Climate Change as a funding priority appears to be either excluded, or lowly ranked across the various EA fund options. I would humbly suggest this is worth re-evaluating based on my analysis. As a potential direct existential risk, combined with the indirect impact as a possible catalyst for nuclear war, pandemics or other global catastrophes, climate change poses a dangerous multi-path threat to humanity. Using the Giving What We Can framework (Scale, Neglected, and Tractable), I evaluate climate change against two of the top funding priorities, nuclear war, and global pandemics. My discussion focuses on scale, neglectedness, and assessing future risk. I hope to convince the reader that climate change is worthy of further investigation as a top funding priority.
One justification apparently used to deprioritize climate change funding is scale. Climate change is positioned as not comparable to the potential of either a nuclear war or a global pandemic. We know conclusively however, that climate change is actually killing people today and doing irreversible damage to our planet’s future. That gives it a definitive probabilistic advantage over nuclear war or pandemics. But what about the scale of potential harm done? Consider these numbers: Giving What We Can (GWWC) estimates the possible number of deaths from a nuclear war between the US and Russia would be roughly 50 million people (I have excluded the potential impact from a nuclear winter scenario given the likelihood and severity is controversial)1. Today by comparison, annual deaths related to fuel combustion alone (i.e., outside air pollution) are estimated to be 8.7 million2, with extreme weather contributing another five million deaths per year3. Using only these two numbers, which personally seems conservative, adds to 13.7 million total climate related deaths per year - today. This means in the next 3.7 years (by mid-August 2026) climate change will have already killed the equivalent of the nuclear war estimate. Extrapolating this to 2050 would equate to 384 million more climate related deaths by mid-century. This is the equivalent of killing off the entire current population of the United States and South Korea combined in the next 28 years. This is staggering. And the 13.7 million is likely a conservative estimate for future projections - the W.H.O. estimates that between 2030-2050 climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress4. Most of these deaths will likely be in the global south, exacerbating the colonialist view of that population as disposable. If we also consider the indirect climate related risks which could trigger global conflicts and/or another pandemic, climate change would certainly appear to meet the threshold for scale/importance and therefore seems worthy of being (re)considered as a top funding priority.
Another viewpoint seemingly used for deprioritizing climate change is that it does not meet the ‘Neglected’ threshold. With annual spending around $640 billion a year it could certainly be said that climate change is more well-funded than other areas of need. The problem is that spending is dominated by a narrow focus on technical solutions, including carbon capture, improving currently existing energy technologies and infrastructure, and the clean energy transition. While technology based solutions will most certainly play a role in combating climate change, the widely marketed message that we can ‘technology’ our way out of the climate crisis is misleading, and highly improbable. So yes, technology funding related to climate change is certainly not neglected. However, there are other promising alternatives which exist today and are largely being ignored, including across EA fund options. This is good news - it creates an untapped opportunity for funding resources to expand beyond the prevailing belief in “technology as one of the biggest levers there is” and explore more deeply other solutions which do not overweight our faith in technology as the panacea. One approach I have not seen addressed in EA fund literature and offers the potential to be a game-changer, is degrowth. The principles of degrowth critique the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, resulting in human exploitation and ecological destruction. There is a wealth of developing information on this emerging response to the climate crisis and I hope to discuss degrowth further in a follow up post. Suffice to say, this would easily meet the criteria for being a “neglected” opportunity within the climate change space.
Assessing Future Risk
There will always be an element of uncertainty when trying to quantify or prioritize a future risk. We do know for certain though that climate change today is causing death, destruction, and disease among our populations and to our planet, with no signs of slowing down. This positions climate change uniquely among other future risks like nuclear war or global pandemics which remain only probabilities at this point. Understanding we cannot ignore probabilities in the overall evaluation climate change can be evaluated against nuclear war, and a global pandemic using the Risk = Probability(Harm) equation5, where we make the following assumptions:
- A 75% probability that 13.7 million climate related deaths continue until 2100. For simplification I have not included all the possible puts and takes to this number through the end of the century but have rather attempted to discount this uncertainty by using a conservative probability estimate.
- Use GWWC’s probability and impact (harm) estimates for nuclear war and natural pandemics, along with Metaculus’ November 2021 prediction for engineered pandemics6
The results indicate that climate change would be by far the greater risk to civilization during this century with the potential for 801.5 million deaths. The closest comparable threat would be an engineered pathogen with a 5% probability of killing 95% of the population resulting in 532 million deaths7.
The scale of current and potential harm resulting from climate change is enormous. It is considerably greater than two of the current top funding priorities, nuclear war, and a global pandemic. And there remain neglected opportunities within the solution set for addressing climate change that could have dramatic impacts in the coming decades. There will always be a subjective element to how an individual or organization evaluates risk and ultimately prioritizes their giving. I am sure others will disagree with my analysis, but I hope to have at least made a thought provoking case for reconsidering the broader priority climate change might have within the various EA organizations.
- Giving What We Can – Improving Nuclear Security.
- Vohra, Karn et. al. (2021). Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion: Results from GEOS-Chem. Environmental Research, Volume 195
- Green, Brian Patrick. Six Approaches to Making Ethical Decisions in Cases of Uncertainty and Risk. Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University
- Giving What We Can – Improving Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/cause-areas/long-term-future/biosecurity
- - Climate Change Total Risk:
Where Risktotal = ∑2022-2100 Prob. * (Harm2022-2100) = .75(13.7M * 78 yrs.) = 801.5 million deaths
- Nuclear War Risk
Where Risktotal = Prob.2100 * (Harm2100) = .009(50M) = 450 thousand deaths (.9% is the high end of the probability range given by GWWC)
- Engineered Pathogen Risk (based on November 2021 Metaculus information)
Where Risktotal = Prob.2100 * (Harm2100), and estimated world population in 2100 = 11.2B (U.N. estimate).
Risk(1)total = 17% chance 10% of population in 2100 dies = .17(.10*11.2B) = 190.4 million deaths
Risk(2)total = 5% chance 95% of population in 2100 dies = .05(.95*11.2B) = 532 million deaths
- Natural Pathogen Risk (based on GWWC 2008 informal survey)
Where Risktotal = Prob.2100 * (Harm2100)
Risk(1)total = 60% chance 1 million deaths in 2100 = .60(1.0M) = 600 thousand deaths
Risk(2)total = 5% chance 1 billion deaths in 2100 = .05(1.0B) = 50 million deaths
Risk(3)total = .05% chance of human extinction in 2100 = .0005(11.2B) = 5.6 million deaths