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This is a linkpost for a conversation I had with David Roberts -- one of America's most senior climate journalists. The podcast episode is out now, tweet from David is here, my tweet summary is here.

Based primarily on the Changing Landscape report, the conversation was mostly about within-climate prioritization and how key parts of EA thinking – such as counterfactual additionality, acting under severe uncertainty, risk/damage structure, a global long-run perspective, tractability, and neglectedness – come to bear when looking at climate. We also briefly discussed the relative prioritization of climate within EA, though this was (very intentionally) not the focus.

Beyond the object level, I hope this will be a useful resource to introduce climate folks to EA ideas and, in particular, to complement introductions focused on climate from a cause prioritization lens.

Below are Roberts' summary and some fairly rough bullets from me highlighting key themes discussed.

Roberts' summary

"Say you’re a private individual (or a company, or a foundation) who cares about climate change and has some money to spend on it. What’s the best way to spend that money? How can you ensure the largest possible impact?


Similar questions about maximizing philanthropic impact have led to an entire field of study and practice known as “effective altruism,” which seeks to apply logical and empirical rigor to do-gooderism. But it is only very recently that effective altruists have turned their attention to climate change.

One of the leading EA voices on climate is Johannes Ackva. He’s a researcher at Founders Pledge, an organization through which business owners and entrepreneurs donate a portion of their earnings to charity. For years, Ackva has been thinking through the puzzle of how best to channel climate philanthropy, given the structure of the problem and the politics around it.

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If you’re interested in what groups Founders Pledge has chosen for its donations, you can find a list on the website, but I was more interested in the thinking that led Ackva to those recommendations. Given the enormous spatial and temporal scales involved in climate change, the many social and political complexities, the extensive and irreducible uncertainties, how can a well-meaning donor have any confidence in their choices?

I found our conversation quite enlightening — a new lens through which to view this familiar problem — it and I think you will too."


Key EA Themes

  • (1) The positive EA case for engaging on climate 
    • Near-term benefits of caring about climate
    • Global risk benefits of caring about climate
    • Tractability via leverage on societal resources as the strongest case for cost-effectiveness in climate
  • (2) The broader view of EA on climate – important, but compared to other issues of similar importance not neglected
  • (3) Lots about the importance of neglectedness and differential impact expectations.


Key Climate Themes

  • (1) The importance of hedging under severe uncertainty and nonlinear damage,  the importance of solutions robust to or explicitly hedging against "when shit hits the fan", situation that contain most climate damage when important uncertainties (share of renewables, share of electrification, growth in emerging economies, Paris Agreement stability) resolve negatively.
  • (2) The power of advocacy and of policy over private individualized action.
  • (3) The importance of neglectedness and of supporting neglected solutions, illustrated with super-hot rock geothermal (CATF) and carbon removal (Carbon180) and advanced nuclear (TerraPraxis).
  • (4) The value of catalytically growing small organizations 
  • (5) The importance of early philanthropic engagement in new solutions
  • (6) Robust diversification as a response to deep and irresolvable uncertainty - combining negatively correlated uncertainties in a portfolio (decarbonization <> carbon removal, innovation advocacy <> lock-in avoidance)
  • (7) The expectation that the highest-impact options at the margin are the popular ones, but solutions that look controversial or are overlooked

Key Themes specific to climate advising/giving

  • (1) Why we should expect advocacy to be underprovided and why tech folk might be more skeptical of advocacy than they should be based on their past experience
  • (2) Why government action is critical / most fundamental on climate (“causal primacy” is the somewhat jargon-y term I think I used)
  • (3) The limitations of offsetting as morally unambitious and fundamentally limited
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Coming back to this - I made a transcript of this conversation for folks who'd like to read it / prefer text - https://ops101.org/archives/000353.html

I found this conversation pretty enlightening - +1 to the takeaways above;  many of them are applicable to any problem where technical solutions need to both be developed and deployed.

It's pretty important to remember the marginal utility of dollars is not constant (contrast GiveWell's health interventions); that damage can be highly non-linear (again contrast health interventions); and that small but smart philanthropy can have outside impacts by considering time/intervening early (contrast patient philanthropy). 

Thanks so much for doing this and great to hear you found it insightful!

Thought this was a great listen, learned a lot from hearing your thought processes especially with respect to complementary funding opportunities.

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