Founders Pledge Climate & Lifestyle Report

by jackva1 min read11th Feb 20204 comments

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Climate changeEffective altruism lifestyleFounders Pledge
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[Updated, replaced prior description with newly added section of key points from the main report]

John Halstead and I have published a new report (and attendant blog posts, here and here) on the impact of different lifestyle choices on climate, how those are affected by policy, and how they compare to donations.

Main conclusions:

What we are saying:

  • 1. Donations are a complement to lifestyle choices: Donations to effective climate charities provide an excellent complement to more conventional lifestyle changes such as flying less, eating less meat, etc.
  • 2. Huge differences in impact: When we think about different lifestyle choices, there are huge differences in impact. It is important to be broadly aware of this to have the most positive effect through lifestyle changes.
  • 3. Policy matters for lifestyle choices: In many industrialised economies, there are now an increasing set of climate targets and policies that do affect the impact of lifestyle choices. This is a good thing because it makes target achievement less dependent on everyone being voluntarily virtuous. But it also means this is something we need to take into account when considering which lifestyle changes to implement.

What we are not saying:

  • 1. We are not denying individual responsibility: We are not saying that policy and the opportunity to donate negate individual responsibility for lifestyle decisions. Rather, we are seeking to expand the actions pursued by climate conscious individuals.
  • 2. Donations are not offsets: We are not saying that donation is a form of offsetting. Rather, it is a form of increasing impact; indeed we think that the mindset of offsetting artificially limits our ambition far beyond what it could be.
  • 3. We are not saying that you should or shouldn’t have children: We mostly discuss this example since it has been discussed heavily in prior work and we believe prior analyses have significantly overstated the impact of this choice.
  • 4. We are not claiming that our estimates are 100% precise: Our estimates -- in particular with regards to policy -- should not be taken as exactly precise, as there are different assumptions and uncertainties flowing into the analysis. Rather, they should be taken as indicative to give a sense of how policy changes the picture.

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Thank you for sharing this to the Forum! I especially appreciate the "what we are not saying" section, which covers all the most common concerns I've seen around discussion of the topic. The frame of "expanding actions, rather than negating responsibility" is one I can imagine using when people ask about (EA + climate change) in the future.

The second blog post you linked requires a code word for site access -- I think you meant to link here?

Thank you for sharing this, really love the Main Conclusions here. As usual with comments, most of what you’re saying makes sense to me, but I’d like to focus on one quibble about the presentation of your conclusions.

I think Figure 2 in the report could be easily be misinterpreted as strong evidence for a conclusion you later disavow: that by far the most important lifestyle choice for reducing your CO2 emissions is whether you have another child. The Key Takeaways section begins with this striking chart where the first bar is taller than all the rest added up, but the body paragraphs give context and caveats before finishing on a more sober conclusion. The conclusion makes perfect sense to me, but it’s the opposite of what I would’ve guessed looking at the first chart in the section. If you’re most confident in the estimates that account for government policy, you could make them alone your first chart, and only discuss the other (potentially misleading) estimates later.

I probably only noticed this because you’re discussing such a hot button issue. Footnotes work for dry academic questions, but when the question is having fewer kids to reduce carbon emissions, I start thinking about how Twitter and CNN would read this.

Anyways, hope that’s helpful, feel free to disagree, and thanks for the great research!

Thanks for posting. I think it's really valuable to have high quality cause area specific analysis to point interested non-EAs towards and that founder's pledge has consistently been a great source of exactly this.

I'm a little skeptical about the strength of the claims around the waterbed effect. It seems like governments historically have been much better at setting targets than meeting them, and that individual emissions make targets marginally less likely to be hit. It seems likely that e.g. if in 2040 it becomes clear that there's no way the UK will meet its 2050 target without huge and extremely costly changes, the government will move the target target than implement them, which would make anything that makes the target harder to hit potentially very harmful.