Authors: Dan Stein (Co-Founder at Giving Green, Chief Economist at IDInsight), Kim Huynh (Climate Scientist at Giving Green)
Editors: Emily Thai (Manager at Giving Green)
Who we are and why we’re writing this post
Background on Giving Green
Our goal is to improve the impact of climate donations by providing the field with more evidence and by actively pushing donors to make better donation decisions. While climate change can be a contentious (and well liked) issue within the EA community, we are planning to avoid the debate on “is climate change an existential risk?” or “is climate change a cost-effective topic area?” and instead focus our efforts on making the billions of dollars flowing into climate change more effective.
Why we’re back on the EA Forum
We are posting an update on our work into insider and outsider policy advocacy on climate change to (1) provide a preview of our 2021 research strategy and (2) encourage feedback and discussion within the EA community.
This work is partially funded by a grant from the EA Infrastructure Fund. The main purpose of this grant was to improve our policy research and recommendations, as our previous recommendations (particularly around activism) received a good amount of discussion and criticism in a previous post. We hope that by engaging the EA community in a series of posts as our research continues, we’ll be able to integrate feedback and raise the level of rigor of our work. We welcome feedback from the EA community on our process and methods.
Specifically, we plan to improve “outsider policy advocacy” by (1) strengthening our understanding of activism’s theory of change, (2) making our reasoning more transparent (3) investigating whether activism could lead to both positive and negative outcomes, and (4) integrating quantitative modeling into our approach when appropriate.
Preview of our 2021 research strategy
Our focus on US policy
In our research, we focused on US policy for reasons of expertise and scale:
- Expertise – Our team is most familiar with US climate policy and we wanted to put our expertise towards our comparative advantage. We’ve heard in numerous expert conversations that 2021-22 are key years for passing climate policy in the US; Founders Pledge investigates these dynamics in more depth.
- Scale – The US is among the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters in total volume and also has one of the world’s highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita. We therefore focus on US national-level climate policy because we believe that successful efforts to shift US climate policy could lead to high levels of avoided greenhouse gas emissions, both directly through US policy and through global spillovers.
We recognize the importance of state-level policy, global policy, and policy in other high-emitting countries (e.g. China and India) in reducing total emissions. Although we would like to eventually expand the scope of our policy research, we have not yet prioritized this given the small size of our current research team.
Main policy tools for affecting climate change
We believe that the main policy tools for affecting climate change can be divided into five categories with some overlap: insider policy advocacy, outsider policy advocacy, influencing elections, litigation, and communications. We previously ranked these methods by their potential impact, likelihood of success, and need for more funding (the Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness framework).
We still believe that insider and outsider policy advocacy are the most promising avenues and therefore focus on these tactics in this year’s research. When we speak of policy advocacy, we refer to efforts to influence legislative or regulatory action such as through lobbying or organizing protests. Insiders use tactics related to connections and experience in policy making (e.g., think tanks, lobbyists) while outsiders apply pressure through civil society and other democratic practices (e.g., activist groups).
It is very common for funders to insist on a portfolio approach, utilizing both insider and outsider tactics to affect policy. While we agree that both tactics are likely necessary to push policy change, we aim to look for the most effective uses of money on the margin. This consists of either type of strategy or both.
Insider policy advocacy
Insiders with connections and experience in the policymaking process can advocate for effective climate change policy by influencing legislators. Tactics include policy research, one-on-one lobbying with decision-makers, and direct policy support (e.g., creating or editing policy proposals and draft legislation). Examples of climate insiders include the “Big Greens” such as Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club, and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Smaller climate insiders include Carbon180 and the Clean Air Task Force. Insiders also fit along different parts of the political spectrum from the left (Evergreen Action) to the center-right (Niskanen Center).
Angles where insider political advocacy could be ineffective
The Big Greens are exceptionally well-funded. Notably, the most recent 990 forms of EDF, NRDC, and WRI from 2019 and 2020 each report a total revenue greater than $185M. Additionally, these three organizations each received $100M from the Bezos Earth Fund in 2020. Although total revenue is a weak proxy to determine the marginal value of additional contributions, these large budgets and recent gifts suggest that these prominent environmental organizations are already front of mind for many donors and that EA-aligned donors may have a higher marginal impact elsewhere. Additionally, most of the Big Greens have a wide environmental agenda. Given the number of environmental causes the Big Greens support, it is plausible that a donation to the Big Greens could be used to support a cause other than removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (e.g., improving access to clean drinking water).
Angles where insider political advocacy could be effective
Nonetheless, there are still angles where insider political advocacy could still be effective. This includes (1) organizations that are especially focused and influential with important lawmakers and (2) organizations that concentrate on important, neglected policy issues.
Organizations that are influential with important lawmakers
Some insider organizations limit the scope of their work to climate change action and are influential with important lawmakers. For instance, one organization we are considering is Evergreen Action, a new organization borne out of the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Governor Jay Inslee. It has close connections with the Biden administration (one of its founders is now the Chief of Staff for Biden’s Office of Domestic Policy) as well as progressive congressional lawmakers. Evergreen targets its efforts towards climate change and therefore has a narrower environmental agenda than the Big Greens. It mobilizes support for more aggressive climate change policy by advocating its climate action plan for federal lawmakers. .
Organizations that focus on important, neglected policy issues
Clean Air Task Force, Carbon180, and Rewiring America are three different organizations that focus on neglected policies. They effect change by producing research, drafting laws, and lobbying for these specific policies to be passed. These actions work together to draw attention to a cause and shape legislative agendas. For example, widely disseminated research can lead legislators or regulators to take action they would not otherwise take and help establish a “common sense” around a particular policy issue. Draft legislation can lead to direct policy creation while lobbying draws attention to a particular issue.
As an example, the Clean Air Task Force advocates for public policies that will enact pollution regulations and invest in improved energy technologies. It conducts research on climate policy and runs campaigns to encourage policy support for neglected-low carbon technologies. Notably, Founder’s Pledge, which has focused its Climate Change Fund on advocating for innovation in neglected low-carbon technology, have recommended both the Clean Air Task Force and Carbon180.
Room for more funding
As a whole, we believe that insider policy advocacy is not especially neglected given the substantial total revenues that organizations such as the Big Greens report. However, there are smaller organizations that would likely benefit from increased funding.
Outsider policy advocacy
Outsiders, such as activist groups, put pressure on people in power and increase issue visibility, which could influence elections and the legislative agenda. Their aims can include the following:
- Influencing people in power – Activists influence climate policy by targeting people currently in power, and try to make climate change a greater political priority. One mechanism of influence is to change the range of policies considered politically acceptable to a mainstream audience (the “Overton window”).
- Changing the political fortunes of those in power – Activists can change the political fortunes of those in power by generating support for alternative pro-climate candidates or fending off challengers during the electoral process.
Common tactics by outsiders include citizen lobbying, protests, marches, and phone banking.
Examples of climate outsiders include well-known organizations such as 350.org, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, the Green New Deal Network, and the Sunrise Movement. It also includes environmental justice organizations such as the Climate Justice Alliance and the Indigenous Environmental Network.
Angles where outsider political advocacy could be ineffective
Many organizations working on outsider policy advocacy do not have a strong connection to politics or a theory of change that directly ties their actions to policy wins. Instead, they advocate for climate change action by increasing “awareness” of climate change as an issue. However, awareness is difficult to quantify and we are skeptical of its impact on influencing policy and ultimately reducing GHGs in the atmosphere. Additionally, awareness does not appear to be a barrier to climate action; many people have likely heard the climate change narrative even if they do not believe in it. To become change agents on climate, these people would also need to form an opinion on climate change, develop motivation to take action on their opinion, and eventually wield political influence via collective action. Simple awareness-raising campaigns therefore tend to be ineffective because they do not link awareness to action.
Angles where outsider political advocacy could be effective
We believe that a more effective approach involves well-organized movements that tie people power to political influence and specific policy demands. In 2020, we recommended the Sunrise Movement Education Fund because it has a track record of success in movement building, and we believed it had the potential to have real policy influence. We are currently reviewing this recommendation in light of additional information and the changing political landscape, and will provide an update by the end of 2021.
Room for more funding
We find it likely that outsider policy advocacy has room for more funding, compared to insider advocacy. For example, according to a 2017 report on social movement theory and climate activism, the space for outsider policy advocacy is relatively small and has relatively few actors. In addition, many organizations reported total revenues in 2019 that were about an order of magnitude lower than what the Big Greens reported. Although this space has certainly grown in terms of participants and donations over the past few years given the increased attention on climate activism, we find it likely that outsider groups still have room for more funding based on the nature of their work. In general, activism requires a greater number of participants to be effective; it seems likely that its impact may therefore grow proportionately with funding, which could be used to support organizations’ capacity-building and grassroots efforts.
Conclusion and next steps
We believe that the strategies of both insider and outsider policy advocacy can be effective, and intend to search for “best-in-class” organizations in each category to consider for recommendations. In our research moving forward, we would like to answer questions such as the following:
- How do best-in-class outsider organizations compare to best-in-class insider organizations in reducing GHGs in the atmosphere? Within the constraints of uncertainty we face, will we be able to rank on strategy as “better” than the other?
- How does timing play into the calculation? Is it possible that “insider” orgs cause more short-term, measurable change while “outsider” orgs slowly work towards larger systems change?
Although we strongly believe that our research will involve a considerable amount of uncertainty, we aim to use quantitative modeling to answer parts of our research questions in order to make our assumptions clear and our reasoning transparent to our audience. When we believe that quantitative modeling is not possible, we will share our attempts at modeling, explain our reasoning for why a model is not possible, provide a more qualitative answer (if possible), and encourage further feedback from climate experts and the EA community.
Again, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions on our work, and we will be posting more updates as the work evolves. If you would like to get in touch with us directly, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.