Effective Altruism, Environmentalism, and Climate Change: An Introduction



I’m seeking to write a series of essays for the Effective Altruism Forum about effective altruism, and its potential interaction with the environmental movement, as well as how both movements weigh climate change mitigation relative to other considerations. Now, I don’t mean one blog post; I mean a definitive series. I feel like there’s an elephant in the room in EA about what other social movement(s) it shares a reference class with. It’s too unlike various civil rights movements, but I’ve read some people compare it to the animal welfare or animal liberation movements. However, while the scale of ambition in effective altruism is similar to that of animal liberation, the diversity of institutions effective altruism seeks to work through to achieve its goals seems more akin to the environmental movement. While I mostly associate animal rights activism with decentralized grassroots advocacy and a some of non-profits, both the environmental and effective altruism movements seek to work through a wider infrastructure of institutions, such as universities and research programs, all manner of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and increasingly, politics, government, and for-profit enterprises.

For the last few years, the question of environmentalism has popped up, and effective altruism has postponed answering the question. I believe now is the time effective altruism has matured as a community to the point it can start answering questions about its relationship to this other big social movement. However, it’s more complicated than merely answering the question of whether acting to mitigate climate change might be the most important cause to work on.

First, climate change is a giant consideration that already interacts with each major object-level focus area of effective altruism, such as global poverty alleviation, global catastrophic risk reduction, and animal advocacy. There is a lot of ground to cover there. Second, as effective altruism grows, other bodies our community will engage with may view Ea through the lens of already being nudged by the environmental movement towards prioritizing climate change mitigation, a major shift which has taken course over many decades and is still ongoing. Governments, corporations, and polities at large may ask if other causes EA advocates to prioritize cut into efforts spent working against climate change. Thirdly, on the topic of tradeoffs, it seems to me there is a non-negligible chance effective altruism will butt heads with the environmental movement. Nuclear power, climate engineering, bioengineering and food security measures, in-vitro meat, wild animal suffering, and global catastrophic risk mitigation are all issues which effective altruism does or will begin to support more over time, and whose rising profiles could plausibly face opposition from the environmental movement.

Research Outline

Here is the sequences of posts I aim to research and write on each of these topics, clustered under a few major headings.

  1. Climate Change and Poverty Alleviation (2 planned articles)

    1. Climate Change and Global Health

    2. Climate Change and Poverty Alleviation

  2. Climate Change, Environmentalism, and Effective Animal Advocacy (4 planned articles)

    1. Climate Change, Industrial Farming, and Animal Advocacy

    2. Climate Change and Wild Animal Suffering

    3. Environmentalism, Animal Advocacy, and Wild Animal Suffering

    4. Environmentalism, Animal Advocacy, and Cultured Meat

  3. Climate Change, Emerging Technologies and Global Catastrophic Risks (7 planned articles)

    1. Climate Change as a Global Catastrophic Risk

    2. Climate Change and Geoengineering

    3. Climate Change and Cultured Meat

    4. Climate Change, Environmentalism, and Renewable Energy Technologies

    5. Climate Change and Other Emerging Technologies

    6. Climate Change, Food Security, and Biosecurity

    7. Climate Change GCRs, and X-Risks: Multiplicative Factors

  4. Environmentalism: Coordination, Policy, and Effectiveness (9 planned articles)

    1. A Brief History of Modern Environmentalism

    2. Climate Change, Environmentalism, and Domestic Policy

    3. Climate Change and International Cooperation

    4. Movement Environmentalism: Its Track Record on Policy Change

    5. Movement Environmentalism: Its Track Record of General Effectiveness

    6. Movement Environmentalism: Other Long Term Consequences

    7. Environmentalism and Its Results: Learning From Its Successes

    8. Environmentalism and Its Results: Learning From Its Mistakes and Failures

    9. Movement Environmentalism: Lessons From A Similar Social Movement

  5. Environmentalism and Effective Altruism (4 planned articles)

    1. Engaging Environmentalism: Potential Sources of Conflict

    2. Engaging Environmentalism: Potential Sources of Cooperation

    3. Action on Climate Change as Cross-Cutting Effective Altruism

    4. Facing Environmentalism and Climate Change: Strategy and Coordination

Altogether, I’ve planned 26 articles on the considerations from environmentalism and climate change for each of EA’s object-level causes, including a foray into how these will play out into the near future; evaluating environmentalism from an EA perspective as a similar social movement, with a longer and richer history, we can learn from; and the relationship between EA and environmentalism going forward. I may add or subtract research topics from the above list as it becomes more apparent how necessary they are. Of course, the depth and length of each of these articles will vary. For the sake of completeness, I intend to include short articles about the relationship between industrial farming or global poverty and climate change, even though these are better known. On the other extreme, some of these essays will require the collation of several dense sources and original research, with help from multiple collaborators, to form essays which will be several thousand words long. Like many others, there is a Facebook group for those of us already thinking about the intersection of EA and environmentalism: you can join Effective Environmentalism here on Facebook.

If there is any research topics you think should be on the above list which are missing, please let me know, and I’ll look into them. If you would like to help out with this, please contact me and I’ll let you know where to get started. In particular, if you want to learn more about any of the above specific topics, ask me questions and I’ll put you in the right direction for where to get started learning more.


When I originally had this idea a few months ago, Brian Tomasik asked me why I think environmentalism is such an important social movement for EA to interface with well, compared with tons of other social movements.

Firstly, I think effective altruism has a lot of common ground with environmentalism in its beginnings and motivations. When the environmental movement started two generations ago, Baby Boomers rallied around a problem that looked important, neglected, and tractable. In particular, they were successful in helping push through regulations of pollution-causing industries. Even beyond the policy taking hold in an activist’s country of origin, these policies had positive knock-on effects, i.e., flow-through effects, of easing the passage of such legislation in other countries. One only need to look at how, in the face of its rapid industrialization with relatively few regulation of pollution, the People’s Republic of China is now facing an environmental and public health crisis.

As the environmental movement found successes and failures, and became settled, it was reinvigorated by a new generation of activists who focused on climate change, which has become a movement in its own right. 20 or 30 years ago, climate change was something of a crisis which was ongoing, and was unprecedented in scale. It was something already then that science was giving the world reason to believe was a very serious issue, and yet it wasn’t receiving nearly as much attention as it deserved. It was something humanity could do something about to mitigate, that was hardly being focused on at all. We see it again: importance, neglectedness, and tractability.

This is an intuitive heuristic framework effective altruism uses for evaluating and prioritizing causes. I think of environmentalism as EA as it might have been. I believe, for many of us, had we been born a generation or two earlier, environmentalism would’ve become the primary social movement we had fallen into, in a time before effective altruism. Heck, there are many members of this community who might consider themselves environmentalists first, and effective altruists second. I don’t think one needs to prioritize action on climate change as the most important cause to see the importance of studying and learning lessons from this movement.

Many of the values of us as individuals can also be seen expressed in environmentalism. A concern for humanity as a whole, future generations, non-human animals, and the well-being of life on Earth as a whole are all motivations that make environmentalism seem crucial to so many. That common ground with effective altruism can lead to future cooperation and collaboration between our two movements. Effective altruism can teach environmentalism to take its motivational backing and pour that into new, more effective focuses, and the environmentalists can join effective altruism to use their vast experience, numbers, and social capital to more readily achieve common goals for increasing well-being and mitigating catastrophes.

However, if environmentalism came into conflict with effective altruism, it could use that same vast size and social capital to deafen or silence multiple causes EA currently prioritizes. I outlined above several innovations EA is considering and I expect will prioritize even more in the coming years, but which environmentalists might misinterpret, condemn, and criticize. In any number of head-on collisions with environmentalism, as it currently stands, I think EA would tend to lose. There are at most several thousand self-identified effective altruists; there are several million self-identified environmentalists. Other social and political movements often nowadays define themselves in part on their relationship with environmentalism. Enormously global institutions such as the United Nations, and the Catholic Church have been forced to address climate change and environmentalism as one of the most important issues of all time.

In short, if the real growth of effective altruism comes to match its highest ambitions, it will need to contend with the environmental movement. Because of overlapping concerns, it will collide with environmentalism sooner than it will other movements. Environmentalists can become the sort of allies which boost effective altruism to swifter and more controllable successes, but they could also do the opposite. I’d like to ensure the relationship between the two movements is cooperative rather than adversarial, because we cannot leave this up to chance alone.