation passing Congress and for which a large grassroots movement and even one larger than Sunrise right now might be essential.
CATF and similar charities look very good on a theory of change focused on the global picture
And CATF looks very good on a theory of change focused on maximized global decarbonization impact when taking into account some of the most important stylized facts about the climate challenge (widely recognized as median views in the respective expert communities):
1. Global energy demand will grow and restricting energy demand growth is very problematic from a humanitarian perspective.
2. Effective global decarbonization requires a much larger set of technologies than those currently available. Most of those technologies are not on track and many necessary technologies are in early stages.
3. Attention to many of those technologies is not on par with their importance, there is systematic neglect of key solutions.
4. More active US energy innovation is expected to be a very cost-efficient way to reduce emissions in the US and, crucially, this does not even include the global benefits.
You can then combine this with two CATF-specific features:
5. CATF is a strong organization that translates money into effective advocacy. This is not controversial within the EA community, something GG agrees on. It was first established in the FP 2018 report and it appears that at least 4 EA orgs had multiple calls with CATF, often dozens, that reaffirmed this conclusion (FP, Legacies Now, SoGive, Giving Green).
6. CATF has very productive funding margins, projects that are currently unfunded and that make a lot of sense from the above stylized facts and the theory of change.
This is all you need to come to CATF as a likely local optimum in effective climate philanthropy.
None of this is controversial and – indeed – each of the claims above about the world in general (1-4) follow directly from median expert views on those respective topics and the CATF-specific claims (5-6) are even entirely uncontroversial across the EA community.
In contrast, motivating TSM as a top-choice requires a lot of controversial claims, such as (a) that we are sure that the impact of marginal TSM donations is not negative in expectation and (b) that additional effort can lead to significant change beyond what is already baked in despite the approach of Sunrise being partisan and thereby, quite plausibly, limited in its ultimate potential given the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College.
What is more, as Robin pointed out, the fact that CATF operates not only in the US is another source of believing in it to be higher impact -- CATF can optimize marginal resources across many jurisdictions, many of which are often more fruitful than the US context, which is very fruitful now but might as well dry up significantly.
3. What can we know through charity evaluation methodology?
A lot of the arguments for GG’s skepticism about being able to figure out the goodness of CATF v TSM comes from non-marginal arguments, from the stated inherent incompatibility between different approaches.
While I do disagree with these incomparability claims -- see my original comment -- even if one agrees with these there is a lot of traction from the methods that “EA-style” (for lack of a better word) charity evaluation provides.
Neglectedness is a proxy, but it is a very useful one. In a world with millions of funding margins which we can never all evaluate in detail, neglectedness gives crucial information (as a prior, also see my long comment).
If a field is flooded with attention and money, like progressive climate activism, then the probability that there are great things to be funded is low for three fundamental reasons:
Declining marginal returns: A strategic actor will order projects such that the lowest value ones are at the margin and the further we are down that margin, the lower we should expect the value to be (ceteris paribus, which is key, e.g. CATF’s expansion into other geographies, changing its funding margins is an argument in another direction).
Declining probability of true additionality: The more money and attention goes into a particular direction or org the less likely it is that additional funding there will be truly additional -- it is more likely that actors “satisfice” and, when the funding environment is fertile, additional dollars will not always be additional, as there might be funding targets or, at the very least, a declining eagerness to fundraise more. That’s the point about 10,000 volunteers and inspiring the public imagination of an entire wing of the dominant American party -- if in that situation you are seriously funding-constrained, this would be quite surprising.
3.** Declining probability of money being the impact-constraining resource:** The more money you have and the easier it is to get more money if you need it, the lower the probability that money really is your constraint on higher marginal impact.
While I won’t name names here, there are many great climate charities which I believe are doing incredibly important and good work, which we are not recommending because of such considerations -- this is not something that only applies to TSM.
Aggregating expert views
When we have an issue where relevant experts disagree strongly -- such as whether a more partisan approach to climate policy is good or bad -- epistemic humility pushes us closer to a lower value (zero).
This is where a lot of the TSM skepticism comes from.
Not from saying “we are sure that TSM is bad” but rather “when observing the debate, we notice that this is an area of severe disagreement between reasonable people” -- e.g. look at all the debates in the Democratic party between progressives and moderates on which path is more promising to ensure Democratic priorities are implemented (and the Democratic majority survives).
So, this would be an area where we would either need to set the marginal impact of TSM downwards or where more research would be needed to demonstrate that the moderate wing of the Democratic party is entirely wrong (or, more climate-specifically, that more centrist voices are unduly worried about a progressive over-reach that will backfire and lead to deadlock and no progress).
This argument is largely missing in the TSM analysis, instead it feels like an assessment that is based on the most positive expert interpretations of TSM, not the median ones, and not taking into account voices that would be critical of TSM’s impact.
4. Length and depth of engagement that led to CATF and other climate high-impact recs
This is about the “intellectual history” leading to the CATF recommendation, with the TL, DR that the recommendation is based on a lot deeper engagement than the GG comment is giving credit for.
The argument on which CATF comes out as the best recommendation we currently know of goes back to 2016 -- when the argument that EAs interested in climate should focus on (a) innovation for (b) neglected technology, (c) given a world of rising energy demand and real conflicts between climate and poverty alleviation, was first publicly made (to my knowledge). You can watch it here and, somewhat later, but more refined, here. There’s a write-up here (though I never quite finished it because I focused on embedding this argument in the EA debate, which was achieved with John’s and Hauke’s reports, leaving me to prioritize other things).
This argument was already informed by deep engagement with climate for about a decade, reading and talking to hundreds of experts and, arguably -- in the process -- becoming an expert at being better able to evaluate the strength of different claims as well.
These arguments then found their ways into both John’s 2018 report and Hauke’s Let’s Fund report, both of whom vetted this argument against competing arguments. I don’t know the details about Hauke’s report, but I know that John talked to at least 50 experts for the first report and I know -- from, sometimes painful, experience :) -- that John does not accept any argument at face-value before he has not engaged with it himself. Crucially, both Hauke and John made charity recommendations that turned this argument into something actionable and thereby unlocking massive value.
After I joined FP in late 2019, John and I spent a lot of time revisiting our recs (which also led to not continuing some recs), working on a new report that more clearly motivates our theory of change, and identifying new recs.
The robustness of the CATF recommendation is one of the few things that stood the test of time, indeed by more clearly articulating our theory of change -- improving societal resource allocation in light of decarbonization priorities, towards innovation in neglected technologies -- we became somewhat more convinced of CATF being a “local optimum” (obviously, there might be other great options -- I for one would never claim that we will never find something better than CATF, just that until now we haven’t).
This is also true for the EA community at large: while there have been many critical reviews of FP’s work on climate (e.g. concerns about CfRN), the CATF recommendation has stood the test of time and examination.
Thank you for great comment - I agree with a lot of this and a lot of the criticism in this thread.
Some more related general thoughts:
Kudos, Dan & team, for this reply!
I will need a bit of time for a full reply, but I wanted to let you and team know that I really appreciate the thoughtful, gracious, and civil reply.
While we do have many disagreements on epistemics and empirics -- and I think I also still deeply disagree with many things in the post above (to be explained) -- we are united in the same purpose, making the world better the best we can.
So the point of this comment is just to recognize that and thank you.
For what it's worth, as someone who has thought about climate policy and philanthropy on and off for the last 3 years, I would also agree with this critique, and for the reasons Johannes (jackva) gives, I don't think the responses succeed. It's good to see these issues being discussed openly and constructively by both sides.
There are more problems with The Sunrise Movement (TSM) which don't seem to have been raised yet in this discussion.
Certainly there is a difference between everything that TSM does, and the marginal impact of GG's recommendation for their education fund. And certainly it is possible that the good parts of TSM's environmental activism outweigh these downsides. And you might disagree with me on some of these political issues. But we must see strong arguments along these lines before prioritizing TSM for donations. And while I haven't taken a close or systematic look at TSM's activities, given all the red flags I tentatively expect that the Sunrise Movement does more harm than good.
Other commenters here have framed this stuff as a tension between the left and conservatives/moderates, but there are plenty of Democrats who criticize TSM too. Here's Matt Yglesias saying "The problem with funding Sunrise is not that there is an objective scarcity of funds and other people need the money more, it’s that Sunrise is bad and should get $0." And such views about TSM are pretty common at least on left-leaning Twitter. Recommending TSM without having awareness and counterarguments to these criticisms does not imply a need to listen more to conservatives or moderates (tho I don't necessarily oppose the idea of listening more to conservatives or moderates), it suggests a more general need to keep closer tabs on the current political discourse. The synthesis of "EA should generally strive to be apolitical" and "some good causes are inherently political" should not be for us to naively support interventions because of the way that they attack one political problem while we ignore the risky impacts of those interventions on other parts of the political system.
Finally, I am less confident about this point, but I suspect that GG is being too credulous about TSM achieving change. Just because they demand that Democratic politicians do something, and the Democratic politicians do that something, with TSM claiming that they were responsible for making the Democratic politicians do that something, doesn't mean TSM actually was responsible for making the politicians change. If a Democratic politician does major climate stuff in office after being criticized by TSM during their election campaign for something symbolic like not bringing up the Green New Deal, that's only very weak evidence that TSM actually changed the politician's behavior; it is better evidence for the claim that Democratic politicians are generally both serious on climate policy and savvy at election messaging and TSM was just making unfounded criticisms all along.
Here it is worth distinguishing two theories of how the Democratic Party works. Some people (like TSM and others on the progressive left) think the elites of the Democratic Party are centrist corporatists who don't really want to implement leftist policies but will do it if their base pressures them hard enough. Other people think that Democratic Party elites are actually very ideologically liberal and would intrinsically like to implement ambitious reforms on the environment and other issues, but are stymied by right-wing and centrist political forces. AFAICT the second theory is much more accurate, and David Shor (the leftist data whiz) seems to agree.
I hope this does not come across too negative, since I am glad Giving Green exists and I just think this recommendation is a mistake.
This is a really great discussion piece and a very mature response from Giving Green (GG) to it. I would mostly second jackva’s comments, and will just raise a few additions points.
There seems to be a misapprehension on the core criticism. The fundamental criticism of this article is not just that GG don’t do things quantitatively, but that they have completely neglected the “cost” side of cost-benefit analysis. The qualitative metrics don’t attempt to account for either the actual scale of money needed to do anything, nor the potential negatives of the actions. It appears designed to convince me that the charities accomplish anything at all, rather than that they do good things efficiently.
Minor disagreements with the article
(Flagged to avoid the impression of consensus here rather than to divert the discussion onto these topics)
I would challenge the article’s assertion that CATF has no significant downsides. Quite apart from CCS debates, the new distributed nuclear faculties it proposes have elevated risk of enabling nuclear terrorism, which (besides being bad itself) can trigger further backlash against established nuclear generation. There are fundamental safety reasons why nuclear technology develops so slowly now, and why it isn't widely distributed. There are fundamental geology reasons why CCS at high flow rates is hard, and the trend of attractive-looking test cases that are ultimately distracting failures is historically real.
I'm also confused by the article’s criticism of BURN, which seems to be a valid company that sells carbon offsets. It clearly has social co-benefits from pollution reduction, and it's not claiming anything other than high-confidence emissions reductions. The write-up about BURN is worded misleadingly but not conceptually flawed.
Disagreement with the response and additional problems
In terms of analytic models, I agree that GHG emission changes are hard to establish with exactitude, but not obviously harder than the social benefits of any other intervention. In many cases I would expect the error bars in GG’s analytic evaluations to be smaller than So Give’s, and have a fairly uncontroversial choice of meaningful unit (e.g. tCO2-equivalent/$) unlike in social problems. Given that several options are pre-packaged as carbon offsets for a particular price, GG really just need an estimate of the probability that the emissions will really be trapped/avoided for some lifetime.
Ironically, the large range of things that are fundamentally difficult to include quantitatively are lumped into a single category: “co-benefits”. I don’t know who this is for. If I was donating from a pot of money that cared about development per se, I would go to Givewell or So Give to work out how. If I care about community buy-in (a really important aspect in the success of many projects), I need to know how those co-benefits are distributed, not just that someone somewhere benefits, and this should really be a part of “Causality”. If I care about biodiversity or literally any other green metric than global warming, I would be consistently disappointed by how little was written here.
Finally, I struggle with way this entire discussion revolves around US policy change. I suspect the amounts of money spent on lobbying in the USA is hugely more than in most countries, but I don't see any consideration of neglectedness at the country level. Your research priorities document claims: “We focused on US policy because the US is the world’s second-largest emitter, it has outsized global influence, and because Giving Green’s staff are most familiar with the US policy systems.” The first two are not sufficient to demonstrate it's optimal (it's not even the first choice!), and the third is a problem with GG rather than the basis for a conclusion. Have you looked at state-level interventions? The whole world is even bigger than the US (and China), so why not look at global movements? Can you not either diversify your staff or expand their sphere of knowledge?
The amount of opinions expressed here should be interpreted in three ways: firstly that a lot of people are really unhappy with the current GG methodology, secondly that they are willing to offer free advice and assistance, and thirdly that what GG are trying to do is really valuable, hence why it’s so important to get it right.
"Finally, I struggle with way this entire discussion revolves around US policy change. I suspect the amounts of money spent on lobbying in the USA is hugely more than in most countries, but I don't see any consideration of neglectedness at the country level."
This is actually another important and independent reason why we should expect CATF > TSM, CATF can optimize marginal resources across different geographies whereas Sunrise is limited to the US environment.
Indeed, although CATF is still very North America-centric. I'd be more excited to learn about a similar charity acting in China (assuming it wanted Western money).
CATF operates in China, albeit with a small program (but one could fund that to grow!). They are also generally expanding and have recently been funded to set up a somewhat significant presence in the EU as well.
I am planning to look into China's climate philanthropy landscape later this year.
Thank you to everyone participating for the thorough discussion and raising the issue. I'm Henri Thunberg, the sole FTE of geeffektivt.se, the Swedish site picking up Giving Green's research that was mentioned early on in Alex's post. I wanted to elaborate on our reasoning to include Giving Green research. Nearly all of the decisions below were taken by me, and do not reflect the opinions of colleagues, volunteers, or other supporters.
A major data point for us to include climate as a cause area on our site was the fact that climate constituted 32% of the money raised by effektiv-spenden.org (a German regranting organization) in 2019. This spoke to our intuition that there are lots of inefficient solutions within climate, and that people are asking for promising organisations to donate to. We were particularly interested in bringing non-EA donations to the site, and thought climate would be an excellent way to do so in Sweden. We saw an opportunity to do so because of the ongoing debate around carbon offsets/personal footprint creating awareness of the risk for relatively bad solutions in a much more widespread way than for global health and animal welfare.
I was considering referring to Founders Pledge's research rather than Giving Green. The reason I didn't in the end was to some extent a worry that some of our users who are not familiar with FP might have a hard time understanding why we're using the research of such an organization in particular when recommending climate charities.
I would like to thank Daniel Stein from Giving Green for making time to talk to me in December when we were launching the climate section of our site. Personally, I root for their mission and, like many others, I have been impressed with Giving Green's work in such a brief time, and would very much like to see them grow. Partly to have more time for researching their recommendations, but also to reach a wider audience. I think a way that our site can contribute to making that happen is to show that there is a demand for this kind of research, and to see what level of impact GG would have through us.
Notes on BURN & the Sunrise Movement
Regarding the Sunrise Movement, we saw at least two reasons to be doubtful; the evidence seemed tenuous, and there were concerns about (local) opposition to nuclear energy and CCS. In the end that was the only charity out of the Giving Green recommendations that we chose to not put on our website. At the time we saw it more as it being "put on hold" than a definite rejection of TSM, but it seems like the critique in this forum post will further decrease the chances of us recommending them.
As I was a bit concerned about the general critique against cook stoves and relying on a single RCT for BURN, I have been in contact with experts from Stockholm Environmental Institute to get further external input on the evidence. Their response was initially positive regarding BURN, to the point that we have not excluded that recommendation. That communication with SEI is still ongoing, and hopefully something I can get their permission both to relay to Giving Green and post in this thread. We think many of our donors might appreciate the economic and health benefits that come with BURN, as our typical user chooses global health as the preferred cause area.
Our donation data so far within climate
After around one month with the Giving Green recommendations on our site, we stand at around €1,363 in climate donations out of our €38k total (excluding Facebook fundraisers). At this point, it should be stated that global health has been on our website as a cause for about twice as long (since early December 2020) compared to animal welfare (~€970 raised) and climate. This is especially skewed since that extra time was during giving season/launch.
Out of the 36 donations to climate as a cause area, 58% of the money (16/36 donations) chose the option "Let us choose within climate" rather than a specific charity. I expect the climate donations that we dispose of freely to go to Clean Air Task Force. Furthermore, those who chose a specific charity went mostly for CATF with 17.5% (11 donations). A total of 25% went to BURN, Climeworks and Tradewater through three donations each. Unfortunately, our systems are not yet well prepared to answer any question on the reasoning of our donors that made Clean Air Task Force the prevailing choice.
Reflection moving forward
Both before and after this forum post I have had some thoughts on how we could include climate on our site in a way that is in line with what we want to achieve.
I would appreciate further input on how we, especially with regard to climate, could act in a way that is intellectually honest, minimizes EA reputational risks and maximizes the good we do through raised donations.
Thanks for the great work you're doing! It's exciting to see numbers on donor preferences (even if the samples are small so far). I think this data you are collecting has potential to be really helpful in forming answers to a couple of the high level questions I raised at the start, and I have a few thoughts on how to extend this. I'll send you a message.
Thank you to Alex for writing this piece, which I think is really helpful.
I am a Founder and Director of SoGive. We support donors to achieve more impact, and we influence c£1m per annum, the majority of which is from a very small number of major donors.
In this comment, I will say that I think the thrust of Alex's concerns are valid and still stand, to my mind. But first:
I want to take my hat off to the guys at Giving Green.
My first tentative forays into getting SoGive going were as early as 2015 and the official start date was 2017, so it's taken a long time to get to where we are. By contrast Giving Green has achieved a much higher profile than we have, and they've achieved it quickly. I would also say that Giving Green's analytical capabilities are ahead of where we were in 2016. Furthermore, the team is still only working on Giving Green in their spare time, so their progress is impressive.
While achieving traction quickly is great, I question whether Giving Green has achieved their traction too quickly.
For the first several years of our existence, SoGive's recommendations were solely borrowed from other better-resourced organisations like GiveWell, and we're only now in the process of updating our website to reflect our own analysis.
And of course just because SoGive is doing things one way, it doesn't mean that that way is right. But there are reasons for our cautious approach.
I believe it is premature for Giving Green to put equal emphasis on recommendations where there is an EA consensus (like CATF) and recommendations where Giving Green is going out on a limb (like TSM).
I have had a small number of conversations with the Giving Green team now, and I think they are good guys who could create a good analytical organisation given time.
And on some of the points that Dan made in this thread, I have sympathies with his position. For example, on Climeworks, he made the point that "you are betting on the technology, not the company". Contra Alex, I think this is a reasonable argument in favour of the claim that one of the Metaculus forecasts is not analytically helpful. (although doesn't support Dan's claim that both are irrelevant)
Having said that, the majority of Alex's concerns still stand, to my mind.
Furthermore, I have read some of the Giving Green analysis, and believe that Alex's list of concerns would be longer, if only there were time to do a more detailed review.
I'm conscious that reading much of this thread may feel punishing for the Giving Green team. However I really am positive about the long-term potential for this project.
Agree with Alex. The clincher for me is the Climeworks assessment. If you have a range of candidate technologies which will remove Co2 from the atmosphere, then cost must be a factor. If a candidate is expensive and has no path to becoming cheap, it doesn’t matter that it’s amazing by all other metrics. This seems basic.
Giving Green talk about the near certainty of Climeworks. This tells you that the expected cost per tonne of Co2 right now is close to £1,150 (https://climeworks.com/subscriptions), perhaps plus or minus £5, making the “true” cost £1,145 - £1,155.
On the other hand, other charities might have a broader range. For example I believe CfRN has a “true” cost between $5 - $30 to reach the same reduction in Co2. This is a broader range ($25 vs £10). Yet CfRN is clearly better (by a factor of 38 - 230!) We can disagree about the exact numbers: the point is that cost effectiveness shouldn’t be left out of charity assessment.
The near certainty of Climeworks may give peace of mind for some. However it’s an adjunct to cost, no more.
On future value. Climeworks themselves aim to get to $100 per tonne by 2025, so one might give in expectation of helping to bring about this price. Alex mentions Metaculus’ forecasts, which can be used to calculate how probable this theory of change might be. Cost (current or future) should always be considered.
As Giving Green is still recommending donations to TSM in spite of what seems to be the majority opinion here, I'd like to highlight a recent letter to the White House cosigned by TSM (among dozens of other groups). The letter argues that the United States should be less "antagonistic" towards China in order to focus on cooperating on climate change.
In reality, the United States and China have already agreed to cooperate on climate change. So TSM et al are not proposing any obvious change in US-China climate policy. Apparently they want us to be more generally friendly toward China in other domains, so that the already-agreed-to climate cooperation can run more smoothly.
The first problem with this is that it's not clear that US-China cooperation on climate change can achieve much anyway. The idea that America should cooperate with China on climate change is a trite line that gets repeated constantly as a superficial aspiration but to me seems rather deficient in policy substance. Exactly how this cooperation on climate change is supposed to work is generally a mystery if you try to think beyond vague outlines. This letter states that the US and China can cooperate because they have 'complementary strengths', but this isn't even really true. The letter says "For example, the U.S. is the world leader in clean technology research and controls immense financial resources; China is the world leader in industrial capacity across a number of clean energy industries and is a major source of infrastructure financing across the Global South" but this is almost the same two strengths stated in slightly different ways. Clearly, both are financiers. China does have serious clean tech research and the US does have serious clean tech industry; maybe there is a comparative advantage in American research and Chinese manufacturing, but in practice you cannot separate green research and green manufacturing very easily (most of the recent green tech progress is innovations and scale arising from manufacturing), and there aren't severe trade barriers stopping American green technology ideas and Chinese manufacturing products from crossing the Pacific anyway.
No doubt there is room for some reforms of trade, travel and immigration to improve green technology transfer between the US and China. But in broad strokes, both the US and China can provide both financing and clean technology, this is classic economic competition. It is at least as likely that competition between the United States and China will lead both sides to put more effort into financing clean infrastructure and exporting clean technology. After all, China's motivation for infrastructure projects has been partly geopolitical, and there have been many calls in the US for financing similar infrastructure projects around the world in order to compete with China.
I am not alone in suggesting this. Numerous foreign policy experts have cut through the trite assumption echoed by that letter and shown how climate progress fits equally or better into a framework of competition with China.
Competition With China Can Save the Planet | Foreign Affairs
Why the United States should compete with China on global clean energy finance (brookings.edu)
Want to Compete with China? Deliver on Climate Security for the Indo-Pacific - Just Security
Productive Competition: A Framework for U.S.-China Engagement on Climate Change | Center for Strategic and International Studies (csis.org)
The second problem with TSM et al's idea that America should generally be more friendly with China is that it (obviously) has implications beyond climate policy. It is yet another example of TSM attempting to influence broader political issues besides environmental policy, an activity which can be either good or bad but definitely adds to the complexity and undermines the robustness of Giving Green's recommendation.
While TSM does not say so explicitly, the apparent subtext is that the United States should exercise little or no serious policy response to China's infliction of mass suffering through concentration camps in Xinjiang and its treaty-violating destruction of political rights in Hong Kong. Their only statement on human rights is that the United States should work together with China to support international best practices on human rights... this is a bizarre thing to say considering that China is one of the biggest current violators of international best practices on human rights. It can only suggest that either the letter signatories are ignorant of severe systematic human rights violations in China or they believe that we should turn a blind eye on them in order to focus on cooperating on other issues (almost certainly the latter).
The letter also has the subtext that the United States should exert less effort in deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and should be more reluctant to defend Taiwan in the event that China does invade that island nation, that the United States should tolerate China's allegedly unfair trade practices (I admit that I agree that the US should be more tolerant here, but some climate donors may disagree), and that the United States should tolerate China's efforts to change international institutions and international law. (I delve into the complexity and probable harmfulness of China's international political aspirations in this essay.)
In my estimation this letter is probably net harmful, and I would like to see anyone affiliated with EA exercise extreme caution before recommending donations to an organization which seems to implicitly discourage reasonable efforts to curb ongoing massive human rights violations.
Edit: here's another notable story. TSM cancelled an event in which they were planning to study protest tactics from Hong Kong, because sympathizers with the Chinese Communist Party were offended by the implication of legitimizing Hong Kong protestors. The mere fact that TSM is not holding events to study Hong Kong protest tactics is of course not a problem in itself, but backtracking and capitulating like this suggests that TSM suffers from moral rot and/or excessive influence by unsavory authoritarians.
Edit2: see Matt Yglesias' recent article suggesting that TSM is probably doing more harm than good. For completeness, here is a reply, which seems completely unconvincing, except the link to this article is something noteworthy to think about.
Giving Green no longer recommends TSM, although the reasons prompting the withdrawal of the recommendation appear to be unrelated to the incidents described above:
There was substantial evidence of TSM's rapid growth available at the time I originally wrote this piece, some of which I included in it. It therefore seems somewhat strange that the thing which prompted the de-recommendation is that TSM appeared to grow rapidly. Nonetheless, the de-recommendation itself seems good.
>I would be very excited to see research by Giving Green into whether their approach of recommending charities which are, by their own analysis, much less cost effective than the best options is indeed justified.
Several confusions I have:
I asked them! The website does now make it clear, I think, that they think policy options are best, though some of that is a recent change, and the language is still less effective than I'd like.
You're right that I meant "does well on a comparison of immediate impact" here, but your second point is, I think, really important. Having said that, while it's worth thinking about I don't think the current presentation of the difference between offsetting and policy intervention could be fairly described as "dishonest". I think it is clear that GG thinks policy is more effective, it's just that the size of the difference is not emphasised.
I agree that, even in worlds where it produce the most immediate good from a donation perspective, presenting two options as equal when you think they are not is dishonest, and not justifiable. I don't think Giving Green has ever intended to do that though.
In terms of CATF vs Sunshine, I had initially suspected that it might be the case that they thought CATF was much better but that Sunshine was worth including to capture a section of the donations market which broadly likes progressive stuff. I agree that this would not be acceptable without a caveat that they thought CATF was best. Having spoken to them, I don't think this is the case (and Dan can confirm if he's still following the thread); I think they genuinely think that there's no difference in expectation between CATF and TSM. I strongly disagree with this assesment, but do believe it to be genuine.
Thanks for sharing this. I wasn’t very familiar with Giving Green and you bring up interesting points. I would like to push back against two of your points: 1) that progressive groups are the ones making climate change partisan, and 2) that searching for consensus is the best way to find legislative success in our current political climate. You say that "making climate change a partisan issue might look promising in the short-term given the current Democratic trifecta, though the wafer-thin majority and existence of the filibuster somewhat dampens the case even there, but in even the medium term there is an obvious and potentially very large downside to such an approach."
Climate change is already a partisan issue. I’d argue that it's partisan mostly not because of what progressive climate activists are doing, but rather because of right wing climate denialism. In my opinion, progressive groups dialing it down wouldn’t make the Republicans any less obstructionist, but rather further defang the left and create even less of a chance for change. Let's imagine several scenarios:
Scenario 1: Republicans are obstructionist, most/all Democrats push for compromise with Republicans, orgs like CATF push for bipartisan initiatives, orgs like Sunrise don't do much. Likely outcomes:
Scenario 2: Republicans are obstructionist, some Democrats push for compromise, while others push for more radical change in conjunction with orgs like Sunrise. Likely outcomes:
This framing would suggest that strong progressive climate action would offer both higher risk and higher potential reward, which seems accurate to me.
My opinion is that it’s going to take a lot for progressive climate legislation to be passed, and I think if we keep saying “the Republicans are effectively controlling the narrative re climate change and that will never change, we have to push gently so as to not ruffle feathers,” we’re only going to get tiny amounts of change (or none at all). Climate change seems like an issue where we can’t afford to wait. Furthermore, narratives aren’t static; they can change! Think of cases such as the civil rights movement in the ‘60s: changing the narrative around civil rights and achieving legislative success came not from finding consensus with recalcitrant segregationists but by an aggressive progressive movement willing to make noise. Of course, the analogy you choose makes a big difference. Feel free to share an analogy that would point to the opposite conclusion, but I’m having trouble thinking of one.
Thanks for reading, and I’m very eager to hear any rebuttals that folks have.
I think you have missed one clear downside: that increasing partisanship will make any action that is passed worse. There have been some clear examples historically of where the association of climate change with left wing politics has been a negative:
Including more conservatives and moderates in policy design, and marginalizing extreme left-wing groups, could help both improve the prospects for passing policy and result in better policy. We have strong evidence this is the case - look at the example of the UK, where the conservative-led coalition and then conservative majority government has made climate change a significant focus, partly because they were able to 'reclaim' the issue.
I think you've outlined a case for why you think progressive climate activism is good. I agree that it is good on-net. I think, from his comment, so does Johannes. But when we evaluate charities the typical approach is to look at the expected value of donations on the margin. This is a very different question to "does the thing seem positive overall".
As one specific example:
TSM's stated goal is to increase polarisation. Making climate change more of a partisan can be bad on the margin even if someone else is primarily "to blame".
In general, your thinking currently seems to be framed as [minor/not really worth it objectives from CATF] versus [brilliant transformative objectives from progressive activists]. I don't think this framing is accurate.
As Johannes discussed at length, CATF's push for new technologies has the potential for global impact, not just national. Climate change is a global problem, not just an American one. This idea of looking at the global picture is not unique to CATF among EA recommendations, see also ITIF for example. Secondly, some of the work I'm most excited about from CATF is their thinking around zero-carbon fuels, which are going to be vital to decarbonising things like long-distance freight, international shipping etc, where battery-technology just won't cut it. Again, I think this whole-system analysis is extremely far from just pushing for minor, incremental change.
I appreciate you writing up these comments! There are some great suggestions here as well as things I disagree with. As the author of the "extremely positive" post let me share some thoughts. (I'm by no means an expert on this so feel free to tell me I'm wrong.)
1. Quantitative cost-effectiveness analysis
Summary of my view: I'm pretty torn on this one but think we may not want to require a quantitative CEA on charities working on policy change (although definitely encourage the GG team to try this exercise).
On one hand I think it's great to at least attempt it to develop a better understanding of one's causal model as well as sources of uncertainty, and getting a ballpark estimate if possible (though sometimes the range is too wide to be useful). On the other hand requiring quantitative cost-effectiveness estimates can restrict the type of charities one can evaluate. I took a brief look at Founders' Pledge's model on the Clean Air Task Force, which seems to be a combination of 1) their track record, 2) their plan, 3) subjective judgements. While the model seems reasonable (I haven't taken a deep enough look to tell how much I agree) I do think requiring such a model would preclude evaluating orgs like the Sunrise Movement -- or, if we take your concerns about them seriously (which I'll address below) let's just say orgs like that, of which there are many in the climate space: those with a more complex theory of change than say CATF, and any model would involve inputs that are mostly extremely subjective (compared to the CATF one) which makes it less meaningful. Perhaps you would say these orgs are precisely the ones not worth recommending -- on this I agree with Giving Green that we should hedge our bets among different theories of change and hence look at different types of orgs (even though as I'll elaborate later I agree with having a stronger recommendation for CATF, I think potentially recommending orgs more similar to TSM is valuable).
So I think it is definitely good to attempt a quantitative CEA and I highly encourage the GG team to do so, even for an org like TSM. (I would have liked to engage with Founders' Pledges' models more but didn't end up doing it -- that would be a nice exercise.) But I'm unsure about requiring that in a recommendation especially when you work in a space with so much uncertainty. (I was trying to look up other EA charity recommenders and saw that Animal Charity Evaluators also don't seem to have quantitative CEA for any/all their top charities -- I haven't checked all but here's an example without. Not saying this is a sufficient argument though.)
I have to say I'm pretty uncertain about how much to use quantitative CEA and I am happy to be convinced that I'm wrong.
I do agree Giving Green should communicate with less confidence in their recommendations as say GiveWell, which explicitly recommends charities that are amenable to be evaluated with higher quality evidence (e.g. RCTs) and hence have lower uncertainty.
1) Offsets vs policy change
My read is that GG recommends offsets because they see a huge market especially among companies that want to purchase offsets, and it's hard to convince them to instead donate the money to the maximally impactful thing. However, I agree that they should communicate this more clearly: that for more "flexible" donors they strongly recommend policy change over offsets.
2) Cost-effectiveness of offsets
I agree it would be good to come up with cost-effectiveness estimates for offsets even though they will also be pretty uncertain (probably something between the uncertainty of GiveWell current top charities and climate change orgs working on policy change). In addition to telling people to buy offsets with real additionality, it's probably also good to put a proper price tag on things especially if they differ a lot.
3. The Sunrise Movement (TSM)
Summary of my view: I'm more positive than the author on the impact they achieved (and perhaps their impact potential), and less negative on the potential for negative impact, although I'm really unsure about it as I'm far from an expert. I do agree that GG should recommend CATF more highly than TSM.
Impact they achieved: The fact that Biden and some other Democrats adopted climate change plans similar to what's proposed by TSM (see the "Policy consensus and promotion" section of GG's page on TSM) is some evidence of their influence, although of course we can't be sure. (This article argues it was valuable for groups on the left to have a more unified framework for addressing climate change, and it seems like TSM is one of the multiple groups that had an influence in the process.)
Potential for negative impact:
Why GG should recommend CATF more highly:
Thanks for engaging here. This is a thoughtful and interesting comment, and I think it’s noteworthy that we basically agree on several important conclusions, namely that Giving Green should:
There are, however, a couple of misconceptions in your comment which are similar to those in Dan’s initial responses, and have been discussed elsewhere in the comments. I’m going to try to summarise those here, as this thread has got very long so it’s not surprising some things are being missed.
As I mentioned in my reply to Dan when he raised a similar concern, I’m not rejecting Giving Green’s because it is not quantitative, I’m rejecting Giving Green’s analysis because of the many substantial flaws which have been extensively discussed, and I’m also saying that quantitative modelling is a useful exercise which may have prevented or helped identify many of those flaws. The way that building quantitative models can improve analysis, even if the models themselves are rough or flawed, is usefully discussed by Johannes at the start of this epic comment which is longer than the post itself so I’ll quote the relevant section.
The Sunrise Movement
Again, I think the most important misunderstanding here has already been discussed repeatedly in the comments. The difference between “is X good” and “is X good on the margin” is a massive and fundamental part of impact evaluation. It’s easy to argue a case along the lines of “progressive activism has been broadly positive/associated with positive changes”, I wholeheartedly agree with that claim! It just has very little to do with what the potential impact will be of TSM on the current margin. It is possible for extremely good causes to be poor donation opportunities, because additional donations would not allow them to do any more good. It is similarly possible for only moderately good causes to be extremely good donation opportunities, if additional donations would be transformative for them. Neglectedness is only one aspect of judging marginal impact, but it is discussed helpfully in this comment.
There’s been a good deal of discussion in other comments here and here, as well as the substance of the original post, about the downside risks of TSM, but I think it’s worth noting that the view that “the Biden camp will probably ignore them if they suggest something too crazy” is not one which is totally compatible with thinking that donations to TSM will have high marginal impact.
There are several ways in which TSM might influence things though which don’t seem obviously like they will fail, for example (quoting from this comment):
I chose this in particular because it also speaks the “who is being ambitious and transformative” discussion which seems to have popped up a few times in the comments. Ultimately, bipartisan legislation, even if it’s slower to get big wins, ensures that those wins stick around in the long run (there’s also the national vs international angle, but that’s been covered elsewhere). Quoting part of another comment from Johannes:
Thanks for your comment! I agree with Alex on his points and -- apparently, a lot with you as well :) -- but adding some clarifications on questions/assumptions in your comment re FP research on this: (1) whether or not FP would research TSM or other similar interventions (absolutely!), (2) additional reasons why CATF is a robust rec and TSM is not (3) where credence in CATF comes from.
1. Would FP or similar orgs exclude TSM because of low measurability?
I don't really know where this idea originated, but the answer is clearly that we would not exclude an org like TSM because of low measurability. We would absolutely examine TSM or other similar orgs if we had reasons to believe to find something high impact in this space.
Yes, TSM is very uncertain and the path is a bit more indirect than with CATF or similar, but this is a gradual difference, not a qualitative one -- there are clear quantitative ways in which one could think about TSM; indeed reading the GG work on TSM and the discussion here has already given some indications on how this would look like.
As I wrote in another reply, we constantly evaluate and recommend uncertain hit-based opportunities.
The reason for not investigating TSM more deeply at FP right now is that from GG's analysis and this forum discussion it is pretty clear that this is not a particularly high-impact option -- (a) it's clearly not neglected, (b) there is a lot of downside risk, and (c) there isn't a strong marginal case -- nothing that would leave us to expect that giving more money to TSM would lead to much stronger TSM, let alone a much better world.
(I) Given that it takes 120+ hours to vet a funding opportunity, (II) the goodness of existing climate recs with remaining funding gaps and (III) the vast impact differentials between excellent and average opportunities (easily 100x), at FP we believe that this time is better spent at finding things that have a plausible chance of being really high impact.
I think the most plausible case for this to be a grassroots movement would be outside the US, because a lot of the downside risk for TSM comes from features specific to its partisan nature and the structure of the American political system. If in the US, my best guess would be Republican pro-climate grassroots.
2. There are a least 4 additional reasons beyond those you outline why we should expect CATF to be very robust and TSM not to be. I discuss those in the second part of this comment:
3. Our current credence in CATF as a top-recommendation does not build primarily on the 2018 report which "discovered" CATF but in multiple re-evaluations of CATF as well as additional evaluations by other orgs. I summarize this here (emphasis new):
This is a bit of a random point on offsets, and one where I agree more with Giving Green than some of the commenters, but when we include offsets in the portfolio (which I lean against but leaving this aside), I don't think it necessarily makes sense to focus on cost-effectiveness.
Most actors use offsets to compensate a particular amount of emissions and will not change the amount of offsetting based on cost. Consumer surplus of people rich enough to buy offsets is not necessarily very morally relevant (if at all).
So, there are other considerations that might be more important. In my mind, these are two:
1) How large are the benefits that are co-benefits beyond the carbon saved?
2) How likely is it that this offset recommendation will lead to more effective behavior in the future (or, even better, that the page in which the offset is presented directly leads to a better action in the present), e.g. to donations to advocacy charities? [Edit: I actually believe this >70% of the importance, because the gain from shifting people to effective charity is much more significant given the impact of direct action (offsets) will always be low which then also holds for the co-benefits]
This is why I think Climeworks is the best offset in the Giving Green set.
Yes, it is obviously very expensive, but rich people can afford it. But it has relatively clear co-benefits (driving down of cost curve) and -- crucially -- it embeds with the reader the lesson that driving down technology cost is an important lever to make progress for climate.
One could then also combine it with a focus on Carbon180, saying something like "Hey, if you REALLY REALLY want to be certain you can buy those Climeworks offsets, but here is an idea: Why don't you give the same amount to Carbon180 instead, a charity that not only focuses on direct air capture, but rather that is focused on policy advocacy on accelerating all carbon removal technologies. From all we know, this will be much more cost-effective and more robust because this will also be good if we find in 5 years that direct air capture will never be cheap."
Given how expensive Climeworks is I think even those of us more skeptical of the enormous cost-effectiveness of advocacy charity would agree that this statement is true (you only have to believe that Carbon180 saves carbon for less than 1000 USD/t, which is an incredibly low bar for an advocacy charity with proven track record of policy influence such as Carbon180).
I think the extent to which I agree on this depends pretty heavily on context. If we're talking about a major company which wants to use offsets to claim that it's carbon neutral, then inelasticity with respect to cost makes sense (though even then I'm not totally convinced the elasticity is literally 0). I think this is importantly not true when it comes to, for lack of a better phrase "retail" offsetters.
i.e. the sort of people who might want to offset their yearly carbon emissions, or a flight that they feel guilty about. In this case, I think presenting a very expensive option as being best risks causing them to choose nothing at all rather than either a cheaper offset or offsetting as much as they can afford.
In practice, I think everyone would much rather this sort of donor was steered away from offsets altogether, but in the case where they aren't, I think cost effectiveness makes sense. This logic seems to weakly apply to companies as well, in the sense that it may be one or two people pushing the comany to make a commitment from the inside, and I can see the probability that those people are successful being at least somewhat dependent on the size of the ask.
Whilst I do agree with a good amounts of the point in this critique, such as the need for cost effectiveness, I also have some strong concerns about a few things said in both the general post, as well as some comments.
For context, I've been working with Extinction Rebellion UK (XR UK) full-time for almost two years, since just after they launched, as well as with the slightly newer Animal Rebellion.
To start with, some concerns from the original post:
Speaking from my experience at XR, I definitely do think that certain kinds of impactful climate activism are neglected. To give some anecdotal evidence to start, let's talk about XR. XR was found to be the largest influencer on climate change according to research presented at COP25. Yet, I would say XR is extremely funding constrained currently, having just an income of £46,000 in December 2020, whilst still having thousands of volunteers across the UK. Two key points I would like to make here are:
1. Just because a movement has thousands of volunteers, it does not mean it has a large and steady income stream. You seem to assume this about TSM however logically I don't think it carries any weight. I know for XR and I would wager for TSM too that 50%+ of all donations come not from individuals, but from grant-making bodies or individual philanthropists. My point here is that once this assumption falls, there is no justification for saying TSM is not impactful on the margins, or that TSM isn't funding constrained. I would actually argue the opposite; As TSM has thousands of engaged volunteers, if it had greater funding capacity, it could look to take on some volunteers into full-time staff positions and greatly increase the capacity and impact of TSM.
2. That not all progressive activism is equal. Something I believe that both you and jackva allude to (or directly say) is that we can lump together a groups such as Friends of the Earth and WWF with TSM and Extinction Rebellion. I think there is a huge distinction between your traditional NGO (FoE and WWF) versus a movement whose priority is shifting public support, mobilising volunteers and using civil disobedience as a theory of change.
On the second point, I think there is an abundance of traditional NGO climate campaigning - WWF, Greenpeace, FoE and so on. I would say the main theory of change they apply is advising policy and public education. Whereas if you look at the number of groups who are trying to mobilise a large base of people to engage in non-violent direct action for the climate, I would say there is only two meaningful groups left in this regard: TSM and XR. This is a huge topic that I might make another post generally on the EA Forum about but for the time-being, I'm going to link to an article by someone from Open Phil discussing the necessity for an ecology of change that includes mass protest and civil disobedience as a key and neglected piece in recent times. In addition, here is a full report funded by Open Phil on the topic of funding social movement doing civil disobedience. In short, I think that it's not possible to equate the money given to other progressive "activist" groups and money given to TSM as being given for the same theory of change, as they are fundamentally different. So whilst climate NGOs are not neglected, social movements for the climate are.
I think there is a misunderstanding here in what TSM's strategy around polarisation is. From my understanding of Momentum-Driven Organising, the methodology applied by TSM and XR, that the explicit goal isn't to literally polarise the debate so it becomes more partisan. Rather, the goal is the move people on the spectrum of support from neutral or passive, to active supporters. This might be through taking actions that by consequence polarise the debate, but the explicit goal is never to actually push people further away and I think it's disingenuous to suggest that it is. As we've spoken about at XR, a good action is one that bring more people over to our active supporters side than we might push away, as the aim in our movement is always building people power and public support. While this may feel like a pedantic point to make, I think it's an important distinction.
Also I couldn't find the exact quote from yourself however I get the general gist from your post and comments that funding groups like TSM is sub-optimal relative to CATF due to the difficulty in qualitatively measuring the outcome of such a complex system. I worry this risk-aversion in our funding will constrain us to options that are limited to technological innovation and very discrete policy change (CATF basically) whilst excluding the more opaque, yet still valuable, systems of social movements and people-powered campaigns.
I believe this has been a large problem throughout EA for years and I can't recall any EA groups giving money to social movements in the past 4-5 years (besides Open Phil giving to Ayni Institue in 2016) which seems ridiculous, given that we've just been talking about the huge impact that groups like TSM, XR, Fridays for Future or people like Greta have had on the climate movement. Generally it seems EA funders are too risk averse to fund social movements early on because they don't have enough quantifiable metrics to prove our impact or people just don't certain practices (the latter was said to me in a grant application to ACE). Then 3-5 years down the line, we see comments like those by jackva above, saying that groups like TSM would have been a great bet 4 years ago. Whilst this is a more general point and off the topic of TSM specifically, it seems like we should reconcile this and start funding social movements earlier.
To close, the comment by jackva:
Thanks for sharing your experience (and for the work you're doing). I think it's worth noting that the funding discussion in the original post has quite a specific context:
I secondly want to note, as has been discussed pretty extensively in the comments, that our prior should be that an organisation which is not CATF will underperform it, given that multiple independent evaluations of CATF by different people over a period of several years have repeatedly rated it extremely highly. Wanting to allocate money to the highest EV option is not borne out of "risk-aversion", it's just straight EV maximisation. Of course, if it turns out that the potential funding pools are so divergent that recommending both options would result in far more donations coming in, I'd be extremely happy, and enthusiastically recommend both. This is why I called for modelling of exactly this tradeoff.
I'm afraid your final point about EA potentially being too late to social movements, while important in general, somewhat missed the mark if what you're attempting to do is imply that the reason the people on this thread who are skeptical about TSM have this particular blindspot. Sanjay, who I've worked closely with for some time, and who posted his own comment on this thread, has been working hard to start a social movement in the UK dedicated to preventing future pandemics, Johannes was a climate activist himself, and I've been thinking for some time about ways to allow people to get involved with EA in a ways other than donating even if they don't have the option of a full career switch. Our skepticism about TSM is skepticism about TSM, not about activism or mass movements more broadly.
The post mentions
To some degree such a consensus seems natural, though I believe the issues with the idea of offsetting do not automatically mean helping people in search specifically of effective (or thus maybe least ineffective) offsetting possibilities is by nature ineffective.
I wonder: is the mentioned "consensus" detailed/made most obvious in any particular place(s) - blog, article, ... ?
Indeed not, it will depend on the extent to which donors who seek offsets will be willing to donate to non-offset options if those are presented to them, and obviously also will depend on how effective offsets are compared to non-offset alternatives. This is why I called for these things to be modelled, rather than assumed, in the post.
In answer to your question, [here's](https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Yix7BzSQLJ9TYaodG/ethical-offsetting-is-antithetical-to-ea) a post with 77 comments from a few years ago which will probably serve as a reasonable starting point.
I understand the desire to quantitatively measure impact, but from my experience working on impact measurement in climate projects and programs, I believe that much of this measurement is bullsh*t. I say this from the perspective of having really believed rigorous measurement was possible and would make climate decision-making better for a few years, until I realized most of it was smoke and mirrors (there are many reasons for this, including huge margins of error for carbon estimates, but also overambitious stated emissions reductions, poor accounting/reporting, and systemic problems like additionality and double counting). So I’m with Giving Green on this side.
I do think they should make clearer that they believe policy change is the most important place to donate. The science is clear that most fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground. That is the most important way to stop climate change, not offsetting. Offsets are, as mentioned, susceptible to the same large margins of error that can make their measurement almost meaningless (e.g. people do RCTs of clean cookstoves but neglect to notice that people don’t use them, or they use them IN ADDITION to the indoor fires they used to use). Offsets also create the dangerous illusion that we can continue to burn fossil fuels, so long as we purchase offsets elsewhere. The offset markets are flawed in many ways; they are NOT airtight.
Because it is so hard to measure impact and cost of a marginal output in advocacy and activism, in my opinion Giving Green should recommend donating to a portfolio of promising policy change and activism organizations. Thus I think Giving Green should focus on doing a more extensive search for policy and activism orgs, select 10-20 promising ones, and potentially create a fund that splits donations between those orgs. They should also branch out beyond organizations that have a proven track record to those that are potentially very high impact but do not measure their impact or have shiny websites. I’m talking indigenous land defenders who are physically blocking pipelines. They are doing much to stop fossil fuel extraction on their traditional territory and are overlooked by traditional funders. They are changing policy debates (see the resistance to Keystone XL pipeline).
I know this might be against EA’s general frames of thinking but if we spend all our time trying to figure out how to measure impact in climate policy, we might miss the opportunity to really affect change within the 10-year window we have to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Donating effectively will inherently have some risk of failure attached but we need to risk it because the climate emergency is that urgent and important.
As jackva points out, there is a thin line between effective advocacy for policy change (e.g. Clean Air Task Force) and the kind of activism that prevents conservative politicians from touching the climate file with a ten-foot pole, because their base sees it as a "leftist agenda" issue.
Anecdotally, I have met with the staffers of several deep-red, lukewarmist/denialist Republican senators to lobby for revenue-neutral carbon taxes (CCL is a great organization to volunteer with!). Surprisingly, they all privately agreed with the urgency of the climate crisis, but the only thing they really cared about during those meetings was evidence—like the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, hand-written letters from constituents, etc.—that supporting climate legislation wouldn't get them primaried.
In light of that experience, and the razor-thin margins held by Democrats, I can only agree with jackva that amplifying TSM/XR/Standing Rock/etc. may well be counterproductive in some places. I'm glad Keystone XL won't happen, but I would sleep better if clean tech and carbon pricing had killed its viability instead.
Can you give an example of this?