Giving Green: An early investigation into the impact of insider and outsider policy advocacy on climate change

by Dan Stein10 min read30th Aug 20214 comments

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Giving GreenClimate change
Frontpage

Contributors

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

Hi all! We are Giving Green, an initiative incubated at IDinsight that aims to guide donations towards evidence-based climate change projects. As stated in a previous EA forum post,

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

Overview

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

Overview

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 givinggreen@idinsight.org.

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:43 PM
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Thanks, Dan & team, for that!  interesting to see how your thinking evolves. As requested, here are some comments:

On funding and room for funding:
1. Big Green over-funding is not the right reference class for neglected issue advocates and probably more informative for grassroots
2. As discussed, 2019 numbers for grassroots are not informative
3. Room for funding is larger, but that is not indicative of marginal impact

Other issues:
4. Rewiring America does not fit the bucket of working on high-impact neglected solutions 
5. Given time-lag and policy developments, post-midterm seems the environment against which to evaluate new US recs

 

1. Big Green over-funding is not the right reference class for neglected issue advocates and probably more informative for grassroots
I wouldn’t make assumptions about the funding of neglected tech advocates based on Big Green over-funding. (Just for reference, CATF is about 5-20x less than the Big Green groups and 1/3 to 1/2 of that budget is not focused on US).

To take the relative over-funding of Big Green  as evidence of the over-funding of neglected tech advocates suggests that there are similar trends behind funding Big Green and neglected tech advocates but not grassroots.

Prima facie, it seems much more likely that someone switches from, say, Sierra Club to Sunrise rather than to CATF, as ideologically Sierra Club is much closer to Sunrise than CATF is. In addition, Big Green groups are much more similar to what you call outside groups / grassroots in that they have regional chapters etc. and that they have a broad name recognition (They also serve a similar function, namely building broad support for climate policy).

Roughly, the superficially interested climate donor (that doesn’t do a lot of research) seems more likely to decide between Sierra Club and Sunrise, not Sierra Club and CATF.


 

2. 2019 numbers for grassroots are not informative

“In addition, many organizations reported total revenues in 2019 that were about an order of magnitude lower than what the Big Greens reported.”

As discussed at length before, the funding landscape for Sunrise has fundamentally changed, rendering the arguments about neglectedness moot. Unless there is a special argument for other movements being more neglected, this seems the right assumption for those other organizations as well. I am surprised this argument is resurrected without new data after the prior discussion on this was pretty conclusive, namely that the data to make the neglectedness argument was outdated and that new data pointed in different directions.
 

3. Room for funding is larger, but that is not indicative of marginal impact

It’s probably true that, in absolute terms, climate grassroot movements could absorb more money than inside groups because you could always fund marginal grassroots activity in another location. But that, by itself, does not tell us anything informative about where to spend money as long as we assume that marginal returns to funding decline.

You write that you think it is likely that impact grows linearly with funding for grassroots, which seems very surprising and unlikely.

Essentially this would mean that there is no prioritization on the part of grassroots movements, such as first funding the most impactful actions (in organizational infrastructure, say) or, when funding marginal grassroots activity, that these orgs would not first prioritize regions where returns are higher. What’s the basis for this intuition?

It seems much more likely (a) given the large funding for grassroots, (b) the general over-funding of American electoral politics, (c) the mobilization of the entire Democratic party towards climate action and (d) the ability of existing grassroots movements to get national attention with protests that the marginal impact of additional grassroots spending is ~0, in which case the actual room for funding still exists but it not being funded is OK.

Misc:

4. Rewiring America does not fit the bucket of working on high-impact neglected solutions 
I am not sure on which basis to group Rewiring America with CATF and Carbon180 under the bucket of advocates for neglected technologies that critically need more support. 

Rewiring America, as far as I know, primarily works on accelerating the electrification of residential energy consumption in the US (where residential includes personal vehicles, not only heat and electricity). The technologies involved in this are quite mature, on a winning streak (electric cars, residential batteries, heat pumps, rooftop solar, etc.), and widely popular.

On the other hand, CATF  in particular (and, to a lesser extent, Carbon180, given the recent boom in carbon removal interest) systematically work on the hardest parts of the decarbonization challenge such as industrial decarbonization (via their work on CCS and zero-carbon fuels), firm clean electricity (CCS, super-hot rock geothermal, advanced nuclear), and heavy-duty transport (zero-carbon fuels). These are key future emissions streams where it is unclear whether we will be able to decarbonize them in time to avoid the worst climate damages.

Speaking somewhat roughly, it’s pretty hard to imagine a future where the work of Rewiring America was critically important because accelerating already decarbonizing residential energy demand in the US was super important. It is, on the other hand, fairly easy to imagine worlds where we fail to get low-carbon cement at scale, low-carbon heavy duty transport (trucks, but also ships, aviation) at scale, seasonal storage is harder than we think and we really wish advanced nuclear / geothermal etc. would have succeeded, or where carbon removal solutions fail to reach maturity.
 

5. Given time-lag and policy developments, post-midterm seems the environment against which to evaluate new US recs
Yes, agreed that now in the US is a pivotal time, though ~80% of the climate-relevant policy decisions until the mid-terms will probably have been made once the infrastructure bills have passed (or failed).

Given the time lag of recommendation > more money > more action of charity X, probably the most important context under which to evaluate new US recommendations is their expected performance in the post-midterm environment. 

Except for if one believed there was a clear positive impact on the midterms, though IIRC your analysis indicated no such effect for Sunrise and it seems quite contested whether pushing candidates further to the respective parties’ extremes is helpful electorally. 
 

Hi Jackva,

Thanks so much for your detailed and thoughtful response, we really appreciate your engagement. Some quick responses to your points:

On funding and room for funding:
1. Big Green over-funding is not the right reference class for neglected issue advocates and probably more informative for grassroots

You’re right that it’s a bit tough to place the Big Greens in a conceptual framework, because they do so many diverse activities. We place them more in the “insider” category since a lot of their activities for federal policy fall on the insider spectrum (lobbying, model bills, etc.) But you’re right that they do outsider activities too, so the categorization isn’t clear. 

In any case, I don’t think getting the taxonomy right is so important. We still think that the big greens tend to have lot of funding, and we think in general the value of a marginal contribution (be it for insider or outsider) activities is likely not cost-effective. That’s not to mention what I think is the biggest problem with most of the Big Greens which is that they are not squarely focused on climate, which is enough to eliminate them in our criteria.


2. As discussed, 2019 numbers for grassroots are not informative

We sometimes quote 2019 numbers because this is the last year that public 990s are available for most organizations, and in general these still allow meaningful order-of-magnitude comparisons. We are well aware that funding for certain orgs (such as Sunrise) have increased dramatically over the past couple of years, and are taking that into account in our analysis. 


3. Room for funding is larger, but that is not indicative of marginal impact

Totally agree that overall budget or room for funding is a blunt instrument against which to measure marginal impact. It’s just one input into a complicated prediction. As far as calculating the actual return of funding effective activism, we are actively working on this going forward, and are going to post more on our thinking relatively soon. But we don’t agree that the marginal impact is ~0. 


4. Rewiring America does not fit the bucket of working on high-impact neglected solutions 

We’re relatively early into our assessment of Rewiring America, so thanks for your thoughts on them. Certainly, we agree that RA is not working on neglected tech, and that the solutions that someone like CATF are working on are likely more important in expectation.  But we do think that RA have come on the scene with an effective framing of some of the decarbonization challenge (“electrify everything”), and are pushing a suite of policies based around household electrification that have not received much attention until recently. I wouldn’t ex-ante conclude that “accelerating already decarbonizing residential energy demand in the US was [not] super important,” from a cost effectiveness perspective. Anyway, I don’t want to spend much time defending RA because we are just starting our analysis, but I think do think they are at least worthy of consideration.  We'll definitely take your view into account as we move forward. 


5. Given time-lag and policy developments, post-midterm seems the environment against which to evaluate new US recs

Yes, good point- I think there’s a lot of truth to this. As you say, there might be value in considering orgs that might change midterm outcomes (though we are restricted in political recommendations). And also, I think there’s some chance that some of the climate policy provisions fall to the 2022 legislative session, though I admit that’s probably not the most likely scenario. 

I do think the timing issue is a bit tricky, and we’re trying to grapple exactly with the best perspective here. It can be hard to predict when the work of an advocacy organization will have impact, and I think there’s a lot of value in keeping strong organizations running and productive even when it’s not their political time to shine. Because otherwise they lose their chance to be influential when they face a welcoming political environment. Definitely something we are mulling, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. 

 

Thanks again for all the thoughts!

I was curious about your methodology for your research project - thanks for linking. https://www.givinggreen.earth/post/how-we-determined-our-2020-research-priorities-for-policy-change

Could you share a bit about how much research or existing expertise went into setting your priorities for the year? I only skimmed the document so I wasn't totally clear. It sounded like the importance of the different areas was weighted most heavily, and that was mostly identified by staff's intuitions from having worked in the area for a while?

As outlined in the document, the ranking/prioritization was done internally by Giving Green staff, based on our experience working in the space, a wide array of experts working on various parts of the climate issue, and reviewing public documents. I agree probably not the most robust procedure, but it was meant mostly to  limit the scope of our search task to make it manageable given the size of our team. 

In 2021 we're taking some different tactics, in an attempt to improve our methods. For our US work we're diving much more deeply into some sector analysis (particularly activism) to make a clearer yes/no case for inclusion. We'll post more about that soon. In Australia, we're taking a different tactic of doing a systematic quantitative and qualitative survey of experts, using the ITN framework. Going forward, we're going to try to integrate the best of these different tactics into a set of best practices for future years.