Super interesting Karolina! I only took a quick look at the model, but was wondering if it includes the human welfare outcomes? (I didn't see it, but maybe I missed it.) For instance, we at IDinsight are working on a project based around shrimp farming, and a main pathway of the theory of change is improved tech -> improved water quality -> increased stocking density -> increased farmer profits -> increased consumption -> increased human welfare. Given that development actors are focusing on this pathway, I think it would be important to take into account.
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Hello everyone. Well, this forum has blown up, and we (GG) have taken some punches. I want to list a few take-aways on my end:
One thing that I’d like to make clear: our mission at Giving Green is to create the most social impact we can through our recommendations. This, notably, does not necessarily mean that we just find the most cost-effective charity and recommend it solely. I truly believe that by offering ‘best in class’ recommendations in different categories, we can reach a wider audience and increase the pie of money that we can influence. That’s why we do offsets. That is (partially) why we felt it important to search for donation options outside of the narrow mechanism of action advocated by Founder’s Pledge (“(i) advocates (ii) focused on accelerating (iii) neglected yet critical decarbonisation and carbon removal technologies” in the US). While we find FP’s arguments clear and compelling, I don’t share the confidence that this is the mechanism of action with the highest expected value of donations (more later on this). This lack of confidence plus the ability to widen the pool of donors we influence is why we think there is a lot of value in exploring other donation categories. I do understand the concern about dilution from the most cost-effective places, but believe this can be mitigated through clear (better than now) design and information on the website.
Now, just a little bit more on the meat of the disagreement, which is the TSM recommendation. If I understand Johannes’ argument, he agrees with the importance of activism for making policy, both for putting electoral pressure on legislators as well as agenda-setting for current legislators. But, if I were to summarize, there are two main arguments against activism: timing, neglectedness, and one more argument against TSM in particular: strategy.
First timing: Johannes declares “Biden has declared climate as one of his top four priorities,” as an argument that activist energy is no longer important in the current situation. First, I think it’s pretty clear the TSM can take huge credit for this being the case. They flexed their political muscles in the last election, won a seat at the Bernie-Biden task force, heavily influenced Biden’s climate strategy, and succeeded in putting it at the top of the agenda. While I understand the argument that this victory is now in place, I don’t think we should take this climate priority as a given and assume that it will stay in place without further activist pressure. Yes Biden has taken some executive actions on climate already, but there’s no concerted push (as far as I can tell yet) for concerted legislation. At one point Johannes asked what success looks like for TSM. My answer: It’s ensuring climate policy is a priority (in executive and regulatory action, as well as legislation), and indeed shifting the Overton window of climate policy. (Agree with Johannes that the “Green New Deal” is not a realistic piece of legislation.) And for that you need continued pressure.
Second, Neglectedness: Ok, we hear you that some of those numbers in our report on activism spending are out of date. Sorry. The late 2020 numbers from the ClimateWorks Foundation helps, but it appears that the quoted category of “Public engagement” spans a lot more than policy-focused activism, so I’m not sure this is so helpful either. We should probably do some work to get some better numbers, but overall I’m not so convinced that the amount of money spent tells us all that much about the marginal benefit of the extra dollar. For TSM in particular, their budget really ballooned in 2020 (financial reports aren’t out but we heard almost $10 million), so that’s a reason to give some pause. That being said, I don’t see a compelling case for diminishing returns at this level of funding, especially since activism relies on sheer numbers to be effective. But yes, I hear this argument and I think it’s something we should consider more closely.
Finally, strategy: A lot of the previous arguments have revolved around TSM potentially having a negative effect due to its polarization of the climate policy. I really think strategy (ie polarization vs compromise) is a deeply difficult issue that is the subject of many debates within US politics. It’s important to realize that this is a feature, not a bug. TSM has chosen to take a “radical” position and linked with other progressive priorities as a way of building a strong and cohesive political movement. It’s a strategy that has historical precedent, and has borne dividends at numerous other times in US History (civil rights movement, tea party). Does that mean it will work this time? Unclear. Is it risky? Sure. But to argue that you need a bipartisan strategy to influence policy in DC I believe ignores political realities. I agree that sometimes the solutions put forth by TSM (no CCS, etc.) are not ideal, but again this is part of the strategy to build a fired-up coalition. Like Johannes said, Sunrise are not going to be the ones at the table hammering out policy anyway. It’s just their job to get people to the table, and put power in the hands of the climate negotiators.
Our recommendation of TSM also stems on our philosophy of supporting multiple theories of change. There are lots of different ways that political change happens, and I think that the best way to enact the desired change is to accept this, be humble about deciding ex-ante which theory is right, and support multiple avenues.
All of this doesn’t really address Johannes’ main concern, which is that one needs to make the case not just for TSM to be “Good”, but to really be better than CATF at the margin. Based on our approach of providing recommendations in multiple categories and subscribing to multiple theories of change, I don’t think we need to show perfectly that TSM is better or equal to CATF. But we should be able to provide a compelling argument that impact is in the same ballpark. Johannes thinks it is not. I think it is. But also I think we need to do a better job of crafting this argument in our documents. That’s something we are going to work on.
Finally, one more thing. I think that there is a little bit of risk as an EA community of over-committing to a single method of action (“(i) advocates (ii) focused on accelerating (iii) neglected yet critical decarbonisation and carbon removal technologies” in the US) and very small set of organizations dedicated to this method. Like I said, I find FP’s arguments compelling and think their central recommendation of CATF is very solid. But I would be careful about overconfidence here. In our research, we interviewed 50+ experts from various sectors of the climate space. At some point in the conversation we always asked “If you could allocate money in the most cost-effective matter to fight climate change, what would you do?” we got a lot of different answers, but notably no one said CATF unprompted. We usually followed up and asked about CATF directly. When prompted, some people said “Oh yeah, they are great.” But others didn’t agree, and pointed out various issues with their approach or influence. I know this is not a scientific approach and don’t want to put too much weight on it, but I do just think it’s important for EAs as a community to approach this space with humility.
Hi Alex, let me clarify my thoughts on the "unsure of sign" argument. Let's say for a given charity, you are considering the sign of impact on some outcome given an increase in donations. Given inherent uncertainly, you might think of a having a probability distribution reflecting your belief on the effect of a donation on this outcome. In almost any case, you would have to believe that there is some non-zero portion of the probability mass of this distribution below zero (because we've seen good intentions backfire so many times.) This is my point: the sign of impact is always unknown, technically.
To make recommendation, one must use gathered evidence and judgment to determine the distribution of impacts, and whether this estimated distribution merits a recommendation. Based on our judgement, the distribution of potential impacts of Sunrise (including the mass of probability that is below zero) merits it a recommendation. You and others certainly can disagree with the estimated distribution of impacts or our judgement or whether it merits recommendation. This stuff isn't easy. But the fact that there is some probability mass on negative impact is not disqualifying, nor should it be.
As for your first comment, it's important to note that the local chapters of Sunrise can take policy positions at odds with the centralized movement. I agree that sometimes these are unsavory. But when you make a donation, you make it to the centralized org. Critics trying to take down Sunrise frequently pull out the most radical quote they can find from one of the local chapters and use it to disqualify the whole organization, but I don't really think that's valid.
Hi, this is Dan from Giving Green. As you might imagine, I have a lot to say here.
First though, let me thank Alex for going about this criticism in what I would consider the right way: he brought his concerns to us, we had a discussion, and he changed some things based on the discussion. He also offered us a chance to comment on his draft to ensure he hadn’t said anything blatantly factually inaccurate. And then he aired his disagreements in a respectful post. So thanks for that Alex.
That being said, I fundamentally disagree with the majority of Alex’s points, and believe that the judgement calls we have made at Giving Green allow us to be impactful to a wider audience.
But let’s start with something else: Giving Green is a young organization, and I think we have a lot of room to improve and pivot. So criticism is welcomed, and some of Alex’s suggestions did resonate with us.
First, I think we could do a better job in promoting the donation options we think are “better” (ie policy, instead of offsets.) I think the offset research is valuable (as described below), but I agree that it’s not totally obvious to users of the website that we recommend policy over offsets, so that’s something we’d like to improve.
Second, although I do think we have some fundamental disagreements about the value of modeling uncertain situations, I do think there would be value in modeling the cost-effectiveness of offsets more explicitly. I think this is a case where the modeling assumptions are tractable, and we could provide users useful cost-effectiveness data, and may even promote certain offsets over others. This is something we’ve wanted to do for a while, but haven’t had the time to implement. (As Alex noted, we have limited funding and have relied heavily on “side of the desk” work to create Giving Green.)
Now onto the disagreements. I think to respond to every point I would have to write a book, but let me tackle the main ones.
Recommending Offsets: I made an argument defending recommending offsets (even though we believe they are less cost-effective than policy charities) on a comment previously on this post. The main idea is that there’s a tradeoff between certainty and high-risk, high-reward options, and I think there’s a market for both. I’ll paste the most fun part of the argument below.
“Finally, at the risk of going down a rabbit hole, one more point. There are a lot of parallels to this offset debate within international development/global health, an area in which EA is much more developed. Within EA communities, most people are quite comfortable with the recommendations from GiveWell, which are all direct-delivery of health services, and therefore things that can be measured with a high level of certainty. (Like offsets!) So why don't big international development agencies (World Bank, etc) concentrate only on direct delivery of health services? It's not because they are just stupid. It's because they think they can have more bang for their buck investing in systemic changes that can't be well-quantified with an RCT (like institution-building, macroeconomic stability, infrastructure, etc). Kinda like...funding charities that work on climate policy. So I would find it curious if the final consensus from EAs on global health is all about certainty, but in environment it is firmly for less-certain policy interventions. My argument would be that there is a clear place for both. “
Quantitative modeling: Alex is of the opinion that because we haven’t explicitly quantitatively modeled some of the tradeoffs we face, that the analysis isn’t to be trusted. I think we just have a fundamental difference of opinion on the value of modeling in situations of extreme uncertainty. Look, I’m a trained economist and am pro-modeling in general. But if you’re going to make a model where the outcomes are decided by key parameters that you have to make uninformed judgement calls on, what is the value of the model? Why not just make your judgement call on the outcome?
I know that modeling is in vogue in the EA community so perhaps this makes us outsiders, but I fundamentally believe that modeling in these circumstances leads only to science-y false precision, and does not actually give more clarity.
Let’s take an example, which leads into a discussion below. Let’s say we were trying to weigh the value of a donation to the Sunrise Movement Education Fund (TSM) vs Clean Air Task Force (CATF). Ok, you could model it, but at some point you’re going to have to make a judgement call on the fundamental tradeoff: CATF is more likely to cause incremental change (though some would argue that this is at the expense of entrenching fossil interests and hurting long-term progress), while TSM has a lower chance of causing more fundamental change (though at the potential expense of increasing polarization and jeopardizing incremental progress). So tell me, how are you going to get an unbiased, data-driven estimate of this key parameter that will determine the outcome of your model? I don’t think it’s possible, so don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.
Recommendation of Sunrise Movement Education Fund (TSM): Understanding how donations to organizations lead to policy change is an exercise in fundamental uncertainty, and is going to involve tough judgement calls. I understand that people could make a different judgement call on the tradeoffs with TSM and come to a different conclusion. To be honest, we’ll know a lot more over the next couple of years, as now is the time for TSM to flex its muscles and get climate on the agenda of the Biden administration (and democratic congress.) But for now, we stand by our research and think it’s a good bet. You can read our justification on the site.
A couple of specific points: it’s true that TSM’s budget has grown massively over the last few years (as has CATF’s for that matter), but I think that’s a poor proxy for neglectedness. I think that there is very little effective climate activism happening out there, and there’s huge room for effective growth.
I’m really not compelled by the “uncertainty about the sign of impact” argument, though i don’t really have a way to argue against it quantitatively since it’s theoretically possible. I would just say that this argument is lobbed at a lot of organizations, since people have different theories of political change. For instance, above I linked to an article making a similar argument about the 45Q tax credit, which is one of CATF’s big claimed accomplishments. It’s messy.
Burn Recommendation: I really think that much of the criticism is off the mark here. Berkouer and Dean (2020) focuses a lot of their analysis on credit and demand curves and other fancy economics because that’s how economists get papers published, but underpinning the paper is a strong RCT that convincingly estimates the effect of purchasing a BURN stove on fuel use. Yes, it would be nice if the sample size used for long-term follow-up was larger. And yes, this is just one study but it’s important to realize that it’s a carbon offset certification (which has a number of validation criteria) plus an RCT, which is rare and gives multiple layers of certainty. Given the difficulty of many carbon offsets, I think this is a unique level of rigor that justifies our recommendation of BURN.
The worry that purchasing offsets will not actually lead to more stoves getting distributed is more valid, as this is very hard to verify. But I’m fundamentally willing to believe that if a company like BURN gets more revenue from every stove they sell, they will sell more stoves. In other words, I think the supply curve slopes up, like it usually does.
This one is a little tougher. Like Alex said, we did not take cost into account when recommending offsets, because we were just looking for any offsets that we felt offered near-certainty. And Climeworks really does offer unparalleled certainty and permanence. But yes, Climeworks is expensive (and we are up front about that on the site). In order for it to be worth it, you have to believe that direct air capture and storage of CO2 is going to be an important part of the climate solution in the future. I don’t find those Metaculus numbers Alex listed too relevant, since you are betting on the technology, not the company. But I can see how reasonable people could disagree here.
"The EA movement currently has no organization dedicated full time to exploring and making a strong case for new cause areas. "
Isn't this what open phil does?
Hey, Dan from Giving Green here. Nice post, and glad to see more and more EAs thinking deeply about the climate problem. There are a lot of tough assumptions that go into these numbers, but I think the logic is sound that promoting clean energy innovation is among the most cost-effective ways to fight climate change.
That being said, I think the question of how to best promote clean energy is pretty complicated. I don't know a lot about the MIT Energy Initiative in particular, but I think that directly funding specific research efforts is likely less cost-effective than trying to influence policy. The right policy victory can have huge leverage in terms of allocating government money for research funding (for instance, through the ARPA-E program ), and can also drive innovation through regulations like carbon pricing or fuel mileage standards. This pathway of influencing energy innovation through policy is what we have focused on at Giving Green, and also mirrors the approach of Founder's Pledge and Let's Fund.
Another way to drive innovation is through private-sector investments. The issue with this is that the investment space as a whole is not so neglected, with lots of "clean tech" funds popping up every year. But I do think there are likely some neglected pockets, specifically for early, unproven tech that has a long road to profitability. There could be space for philanthropic capital to have important impacts. At Giving Green, we're planning to study this space in 2021.
Hi Guys, Dan from Giving Green here. Some good comments on our work and how it relates so far. We're seen a lot of stuff in our research that may fall in the "Play Pumps" category. But if there was one that that really stands out, I think it's carbon offsets for clean water. Check out our write-up here: https://www.givinggreen.earth/post/water-purification-technology
Johannes and I have debated this at length before, but I'd like to make a plug for the utility of providing recommendations for offsets, as we do at Giving Green. I agree with Johannes that offsets are likely much less effective in the fight against climate change than donations targeting systemic change, such as moving policy or technology. (Though I'm less confident about putting any numbers on this difference, which feels like an exercise in extreme guesswork.)
That being said, I do think that providing recommendations in the offset space is likely to result in less GHGs emitted. Johannes expressed worry about diverting donations from effective charities to offsets, but in my opinion that's not a large concern. People who are thinking closely about effectiveness of donations will easily read the suggestions by orgs like Founder's Pledge and Giving Green, pushing them toward more systemic donation options.
But that being said, there is a huge market for certainty, which is why these offsets exist. When we make recommendations on offsets, we generally shouldn't be thinking about individuals who are choosing between different charities. Individuals are a tiny fraction of the offset market (~3% of the voluntary market, and 0% of the compliance market)- all the action is from corporations (voluntary market and carbon-priced markets like California), countries (at least under Kyoto, still unclear what role offsets will play in Paris). The offset market was >300 million in 2019, and is poised to grow: see the growing list of companies who made carbon-neutral commitments in the past few year. These companies are never going to donate to teh Clean Air Task Force. They want certainty, and their purchases can be made WAY more effective by improving the offset market. THere is tons of social value here.
Now, back to HIA. Despite my belief that making offset recommendations has social benefit, HIA is targeted at athletes, who should have no requirement to enter the offset market. I do think HIA could improve its climate recommendations by trying actively to push athletes away from the offset market toward more effective charities. But given that offsets are likely to be attractive to people for various reasons, I feel like offering them offset options is likely to crowd in money rather than divert from more effective charities. But agreed this is an empirical question that is tough to answer
But if HIA is going to offer a recommendation for offsets, I would encourage you guys to use the recommendations at Giving Green. In my opinion, the options at Atmosfair have not been properly vetted, though I don't think this is the forum to pick apart their recommendations.
Finally, at the risk of going down a rabbit hole, one more point. There are a lot of parallels to this offset debate within international development/global health, an area in which EA is much more developed. Within EA communities, most people are quite comfortable with the recommendations from GiveWell, which are all direct-delivery of health services, and therefore things that can be measured with a high level of certainty. (Like offsets!) So why don't big international development agencies (World Bank, etc) concentrate only on directly delivery of health services? It's not because they are just stupid. It's because they think they can have more bang for their buck investing in systemic changes that can't be well-quantified with an RCT (like institution-building, macroeconomic stability, infrastructure, etc). Kinda like...funding charities that work on climate policy. So I would find it curious if the final consensus from EAs on global health is all about certainty, but in environment it is firmly for less-certain policy interventions. My argument would be that there is a clear place for both.