Dan Stein


Why EA meta, and the top 3 charity ideas in the space

"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? 

Clean technology innovation as the most cost-effective climate action

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. 

What are the "PlayPumps" of Climate Change?

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

Introducing High Impact Athletes

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. 

Five New EA Charities with High Potential for Impact

Hi Milan,

I can't speak for CE, but we at Giving Green have looked a bit into Wren.

Some thing I like about Wren:

  1. They seem to have put some thought and extra effort into picking offsets they think are better than normal. 
  2. They have a nice interface and good publicity, so hopefully that will crowd some money into funding good projects. 

Some things I don't like about Wren:

  1. I fundamentally disagree with the idea that measuring a 'carbon footprint' and then offsetting this footprint is a meaningful and productive way to fight climate change. People should be doing what they can to reduce their own emissions, and using their donations in the most effective ways possible. Why should the amount of carbon an individual emits be a meaningful marker for how much  one should contribute to the fight? This logic only works if offsets are seen as a way to give someone permission to undo the damage of a high-carbon lifestyle. That's a dangerous perspective, as we need to reduce emissions from all angles, not just increase on one hand and offset on the others. Plus, no offsets are certain enough to really undo a person's damage.  Giving Green recommends that individuals and organizations view offsets simply as a philanthropic contribution to a pro-climate project with an evidence-based approach to reducing emissions, rather than a way to eliminate their contribution to climate change.
  2. Their selection of recommended offsets seems a bit ad-hoc. Sometimes I get the logic of why a certain project is special in the great sea of offset projects, but other times I don't really see it. There isn't much information on their selection process or criteria- it all feels relatively non-transparent to me. Maybe someone would lob the same criticisms at Giving Green, but we've tried to be as transparent as possible, and when we re-launch our website in a couple of weeks there will be a bunch more documentation on our process and selection criteria. 
Five New EA Charities with High Potential for Impact

Hi Maria, thanks for the note. I understand the point you're making, but I think the case of forestry and cookstoves are really quite different.  The difference is that with clean cookstove (or really any project that improves energy efficiency), you permanently remove demand for energy, which is not reversible. 

Let's take a classic impermanence example around forestry offsets. A project works for a year to conserve a hectare of forest that would have been counterfactually cut down . They are issued X carbon credits for this conservation, and sell these credits as offsets in the market. The next year, the projects shuts down (due to lack of funding, political reasons, whatever). The the trees are simply cut down the next year. So although people bought "offsets" for X tons of carbon, really their purchase only went towards delaying those emissions for one year. And that's if you're lucky- maybe two acres get cut down the next year to make up for lost time, feeding pent-up demand for forest products.

Now let's take the example of stoves. A project distributes clean cookstoves to a bunch of households. After a year they verify that these cookstoves are still in  use, and they are issued X carbon credits for fuel that would have been counterfactually consumed. No matter what happens in the future, the demand for fuel the previous year has been erased, and is not coming back. Now, I understand what you are saying- that fuel that has not been burned in the stove in theory flows back up the supply chain and results in fewer trees being cut down. But the demand pressure to cut the tree down has been permanently removed.  

I know this isn't perfect. For instance, if the forest that produces the charcoal burns down, then all the efforts we make to reduce fuel usage go up in smoke. Also, reduced charcoal demand could cause prices to go down causing a rebound effect. But I do think it's fundamentally better than just temporarily preventing a patch of forest from being cut down without addressing any of the demand issues. 

Also, it's not that we think forestry projects are fundamentally bad. We just think there are so many things that could go wrong that they are fiendishly hard to verify effectiveness. We're definitely keeping our eyes open for forestry offsets that can address all the issues, and hope to re-open this search next year. (Note that permanence is only one issues. Forestry offsets also suffer from hard-to-validate counterfactuals, and "leakage" in which trees are just cut down in other areas.)

Finally, in the end I don't want to spend too much time defending any particular offset, even the ones we recommend. I think that fundamentally, the idea that you can buy an offset and causally undo emissions with certainty is simply flawed. The world is too complex, and this level of certainty doesn't exist. We view "good" offset projects as ones that are doing good work and verifiably reducing emissions, but reject the idea that offsets can or should be used to wash away one's carbon sins. 

Five New EA Charities with High Potential for Impact

Hi Everyone, Dan from Giving Green here. Just a note that we'll be doing a big re-launch of our website and product (with recommendations for the 2020 giving season!) in about a month's time. We're looking forward to sharing more details of our strategy in a post here around that time. In the meantime, happy to answer questions here or chat with interested parties.

What should EAs interested in climate change do?

I know I'm a bit late to this topic, but at Giving Green (www.idinsight.org/givinggreen) we are trying to answer specifically this problem. We're building on excellent previous work (like that at Let's Fund and Founder's Pledge) to do a comprehensive analysis on giving, investment, and volunteer options to fight climate change. The work is still very early, but there is a lot coming in the pipeline so stay tuned. For now, we have a few recommendations in the offset market.