Hi all!

For the EA-inspired YouTube channel, A Happier World, we working on a video on the question whether or not to have children in light of climate change. But by the time the script was nearly finished, Kurzgesagt released a video that covered most of what we wanted to cover. 

So we decided to make a response video instead, that just focuses on effective actions people can take to help fight climate change.

Feel free to give us any feedback in the comments here or on YouTube. I'm also curious to hear: did you learn any new things? Has it changed/updated your mind on anything?

If you liked the video, I would encourage you to share it with your friends (especially those who aren't in the effective altruist movement). 

Thanks to Luke Freeman for hosting the video and Sarah Emminghaus for helping with the script.

2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:28 AM
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Excellent production quality and explanations as usual. I liked the embedded links to the other videos as you reference them.

My feedback is that the donation recommendations don't necessarily represent what I think to be the current best advice in the effective environmentalism (EE) community.

I've been a part of the EE community for 7 years now and have been closely following the development of climate change research and giving recommendations from Founders Pledge and Giving Green (EE orgs). I still don't suggest their recommendations to friends looking to donate to climate change. Let me explain by way of analogy...

Looking with hindsight, if it was 2007, would you have given money to GiveWell's top recommendation Population Services International? Or would you wait, knowing that in just a few years their analysis capacity would expand 10-fold and they would produce much better recommendations such as AMF or SCI?

Founders Pledge and Giving Green are similar to GiveWell circa 2007 in terms of number of employees, money moved, and research depth. The depth and breadth of their analysis is limited. There are whole economic sectors and angles to the climate problem they have not yet investigated - the demand side of the energy equation, alternative proteins, adaptation, and natural feedbacks are examples. In hindsight, during GiveWell's early years, I'd say organizations like the Gates Foundation or JPAL would have given as good or better recommendations if asked. I think the same is true with the current state of climate philanthropy - places like the ClimateWorks Foundation have dozens of experts in a wide range of fields. Their teams on specific interventions are larger than the sum of climate researchers at Founders Pledge and Giving Green. ClimateWorks has considered a wider breadth of interventions and at greater depth than the EE orgs and I think they're covering some of the most impactful interventions (e.g. the cooling collaborative). And that's just one major climate foundation. If I were looking to donate, I'd start there, and I think donating to one of their grantees is likely to do about as much good as following an EE org recommendation.

The EE orgs are a bit different in that they are optimizing to minimize $/ton CO2e avoided (Giving Green) or trying to reduce climate damage with technology back-stops (Founders Pledge) source. GivingGreen has a ClimateWorks Foundation employee on their board, and they are actively trying to see how their work can be complementary rather than repetitive. Given the early stage of these EE orgs, I'd be much more inclined to fund Giving Green directly to hire another researcher than to give money per their recommendations.

Another piece of feedback is that I don't think finding the lowest marginal $/ton CO2e mitigation opportunities is necessarily the right angle. Climate change is characteristically different from other problems like extreme poverty. GiveWell is still oriented towards finding the best health and poverty interventions. And this works because the scale of the problem is so large compared to the funding. But their recommendations would likely change if they had 100-1000x more money and were aiming to eradicate extreme poverty entirely. Climate change is a problem we (humanity) are trying to solve in its entirety, no just at the margin. Several governments have drastic emission reduction targets, and there are massive, established markets to trade offsets. Climate mitigation is valued in a way that helping the poorest isn't. If you find a cheap offset, there is a good chance that funding it isn't fully additional - someone else may come along and fund it anyways. And if you are for sure going to offset, it may make sense to fund higher priced offsets instead to scale them and bring down their costs to the rest of the market. See the discussion and markets around RECs vs. hourly RECs for example. Even then, offset funding isn't really a limitation - there is currently a multi-year backlog for many of the highest priced robust offsets such as direct air capture with mineralization.

Given the offset market, EE orgs are pushed to more speculative mitigation opportunities such as policy change and technology innovation advocacy that can't be as easily calculated or monetized. Pretty much all EE funding to date has gone to one of these two interventions. Once you are in speculative land, there is a different value proposition - similar to how GiveWell's maximum impact fund and the EA Global Health and Development Fund are different. Two things are important in speculative land. First, it no longer makes sense to focus on a specific $/ton CO2e number. It's all about distributions and hits-based giving. And second, the distributions are highly subject to the biases and assumptions that go into making them. Median $/ton CO2e estimates from two different researchers for the same intervention can easily be orders of magnitude apart. Worse, if two researchers share assumptions and biases, the distribution is likely to be too narrow, probably wrong, and possibly even wrong directionally. This is the problem with only 1 or 2 people with similar biases doing the calculations and is the case in the current EE orgs. People donating on advice from the EE orgs now are putting a lot of faith in a few speculative expected value calculations done by just one or two people. I think that faith is unwarranted given the reasons above. And I think the mantles of "recommendations" or a "fund" masks how uncertain and unreliable these donations are compared to other recommendation organizations and cause-area funds in the EA community that easily have 10-100x more research hours put into them as well as greater thought diversity. To me, "A rough conservative estimate of the cost of avoiding one tonne of CO2 by donating to the Clean Air Task Force is just one dollar" is too much like "save a life by buying bednets for just $25". I don't find the particular calculation referenced in the script to be conservative at all - the values and the structure of the analysis are wildly optimistic from my perspective.

I think a more accurate assessment of the best advice from the (EE) community for climate mitigation is "we don't know what the best philanthropic opportunities are; give us money to help find them". I realize that is underwhelming - we want to give concrete recommendations now. But I don't think we can confidently claim that the current EE orgs represent the "biggest impact per dollar donated". At least not yet. My concrete advice for those who only want to give to climate change interventions and only to the "best" interventions at that is to wait. Or fund intervention analyses.

Thanks a lot for sharing this! I appreciate this well thought out criticism. You make great points, but I find it hard to say at the moment how it has updated my own views. I'll share it in the comment section under the video.