[ Question ]

How urgent are extreme climate change risks?

by nonzerosum1 min read1st Aug 201910 comments


Climate change

How urgent are the risks from extreme climate change?

Are they serious to the point that it makes sense to create an organization dedicated to recruiting more researchers, engineers, policymakers and lobbyists to working on the problem?

I'm asking because of the various headlines I see that basically seem to say we're all screwed, it's too late, etc. Where does the truth lie?

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You might enjoy Vox arguing that it is not an existential risk.

Also I would note that there are already many organisations, researchers, engineers, policymakers and lobbyists working on the issue.

I do not disagree that the Vice piece and the think tank research are likely alarmist and unrepresentative, but unfortunately in my opinion John Halstead's analysis and the underlying IPCC reports are entirely too optimistic on the flipside. I think this leaves a lot of room for further serious evaluation of the potential existential risks on climate change.

Firstly, John Halstead's review of existing literature. I was privileged enough to go to his talk EA Global London 2018 which was a summary of this work. It is a very large and understudied fi... (read more)

From the Vox article:

I also talked to some researchers who study existential risks, like John Halstead, who studies climate change mitigation at the philanthropic advising group Founders Pledge, and who has a detailed online analysis of all the (strikingly few) climate change papers that address existential risk (his analysis has not been peer-reviewed yet).
Further, “the carbon effects don’t seem to pose an existential risk,” he told me. “People use 10 degrees as an illustrative example” — of a nightmare scenario where climate change goes much, much wor
... (read more)

The Future of Life Institute Podcast has some episodes on the risks of climate change. The most relevant one is The Climate Crisis as an Existential Threat. There's also an ongoing series about global warming called Not Cool that has some episodes not yet listed on the FLI Web site.

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When climate change risks are discussed on this forum I mostly see it framed in terms of whether or not it is an existential risk. Considering a large part if EA is focused on reducing global poverty and the suffering of all living creatures I’m surprised not to see the potential impact of climate change in these areas discussed more often.

Is it possible that the potential of climate change to increase global poverty and suffering (of both humans and animals) is large enough to warrant more preventative attention within EA?

It’s all very well that the likelihood of existential risks are small but if a huge amount more living beings will suffer or die as a result of climate change that seems like a future worth even more coordinated effort to avoid.

As an example: at the moment charity evaluators like Give Well and The Life You Can Save recommend charities like Against Malaria Foundation as an effective way to deal with a disease like malaria. But climate change could massively increase insect born diseases which means the scale of the problem will get loads worse. Isn’t it worth putting more effort into preventing a problem from developing than treating a symptom when it’s too late?

Or would the argument that “enough other people are working on this” still outweigh these potential risks in terms of where EA energy is directed?

N.B These are actual questions, not necessarily arguments. I don’t feel like I know enough about the subject and I’d like to know more!

Open Phil (then GiveWell Labs) explored climate change pretty early on in their history, including the nearer-term humanitarian effects. Giving What We Can also compared climate change efforts to health interventions. (Each page is a summary page which links to other pages going into more detail.)

Thanks Kit! I look forward to reading them.

If you're interested, I just wrote a draft of an article on this, happy to share and solicit feedback! :)

Please do link it!

Messaged. Will share more widely if/when it's ready for prime time. :)