Updated Climate Change Problem Profile

by mchr3k 1mo7th Oct 201914 min read13 comments

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Changelog:

  • 2019-10-20 - Current version, changelog:
    • Made language more neutral as per feedback from Kit.
    • Reduced proposed neglectedness from 6 to 4, which is still an increase from 2 used in the original profile. This reduces the overall score to 24.
    • Added note about lack of quantitative research into impacts of 4C+ of warming.
    • Added links to three specific organizations which have been evaluated before - Cool Earth, Coalition of Rainforest Nations, Clean Air Task Force.
    • Added a few more links to Learn More.
  • 2019-10-07 - V1 posted.

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In this post I have detailed several points of feedback about the current 80,000 Hours Climate Change problem profile (published in April 2016) which I have used as motivation to draft an updated problem profile. I propose that the revised total score for Climate Change should be 24, upgrading its status to being a “Recommended” cause.

I look forward to receiving feedback on any part of this.

Related: In a recent AMA, Will MacAskill was asked "Do you think climate change is neglected within EA?". This topic was also previously discussed in a thread titled "Does climate change deserve more attention within EA?" back in April 2019 on this forum.

Feedback on current Climate Change problem profile

Scoring - Neglectedness - Methodology

The existing profile assigns a neglectedness score of 2 out of 12 with the comment:

“The resources dedicated to preventing climate change globally, including both inside and outside all governments, is probably $100-1,000 billion per year. However, we are downgrading that to an effective $10-100 billion per year, because much of this spending i) would have happened for other reasons, ii) is not focused on the extreme risks of climate change, or iii) is poorly allocated.”

The Neglectedness scoring guideline advises that any cause with $10 billion of funding a year is 2 out of 12 neglected.

I disagree with this approach to scoring neglectedness for two reasons. Firstly, this approach will undervalue capital intensive causes where the total required investment is so large that $10 billion/year may still represent underfunding. A better model would be one which examined the total funding required to solve the problem compared to the current level of funding. For the example of climate change, the latest UN press release (2019-10-23) states that “the world would need to increase its efforts between three-and five-fold to contain climate change to the levels dictated by science –a 1.5°C rise at most –and avoid escalating climate damage already taking place around the world”. This implies that there is still plenty of scope for further action – this is not an area which seems likely to be suffering from diminishing returns yet. Secondly, the current scoring approach favours causes where a single extra person working on the area will have a big total impact. This is an important lens to use to consider causes, but fails in cases where a cause with many people already working on it can still usefully use many more.

Scoring - Solvability - Under-scored

The existing profile assigns a solvability score of 4 out of 8 with the comment:

“Coordination is difficult due to the free-rider problem. However some options such as efficiency are straightforward.”

The Solvability scoring guideline advises that a score of 4 means that doubling direct investment would solve 1% of the problem.

The Drawdown Project lists 80 solutions for avoiding CO2 emissions in the period 2020-2050. Together, these are costed to $29.6T to mitigate 1034 GT CO2. 37 GT were emitted in 2018 (source), so assuming flat emissions in the period 2020-2050, we would expect 1110 GT CO2 to be emitted. So the solutions described in Project Drawdown are the correct order of magnitude to avoid/mitigate all of these emissions. The Climate Policy Initiative found that in the period 2015-16 there was $463B/year of climate investment. Assuming flat investment in the period 2020-2050 gives $13.9T. So a doubling of investment would be the right order of magnitude to entirely pay for the solutions listed by the Drawdown Project. This back of the envelope calculation has many flaws but suggests to me that the current solvability score is too low – a doubling of investment would solve 10-100% of the problem. Being conservative, that would suggest increasing the solvability score from 4 (1%) to 6 (10%).

Out of Date Sources

The existing profile states that it is mostly based on the “Open Philanthropy Project’s reports on anthropogenic climate change, extreme risks from climate change and geoengineering research”. These sources appear to have been primarily written based on the IPCC AR4, published in 2007. The extreme risks page also mentions IPCC AR5, published in 2014.

This whole cause profile should be written with reference to IPCC AR5 along with the more recent IPCC SR15 published in 2018. SR15 is a particularly important source as it contains the most up to date carbon budget which was 420 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide for a 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. In 2018 the world emitted 37 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide. So if emissions continue at this rate, we will have spent our remaining carbon budget in less than 12 years, starting in 2018.

Focus on Extreme Risks

The existing profile focuses on what it terms “extreme risks” from climate change but doesn’t justify why the risks at lower temperatures are not also very concerning.

“there appears to be an uncomfortable probability — small, but non-negligible — of seriously bad outcomes resulting from unmitigated greenhouse emissions. We call these the extreme risks from climate change.”

This seems at odds with the current forecasts for expected levels of warming and what the impacts will be from this warming.

The Climate Action Tracker tracks expected warming given current national commitments to reduce emissions. Their latest analysis in September 2019 forecasts 2.9C (2.3C - 3.7C) of warming if current pledges and targets are met. However, there is a “25% chance [of exceeding 4°C by the end of the century] based on the higher end of the current policies scenario”.

The detailed impacts of such large amounts of global warming are currently poorly understood. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office commissioned a 2015 risk assessment on the topic of climate change. It’s relevant to quote a section of this report here.

--- (Begin quote from 2015 risk assessment)

The detailed chapters of the same report [AR5] suggest that the impacts corresponding to high degrees of temperature increase are not only relatively unknown, but also relatively unstudied. This is illustrated by the following quotes:

  • Crops: “Relatively few studies have considered impacts on cropping systems for scenarios where global mean temperatures increase by 4ºC or more.”
  • Ecosystems: “There are few field-scale experiments on ecosystems at the highest CO2 concentrations projected by RCP8.5 for late in the century, and none of these include the effects of other potential confounding factors.”
  • Health: “Most attempts to quantify health burdens associated with future climate change consider modest increases in global temperature, typically less than 2ºC.”
  • Poverty: “Although there is high agreement about the heterogeneity of future impacts on poverty, few studies consider more diverse climate change scenarios, or the potential of 4ºC and beyond.”
  • Human security: “Much of the current literature on human security and climate change is informed by contemporary relationships and observation and hence is limited in analyzing the human security implications of rapid or severe climate change.”
  • Economics: “Losses accelerate with greater warming, but few quantitative estimates have been completed for additional warming around 3ºC or above.”

A simple conclusion is that we need to know more about the impacts associated with higher degrees of temperature increase. But in many cases this is difficult. For example, it may be close to impossible to say anything about the changes that could take place in complex dynamic systems, such as ecosystems or atmospheric circulation patterns, as a result of very large changes very far into the future.

--- (End quote from 2015 risk assessment)

In 2018, the IPCC SR15 report examined the impact of 1.5C vs 2.0C of temperature increase. This report makes it clear that even the difference between 1.5C and 2.0C of warming is sufficient to impact hundreds of millions of people.

  • "limiting global warming to 1.5°C, compared with 2°C, could reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050"
  • "Limiting global warming to 1.5°C instead of 2°C could result in around 420 million fewer people being frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves"
  • "exposure to the increase in water scarcity in 2050 will be globally reduced by 184–270 million people at about 1.5°C of warming compared to the impacts at about 2°C"

In addition to this, it’s important to recognise that there remains a large amount of uncertainty about when certain climate tipping points (e.g. melting arctic ice, melting permafrost) may be activated and speed up the resulting warming. This possibility is not accounted for in the estimates produced by the Climate Action Tracker.

So in summary, we are currently on course to experience 2.9C (2.3C - 3.7C) of warming by 2100 with a 25% chance of exceeding 4°C. We know that the impacts of 2.0C vs 1.5C is already very large. Impacts at higher temperatures will be even higher (non-linearly), and poorly understood tipping points mean we may reach these higher temperatures even sooner than expected. Therefore this profile should not just focus on the extreme risks of climate change - even the forecast level of warming takes us into very dangerous territory.

Reasons not to work on it - Somewhat crowded

The existing profile says the following:

“Although only a small amount of this effort focuses on the extreme risks from climate change, reductions in greenhouse emissions disproportionately reduce the risk of extreme temperature increases. Therefore most of the existing funding directed at climate change is going to a quite reasonable strategy for working on the extreme risks from climate change and you might think that this problem is already receiving quite a lot of resources.”

This fails to consider whether the current levels of resourcing are enough to meet the target of limiting warming to 1.5C. The Climate Action Tracker forecasts 2.9C (2.3C - 3.7C) of warming if current pledges and targets are met - hence more action is clearly needed.

Reasons not to work on it - Difficult to make progress

The existing profile says the following:

“Given these difficulties, you might expect efforts to reduce climate change to have little payoff. Consistent with that, many countries have failed to meet their stated commitments to reduce carbon emissions.”

This is too simplistic. The Drawdown Project has examined 80 scalable solutions for reducing emissions, many of which are expected to be profitable to deploy. Electricity from wind/solar is now cheaper than from coal. There are huge opportunities to make very direct impacts on reducing/mitigating emissions – they need more investment and more people working on them.

Proposed new Climate Change problem profile

Title: Climate Change [without the “(extreme risks)” suffix]

Summary

Greenhouse emissions are likely to lead to global temperature increases of 2.3ºC-3.7ºC by 2100 with a 25% chance of exceeding 4°C based on current national policies. Warming of greater than 4C takes the world into territory where the impacts on humanity are very difficult to forecast but which are likely to be catastrophic and mutually reinforcing. Poorly understood climate tipping points which are not included in current forecasts may cause us to reach these temperatures decades sooner than expected.

You are more likely to think that extreme climate change is among the most pressing global problems if you think that we have obligations to people who do not yet exist and that there is great value in ensuring that human civilization continues in the long term.

There are many options for working on this problem including reducing greenhouse emissions through careers in politics, think-tanks or journalism, work on developing lower emissions technologies as an engineer or scientist, and work to deploy lower emissions solutions by working as an entrepreneur or for a company which is already working in this area.

  • Our overall view: Recommended This is among the most pressing problems to work on.
  • Scale: 14/16 Climate change will impact 100s of millions of people and, if emissions continue, could have catastrophic consequences for human civilisation. Also see ‘Explanation of how we scored this problem’ below.
  • Neglectedness: 4/12 Many people are already working on this area. However, the scale of the required solution is so large that there is little evidence of diminishing returns from further effort.
  • Solvability: 6/8 Lots of different solutions have been identified and together these can achieve net-zero within the 2050 timeline set out by the IPCC.
  • Profile depth: Exploratory
  • Profile author: Martin Hare Robertson
  • Last updated: October 2019

This is one of many profiles we've written to help people find the most pressing problems they can solve with their careers. Learn more about how we compare different problems, see how we try to score them numerically, and see how this problem compares to the others we've considered so far.

What is this problem and how much does it matter?

What is our analysis based on?

We drew on the Open Philanthropy Project’s reports on anthropogenic climate change, extreme risks from climate change and geoengineering research which are primarily based on the 2007 IPCC AR4. This profile has been subsequently updated with reference to the 2014 IPCC AR5 and 2018 IPCC SR15 reports along with Project Drawdown.

What is this problem and what are the arguments for working on it?

Based on currently announced national commitments, greenhouse emissions are likely to lead to global temperature increases of 2.3ºC-3.7ºC by 2100 with a 25% chance of exceeding 4°C based on current national policies.

Warming of greater than 2C will result in significant humanitarian harms to hundreds of millions of people, including more severe weather, food crises, and the spread of infectious diseases, which would disproportionately affect the world’s worst off. Warming of greater than 4C takes the world into territory where the impacts on humanity are very difficult to forecast but which are likely to be catastrophic and mutually reinforcing. Hundreds of millions of people may be forced to migrate, while drought and famine also affect similar numbers of people. In 2018 the total number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide, as tracked by the UN, was ~70 million people. Therefore, if hundreds of millions of additional people are forced to migrate, this may result in conflict and ultimately the failure of some nation states. Poorly understood climate tipping points which are not included in current forecasts may cause us to reach these temperatures decades sooner than expected.

This warming is happening at a time when a very large number of animal species are being pushed to extinction. In November 2017, 15,364 scientists signed a World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice which stated that “we have unleashed a mass extinction event, the sixth in roughly 540 million years, wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century”. The UN 2019 Global Environment Outlook report states that “A major species extinction event, compromising planetary integrity and Earth’s capacity to meet human needs, is unfolding.” This is being caused by more than climate change. However, a rapidly changing climate will wipe out many species which are already vulnerable.

IPCC SR15 stated that limiting warming to 1.5C requires a 45% reduction in CO2 by 2030 and net-zero by 2050. The remaining carbon budget for a 66% probability of limiting warming to 1.5C is 420 GtCO2. Annual global emissions of 37 GtCO2 in 2018 gives fewer than 12 years of current emissions before we are likely committed to 1.5C of warming.

The Drawdown Project, working with over 200 scholars, scientists, policymakers, business leaders, and activists, examined 80 different solutions which could be deployed. Taken together, these solutions chart a course to a world which would have net-negative emissions around 2050. The solution which reduces CO2 the most only accounts for 8.7% of the total. Hence, no single solution can be pursued in isolation - all of the listed solutions would be required to reach net zero.

The changes required to deal with climate change are massively decentralised as they impact the way that governments, cities, companies, and communities operate. This means that it is relatively easy to end up in a position within an organisation which has some direct control over how quickly that organisation will reduce their emissions.

What are the major arguments against working on it?

This area receives a lot of attention already from governments, think tanks, international organisations (such as the United Nations), companies, and non-profits. Climate Change has been an established problem for for over 30 years, with the IPCC being formed in 1988 and releasing the first Assessment Report in 1990. International cooperation since then has resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Climate Policy Initiative found that $463 billion/year was spent on climate action in 2015/16. There is also a long history of grassroots activism about climate change from organisations such as 350.org (2007), People’s Climate Movement (2014), The Climate Mobilisation (2014), Sunrise Movement (2017), School Strike for Climate (2018), and Extinction Rebellion (2018). Despite all of this, global emissions continue to rise. Given the broad scope of the problem and the large surface area of the required solutions, it is likely to be difficult to have any certainty about whether any specific work on the problem is the most effective work which you could be doing on the problem.

The international dimension creates a free-rider problem between countries – it is in each country’s interest to bear less of the costs of climate change mitigation, which makes international coordination on policies difficult. In particular, if you are doing work in one country to reduce emissions, this work may be more than offset by actions taken in other countries.

Key judgement calls you need to make

You are more likely to think that this is among the most pressing global problems, if:

  • You think that we have obligations to people who do not yet exist (in addition to people who currently exist).
  • You think that there is great value in ensuring that human civilization continues in the long term.
  • You think there is great value to preserving the Earth’s ecosystems and biodioversity.

What can you do about this problem?

What approaches exist for solving this problem?

World greenhouse gas emissions must rapidly drop to zero. There are several dimensions to this.

  • Directly Reducing Emissions - Every company, city, and building will need to get to net-zero emissions. The required changes will vary. Some of the solutions are already known and just need to be rapidly deployed (see Project Drawdown). Some problems still need to be solved (e.g. net-zero long haul haulage, shipping, and flights).
  • Policy - National and local policy can be used to encourage faster deployment of these solutions.
  • Political - The required policy changes are likely to be driven partially by grassroots mass movement campaigns which provide democratic political support for these changes.
  • Reporting/Accountability - Companies are starting to include climate reporting as part of their regular reporting. Firstly, this can cover a company’s own carbon footprint and its plans to reduce this. Secondly, this can include exposures that the company has to the impacts of climate change (e.g. expected changes in prices of crops or impacts of government regulation).
  • Financial Markets - Over $11 trillion of institutional investment has been divested from fossil fuel companies. Scaling all of the solutions which reduce emissions will require a large amount of financing.
  • Negative Emissions - It is likely that we will need to deploy CO2 removal at scale to reach net-zero by 2050 as per IPCC SR15.
  • Research
    • Climate Science - Further research on the expected impacts of climate change is still required. However, we already know enough to be sure that urgent action is required. One of the largest remaining areas of uncertainty is about the specific global impacts of warming of 4C and above. It’s possible that further research into this would help to strengthen the case for faster action to reduce the risk of this much warming.
    • Societal Resilence - Research into how to minimise the systemic risks to society from climate change.
    • Geoengineering - Geoengineering refers to large-scale interventions in the Earth’s climatic system with the aim of limiting climate change. Geoengineering may become more attractive to governments in the future if large temperature increases occur. Research we do now about its feasibility, likely side-effects, risks and optimal governance could help future policymakers make more informed decisions about whether to use geoengineering when facing extreme climate change. However, continued investment in geoengineering research may also cause less investment in other mitigation and adaptation strategies. See GiveWell’s page on geoengineering research for more.

What skill sets and resources are most needed?

  • Policymakers, activists and lobbyists who can deliver policies and programs at scale to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Engineers who can develop new clean technology and alternative energy sources.

Who is already working on this problem?

  • Directly Reducing Emissions - Project Drawdown have identified 80 scalable solutions. This blog post examines some of the general issues.
  • Policy - Countries define their own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement. These are currently asses by Climate Action Tracker. Climate change is relevant to many aspects of national policy, including energy generation policy, energy efficiency standards, building regulations, coastal and flood plain defences, water policy etc. Many countries also have their own dedicated climate change policy units e.g. the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in the UK. A notable foundation working on encouraging government adoption of mitigation policies is ClimateWorks.
  • Political - There are several active grassroots organising movements, including Sunrise Movement (US), School Strike for Climate (Global), Extinction Rebellion (Global), 350.org (Global).
  • Reporting/Accountability - The most common reporting standard is the GHG Protocol, with reports submitted to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). GHG Protocol classifies emissions into three scopes - (1) direct emissions, (2) indirect emissions from electricity, (3) indirect emissions from suppliers or customers of your product. Scope 3 emissions are often a dominant source of emissions for a company, which implies that companies need to work more closely with their suppliers and consider the lifetime emissions of their products after they are sold to customers. CDP scores the GHG Protocol disclosures on a four level scale: A - Leadership, B - Management, C - Awareness, D - Disclosure (see page 8 of this). The Science Based Targets (SBT) initiative supports companies in setting targets consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C.
  • Financial Markets - Fossil Fuel Divestment is tracked centrally here, although there are lots of smaller local campaigns. The UN Green Climate Fund is investing billions in projects around the world.
  • Negative Emissions - Companies such as Carbon Engineering and ClimeWorks are working on commercialising direct capture of CO2 from air. The World Resources Initiative produced a report on the growing market in reforestation and land restoration. Cool Earth was identified by Giving What We Can’s research as a promising organisation working on preventing deforestation.
  • Research

Another source of information about which organisations are working in this area is to review the announcements made at climate summits e.g. the September 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.

What can you concretely do to help?

Learn more

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