Marginal impact

I would suggest not "naturalizing" diminishing marginal returns ("as it usually is"), this is just an empirical question which, in my experience, often gets baked in as a fact/unquestioned assumption even when there are no substantive reasons to assume a particular slope.

AMA: Toby Ord @ EA Global: Reconnect

Are "existential risk / security factors" what you'd see as the current frontier in longtermist intervention research?

Feedback from where?

I asked someone from our impact analytics team to reply here re FP, as he will be better calibrated to share what is public and what is not.

But in principle what Ben describes is correct, we have assessments of charities from our published reports (incl. judgments of partners, such as GiveWell) and we relate that to money moved. We also regularly update our assessments of charities, charities get comprehensively re-evaluated every 2 years or so, with many adjustments in between when things (funding gaps, political circumstances) .

So, this critique seems to incorrectly equate headline figure reporting with all metrics we and others are optimizing for.

Feedback from where?

Indeed. I can speak to Founders Pledge which is another of the orgs listed here:

              Founders Pledge focusing on the amount of money pledged and the amount of money donated,                       rather than on the impact those donations have had out in the world. 

While these are the metrics we are reporting most prominently, we do of course evaluate the impact these grants are having. 

Assessing Climate Change’s Contribution to Global Catastrophic Risk

Note also that the global catastrophe is the shock (hazard) plus how it cascades through interconnected systems with feedback. We're explicitly suggesting that the field move beyond 'is x a catastrophe?' to 'how does x effect critical systems, which can feed into one another, and may act more on our vulnerability and exposure than as a direct, single hazard'. 

My understanding is that we all agree on that (I certainly do). 
It just seems that the direct risk to food security is overstated in the article.

Assessing Climate Change’s Contribution to Global Catastrophic Risk

I was researching the food security -- climate link a couple of years ago for German policy-makers. Two findings stood out:

1. While climate has an effect on agricultural productivity, the effects of increasing yields and a decreasing rate of population growth will very likely lead to a less food-insecure future in terms of global food supply (in line with Halstead's comment).

2. Obviously, this does not mean that climate change will not lead to famines in some places, but this will not be an issue of global insufficiency, but of unequal vulnerability and access.

I am very worried about the destabilizing effects of climate change because of  mechanisms related to 2 and other indirect effects -- the risk for civil strife,  political instability, migration, knock-on effects etc.  

But it seems very unlikely that climate change will cause a collapse of the global food system constituting a global catastrophe as a direct effect.

Do power laws drive politics?

If EA's can identify government actions with potentially high payoff, it could be a very good way to be effective.

This seems incomplete.

The criterion for effective action here would rather be something like a  (1) correctly estimated (2) high expected value of (3) marginal effort, e.g. that additional donations or work can affect the probability of important policy changes.

It  could be true that policies follow a power-law without this implying many effective actions (e.g.  this could be true in policy spaces that are crowded and where additional effort for one "side" leads to counteracting by another).

Most EAs working on issues outside global development seem to believe that funding marginal policy change in fairly technical issue areas (such as, before 2020, bio-risk, and AI policy, and also the top recs in climate) is very high EV,  with top recommended funding opportunities usually ones that influence policy in some way (in  a wide understanding of "policy", where this includes field building / coalition building). Matt's piece linked below gives good evidence for why that seems a reasonable assumption.

Do power laws drive politics?

There's some related discussion and empirical evidence here.

Why I'm concerned about Giving Green

Thanks for your comment! I agree with Alex on his points and -- apparently, a lot with you as well :) --  but adding some clarifications on questions/assumptions in your comment re FP research on this:  (1) whether or not FP would research TSM or other similar interventions (absolutely!), (2) additional reasons why CATF is a robust rec and TSM is not (3) where credence in CATF comes from. 

1. Would FP or similar orgs exclude TSM because of low measurability?
I don't really know where this idea originated, but the answer is clearly that we would not exclude an org like TSM because of low measurability. We would absolutely examine TSM or other similar orgs if we had reasons to believe to find something high impact in this space.

Yes, TSM is very uncertain and the path is a bit more indirect than with CATF or similar, but this is a gradual difference, not a qualitative one -- there are clear quantitative ways in which one could think about TSM; indeed reading the GG work on TSM and the discussion here has already given some indications on how this would look like.

As I wrote in another reply, we constantly evaluate and recommend uncertain hit-based opportunities.

The reason for not investigating TSM more deeply at FP right now is that from GG's analysis and this forum discussion it is pretty clear that this is not a particularly high-impact option -- (a) it's clearly not neglected, (b) there is a lot of downside risk,  and (c) there isn't a strong marginal case -- nothing that would leave us to expect that giving more money to TSM would lead to much stronger TSM, let alone a much better world.

(I) Given that it takes 120+ hours to vet a funding opportunity, (II) the goodness of existing climate recs with remaining funding gaps and (III)  the vast impact differentials between excellent and average opportunities (easily 100x), at FP we believe that this time is better spent at finding things that have a plausible chance of being really high impact.

I think the most plausible case for this to be a grassroots movement would be outside the US, because a lot of the downside risk for TSM comes from features specific to its partisan nature and the structure of the American political system. If in the US, my best guess would be Republican pro-climate grassroots.

2. There are a least 4 additional reasons beyond those you outline why we should expect CATF to be very robust and TSM not to be. I discuss those in the second part of this comment:

The TL,DR of it is as follows:

1. There is a lot of expert support for the CATF recommendation and there is a lot more uncertainty regarding TSM.

2. CATF looks very good on the theory of change/frame most relevant to effective climate action -- maximizing global decarbonization benefit -- and the argument for TSM on that frame is not made.

3. Charity evaluation methodology is our friend and allows us to draw useful inferences even in highly uncertain situations.

4. The length and depth of engagement that led to the CATF and similar recommendations should itself be a reason for confidence, more so than the GG comment suggests.

3. Our current credence in CATF as a top-recommendation does not build primarily on the 2018 report which "discovered" CATF but in multiple re-evaluations of CATF as well as additional evaluations by other orgs. I summarize this here (emphasis new):

 CATF looks very good on a theory of change focused on maximized global decarbonization impact when taking into account some of the most important stylized facts about the climate challenge (widely recognized as median views in the respective expert communities):

1.   Global energy demand will grow and restricting energy demand growth is very problematic from a humanitarian perspective.

2.   Effective global decarbonization requires a much larger set of technologies than those currently available. Most of those technologies are not on track and many necessary technologies are in early stages.

3.   Attention to many of those technologies is not on par with their importance, there is systematic neglect of key solutions.

4.   More active US energy innovation is expected to be a very cost-efficient way to reduce emissions in the US and, crucially, this does not even include the global benefits.

You can then combine this with two CATF-specific features:

5.   CATF is a strong organization that translates money into effective advocacy. This is not controversial within the EA community, something GG agrees on. It was first established in the FP 2018 report and it appears that at least 4 EA orgs had multiple calls with CATF, often dozens, that reaffirmed this conclusion (FP, Legacies Now, SoGive, Giving Green).

6.   CATF has very productive funding margins, projects that are currently unfunded and that make a lot of sense from the above stylized facts and the theory of change.

This is all you need to come to CATF as a likely local optimum in effective climate philanthropy.

None of this is controversial and – indeed – each of the claims above about the world in general (1-4) follow directly from median expert views on those respective topics and the CATF-specific claims (5-6) are even entirely uncontroversial across the EA community.

In contrast, motivating TSM as a top-choice requires a lot of controversial claims, such as (a) that we are sure that the impact of marginal TSM donations is not negative in expectation and (b) that additional effort can lead to significant change beyond what is already baked in despite the approach of Sunrise being partisan and thereby, quite plausibly, limited in its ultimate potential given the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College.

Why I'm concerned about Giving Green

Again, thanks for your work on XR and Animal Rebellion and for your comment!

With apologies for the delay, here are my responses:

1. My criticism of the TSM recommendation is of a particular funding opportunity at a particular time and place -- my view on XR could be quite different (I actually don’t have strong views on XR at this point). 

I think it’s important to recognize some important differences here between TSM and XR, namely TSM’s association with a very well-funded movement (progressive Democrats), something that doesn’t really have a clear equivalence in case of XR as far as I am aware.

I think the argument for funding (a) a partisan grassroots organization in the US (b) at a time where this organization is relatively mature, (c) has lots of support from progressives, (d) and where there is a lot of risk from backfiring because the most effective actions require some level of bipartisan support (and, ideally, a continuing Democratic majority rather than a severe backlash due to perceived progressive over-reach), is implausible to be the best thing we can fund in climate at face value and the analysis by GG doesn’t alleviate those concerns. 

This is quite different from saying that XR should not be funded or that TSM would not have been worth funding some years ago. It is even different from saying TSM should not be funded, just that it is fairly unlikely to be the best use of marginal climate dollars.

2. We regularly fund high-risk high-reward bets with the FP Climate Fund. We are very much into hits-based giving, e.g. last year we made the first larger grant to TerraPraxis/Energy for Humanity (they had no received more than 45k/year in philanthropic support before, we granted 250k for that organization to achieve a step change). We are evaluating another such grant at the moment. I certainly would have considered funding Greta had I been a climate philanthropist some years ago.

3. As Alex points out, not funding grassroots is not necessarily reflective of risk aversion -- it can just be because of low expected value. 

4. Should we automatically assume high expected value of social movements?
You seem to suggest that the rise of progressive climate movements proves their high expected value and, thereby, the mistake to not fund them.

While I think this is a bit of a different question (see 1, 2; it is totally consistent to be positive about those movements without wanting to fund them now), I would also want to challenge the assertion a bit that social movements are definitely always positive. 

This is a bit more anecdotal than the rest, but I think one of the big mistakes of the environmental movement -- for example -- has been its ideological narrowness and framing environmental problems in very particular terms (I have a bit more about this in my new comment). I think on balance modern environmentalism and progressive grassroots activism are probably good, but it is not as obvious as it seems at first glance -- for example, we would probably have a lot more nuclear if not for the modern environmental movement which would greatly help with the problem this movement now cares the most about. I say this as someone who literally walked through the streets of Frankfurt protesting against nuclear power in my FoE days.

While somewhat anecdotal, this shows the risk of funding social movements which will often have ideological or other lock-ins that may create a lot of damage. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fund social movements, it just means that it has a lot more uncertainty attached to it than more targeted interventions and we need to reflect that (not with risk aversion, but including it in our EV calcs).

5. Neglectedness is a tricky beast. I go into this a bit more in my new comment but I don’t think we should just infer from low funding levels of XR in December that it is underfunded. 

Ultimately, we are interested in high marginal returns to funds -- i.e. in this case that giving more to XR would make a meaningful difference to XR’s success and that XR’s success would lead to less emissions, in expectation. There’s uncertainty along the way with each step.

The point is not that it cannot be true that XR is high impact to fund at the margin, the point is that such an argument would require a lot of additional evidence such as (a) productive funding margins, (b) impact of XR on emissions, (c) absence or low relevance of downside risks, etc.

As I lay out in my new comment, I think it is quite implausible that a large organization has very productive funding margins, this has nothing to do with grassroots per se, but just the size of the overall effort.  Do we really think that a movement with thousands of people willing to give their time could not mobilize more than 50k if they had great use for it? This seems quite implausible to me.

6. Type of activism.  It is true that WWF et al. are different from TSM and XR, but they fundamentally serve the same purpose -- mass mobilization / building public support / engagement (shifting the Overton window). They do so with different approaches, but it is not clear that the TSM approach, in particular, highly partisan mobilization, is the most useful one at the margin. 

If it is, we should expect more of that public engagement funding to go into that direction, that part of climate philanthropy is in principle open to TSM. Also, note that as I stressed in my initial comment, that ⅔ of climate philanthropy or so are from individuals, many of which will be quite happy to fund grassroots in the US. This is really quite different from the situation in the UK, I think.

7. Incremental vs. transformational. 
[Aside: Hopefully without being too nitpicky, the Paris Agreement isn’t legislation, in the case of the US it is not even a binding treaty, but an accord that any President can choose to commit to or not (effectively). Also, the President has little power to enforce emissions targets, this would either need executive orders that could be revoked by the next President or a binding law that seems infeasible in the US (would need 60 votes in the Senate or getting rid of the filibuster).]

Ultimately the point for CATF not being incremental is exactly that those policies that CATF et al advance are often very robust -- tax credits, innovation budgets, etc. -- a lot more robust than executive orders; while Trump scrapped almost all of Obama’s executive orders (or tried to so), he failed to reduce innovation budgets (defended by Senate Republicans), he even approved lots of new essential innovation policy (such as 45Q and bills on advanced nuclear innovation) and, crucially, even the tax credits for renewables are constantly being renewed. 

Ultimately, of course, the goal is not for legislation to exist, but for emissions reductions to materialize. But this makes the point even stronger: If we woke up tomorrow and California and Germany would be governed by climate-denying psychopaths, we would still have cheap solar, electric cars approaching market parity etc. Which is to say there are a lot of transformative benefits from seemingly incremental policies and the evidence for this is much clearer than for the benefits or more bindingly looking policies that would also always be unstable in the US.

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