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Dear EAs,

I would like to advocate, but also get your feedback, on using already existing/heightened concerns about climate change among many firms/groups, to channel donations to EA-recommended organizations (e.g., Coalition for Rainforest Nations and Clean Air Task Force, as recommended in this Founders Pledge cause area report).

Summary of this post / TL;DR:

  • I am not advocating for Climate Change to become a main cause area for EA, although I find this an interesting point of discussion (see this post by Louis_Dixon);
  • Nevertheless, I see willingness to act on climate change issues and/or willingness to donate t0 climate-related organizations, making this a low-hanging fruit;
    • Caveat: the levels of willingness are likely very different in Western Europe where I reside when compared to other parts of the world, but I optimistically think my argument is still applicable elsewhere;
  • This willingness to act seems to be mostly tied to climate change and cannot be easily directed towards more effective causes;
  • Therefore, I think EAs could influence existing concerns and willingness to act on climate change to direct funds/donations towards cost-effective organizations (i.e., CfRN, CATF) with relatively low investment of time;
  • We nevertheless need to continue putting out research towards the area, and to make it easier for sustainability efforts to follow EA principles;
  • This effort, by introducing EA principles within organizations, could pave way for broader application of EA principles towards charitable efforts (by firms and employees) and thus be beneficial for prioritized cause areas as well.

1. Discussions on whether the EA movement should prioritize climate change

as a cause area are interesting, and I would channel interested readers towards this post by Louis_Dixon and the comments on that thread, specially the ones by Ben_Kuhn and Nicolas Saunier. I personally agree with the non-neglectedness argument and do not think climate change should be a priority for EA, but this is not to say that zero effort (at the personal and EA-levels) should be put towards this cause area.

2. Since climate change is such a hot topic (apologies for the pun), this a low-hanging fruit for impact

For example, at my company a Sustainability TF was created, and after I performed a (rough) calculation of our CO2 emmissions, these were compensated with a donation to the Clean Air Task Force (CATF).

I believe there is willingness to take action (including donations / carbon offset), albeit at varying levels per location (e.g., seemingly high in Western Europe where I currently reside, but to my view much smaller in Eastern Europe, and in the US depending on your political orientation). Nevertheless I am sure you can find a subset of people/organizations who are concerned about climate change and willing to act in any country/region.

I think many other organizations have similar sustainability/green Task Forces/Committees/etc., or that starting one can attract support from colleagues and face less resistance from superiors than may be initially expected.

I see little evidence that these climate-concerned people considered EA principles when discussing how to address climate change. In my experience, had I not directed the company to donate to CATF, either no donation would have been made or it would have been made to a less effective organization (for example, the carbon offset programs of airlines).

I faced some initial, but easily surpassable, criticism of my insistence on the donation to an EA-evaluated organization (and initially I advocated for CoolEarth before the FP report was released, and before reading this post by Sanjay and associated comments). I suspect this would be similar for others advocating for EA-oriented climate-related donations.

As mentioned above, I do not personally think climate change is a priority for EA, and I do not donate to climate-related organizations. Nevertheless, I believe the willingness by persons and firms to donate to climate causes cannot be easily directed towards other causes.

This is not to say that there isn't room for advocating donations to EA-supported causes, but:

a. It would take a lot more argumentation to explain why other areas should be prioritized, and there would probably be more resistance from other employees, whereas it is a lot simpler to advocate for climate donations;

b. I perceive a compartmentalization of these topics, so even if I could guide my employer/colleagues towards supporting an EA cause, I suspect the willingness to donate to fight climate change would still be there.

I therefore propose more EAs should looking into supporting/advocating for cost-effective climate organizations.

5. Nevertheless, more research/effort is needed

Without the FP report, it would not have been as easy to argue for why we should donate to CATF.

As things stand, for the carbon offset efforts next year (i.e., offset of 2019), I will continue advocating for CATF. Nevertheless, I suspect an update of the cause area report (or different report by another EA organization) is not in the works, and therefore I worry that the conclusions may eventually become antiquated (either because CfRN or CATF became less effective, or because a more effective organization exists but is not identified).

Similarly, the very fact that the donation was made to CATF instead of CfRN resulted from the EA Foundation did not include CfRN in its list of possible donations (meaning the donation would not be tax-deductible in the Netherlands). I contacted them asking if this was planned, and the answer was that no (because they were focusing on research and because of fixed-cost issues with regranting that led them to conclude adding a second climate organization would not be cost effective. I am not arguing here that they were wrong in their decision however).

I believe the effort to research this cause and make it easier to take action would pay off by keeping this a low-hanging fruit (or lowering it even further). And if EA organizations stop researching and dedicating (some) efforts towards climate change, it will be harder to take advantage of existing willingness to act. Or we could miss the opportunity to donate to even more cost-effective organizations.

I am open to, but not convinced by, an argument of moral offset, wherein people would cause more environmental damage after knowing their companies were donating towards fighting this.

6. Bonus point: promoting EA principles via climate change efforts could pave way for broader application of EA principles and be beneficial for EA-prioritized cause areas as well

If people can agree to applying EA principles when discussing climate change mitigation, the step is smaller to convince them to apply the same principles in their personal donations, so hopefully this redirects funds to cause areas that are prioritized by EA in general.

I am very open to your feedback/suggestions, and willing to further discuss how to pursue sustainability / climate change efforts within organizations (send me a message).

Thanks for reading!





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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:57 AM

Also, some ways of mitigating climate change have (positive or negative) side benefits* for humanity's ability to solve other upcoming challenges, such as AI safety or pandemics. And from an EA perspective, these latter challenges might possibly be higher priority than climate change. Thus, there's a further avenue for EAs who do not care much about climate change to "harness" the current societal focus on climate change for EA-aligned goals.

*For example, I'm thinking of side benefits of strategies such as:

-- strengthening global cooperation

-- spreading a radically technology-friendly mindset among greens

-- fighting anti-science trends in society

-- etc

I generally agree, and as I mentioned in the comments to the article you refer to, we might also be able to redirect some of this enthusiasm to actual EA organizations that do some work relevant to climate change, such as FLI, CSER, and ALLFED. Disclosure: I direct ALLFED.

This is a great point!

I'm somewhat hesitant about the CATF recommendation though. After a brief skim of the Founder's Pledge report, looks like they broke down CATF's efforts into three projects which have/are working out well. If we assume that Founder's Pledge reviewed a number of public advocacy/lobbying groups there's likely to have been a multiple testing issue. In that light, the retrospective cost of CO2e/$ estimate may not be predictive of their future CO2e/$ ratio. That said so long as the majority of their funds go into these current efforts, the first concern doesn't apply. A quick ctrl+f didn't pull up anything on their funding gap either.

I personally recommend SolarAid to friends. An old estimate put them at $1.34 per tonne. SolarAid's project may be easier to explain briefly as well?

Whatever you recommend, in my experience, telling non-EA people it only costs 10-30 dollars to offset your carbon for the year has gotten very enthusiastic responses!

Thanks, I was not aware (or read it long ago and forgot) of SolarAid, and I particularly like the associated health and economical benefits. But it's hard to make recommendations based on an evaluation from 2013 without at least a confirmatory follow up.

Regarding the low costs to offset, indeed, I got incredulous looks and comments about the cost to offset the carbon emissions from the entire company for a whole year as being too low to be accurate... I would say that there was even willingness to spend more (i.e., offset more than what we calculated) since the costs were so cheap. I would need a good argument for why the company should do that, but maybe I can find some for next year's calculation.

Personal reflection: Most opportunities to discuss this with people around me come up when they want to offset a flight or their yearly emissions. In line with your reasoning above the dollar amount for offsetting is surprisingly low to most people, which might be met by incredulity.

In those cases it doesn't seem like they have a fixed amount of money in mind, but rather an amount of CO2, meaning me recommending an effective charity for offsetting just means they get to keep more of their money for other spending (in most cases of people asking me for advice unlikely to be charitable).

I have been thinking about the best ways to approach this. Foremost I would always use the upper bound of the Founder's Pledge report, it's still not at a $/ton level that gets people worried. Then there are some options...
A) Use a more "mainstream" offset calculator to get a higher dollar amount needed, but use that full dollar amount to offset a higher amount of CO2 with an effective charity.
B) Try to reason from a "How much are you ready to spend on this?" viewpoint, where social pressure will make them suggest higher amounts per CO2e than the FP report estimates. If their reasoning is on the low side of things, one can always nudge them toward A)
C) Point to the cheap cost per ton and try to get them to offset their whole lifestyle rather than just a particular flight.
D) Start from B), but suggest that the difference between [Ready to spend amount] – [Cost of offsetting according to FP report] should go to a charity within a more highly prioritized cause area than climate change in order to both put the conscience at rest while also taking the opportunity to do more good.

Great point for other people who are tring this!

I faced this dilemma when calculating the amount to be donated to CATF. My colleagues raised that we perhaps should use the 'average cost' to offset a ton of CO2 (assumed as $10) for the calculation. I was fine with the approach, of course, but since it was mainly one partner in the company that did the offset I did not want to multiply the sum by a factor of 5, in which case he may not have been willing to just pay for it himself and instead raise it to all the partners where it could have been blocked (unfortunately I think one of the partners would block such contribution).

I may raise this when calculating and offsetting the emmissions for 2019.

PS: I always used the upper boundaries for the $/CO2 estimate as well as any other aspects of the calculation, even adding a 25% of the calculated CO2 as 'unnacounted elements' (some known, some unknown).

True, it seems like solar-aid's own estimate these days suggests around $5 per tonne. I can't find a more recent external review unfortunately.