Thanks for the question, Kieran! I am on leave this week so I'll try to keep my answer short (famous last words), but I will be try to answer all of your key questions on:
(1) what qualifies Qvist (he’s a leading expert on repowering),
(2) what the grant is about (techno-economic studies in five countries), (3) whether it is big (not compared to scope),
(4) whether a small starter grant would have been an alternative (not in this case),
(5) whether it is all about nuclear (no),
(6) whether FP Climate Fund grants in 2022 were all about nuclear (no)
(7) how it relates to to other grantees (complementary)
(8) and, in broad strokes, why we think it is a good bet.
First of all, apologies for not having published more on this grant yet. This has simply been an issue of prioritization under resource constraint, we did quite extensive analysis for the repowering coal grants (of which the Qvist one is an example), but we have not yet had the chance to polish this for publishing. We're in the process of tripling the team, so we should be in a better position of closing reasoning transparency holes more quickly in the future.
I'll try to answer your questions in Q&A style.
1. What qualifies Staffan Qvist?
As another commenter has pointed out, Qvist has published several papers on repowering coal, indeed a project by Qvist preceding our grant produced the first papers on repowering coal in the Polish and Chinese context. He / his consultancy has played a large role in putting this idea on the map (alongside other grantees, TerraPraxis). He is one of the world's leading experts on this idea and recognized as such by other actors (eg TerraPraxis credited him with writing the first paper on repowering coal).
2. What is this grant about?
This grant is about conducting and disseminating techno-economic research on the feasibility of repowering coal in five key jurisdictions -- China, Indonesia, India, South Korea, Japan with local teams, Qvist Consulting is the facilitator/lead but will not do most of the research. It is quite close, though somewhat increased in ambition, to the work that resulted in the publications on Poland and China repowering mentioned above.
Zooming out, it's fundamentally about increasing the option space for tackling one of the hardest decarbonization challenges, decarbonizing lots of young coal capacity in (emerging) Asia.
3.Is this a big grant?
If you take into account that this grant covered five jurisdictions over two years, it's at about 150k / jurisdiction / year. This is not high but close to the lowest level of "play", of being able to meaningfully engage, e.g. find and hire local teams to conduct the research in their countries. In general the budget for this grant is very lean compared to pursued activity.
4. Why not do a small starter grant?
A smaller starter grant would simply mean not doing this work or not doing this work at a scale that it has a reasonable probability of impact.
Small starter grants are indeed a typical way of engaging but we think its seeming derisking (not invest much, feel out impact of charity) is dominated by the incurred risk of important work not being funded.
In this case it was clear from context that the counterfactual having most probability was not "others would fund this" but "this will not happen".
Given the background belief that the impact of climate philanthropy is decreasing over time (increased lock-in of emissions and technological trajectories) we think it's often good to have a bias towards action rather than waiting longer.
It's also worth noting that this grantee was introduced to us by another funder who could, for impact-unrelated reasons, not fund this but had good experiences with prior grants.
5. Is this grant all about nuclear?
It's about repowering coal with advanced heat sources, which could be advanced nuclear, but also advanced geothermal (eg super hot rock) or, if you believe it materializes on climate-relevant timelines, fusion. I don't put much weight on fusion-readiness, but when we model this the fact that this could also work with geothermal does increase the cost-effectiveness significantly (because it makes repowering coal feasible even if advanced nuclear fails to scale).
6. Are all the grants you list predominantly about nuclear?
Of the four grants you list only one is exclusively about nuclear (the TerraPraxis one).
Repowering coal is about nuclear and other sources of clean dense firm power (see 5).
The CATF grant has no relation to nuclear beyond CATF being an organization that, among many programs, also has one on nuclear. The Breakthrough Agenda grant has 0 relation to nuclear.
7. How is this grant related to other grantees?
Qvist pursues an approach to repowering coal that is complementary to TerraPraxis and has different risks of failure (roughly, TerraPraxis pursues a high innovation approach to repowering that could strongly reduce cost, but also could fail; Qvist is lower tech but thus has a higher risk of failing due to cost).
So there is a complementarity on the intervention level and, hopefully, an increased overall success probability.
Qvist has been an advisor to CATF but we did not get introduced to Qvist via CATF but through another funder in our network.
8. Why do we think it's a good grant?
This will be clearer in the published write-up yo come but briefly: It's a bet (i) to contribute to solving one of the hardest decarbonization challenges, a bet that (ii) looks high impact even on quite conservative assumptions about success, a bet that has a (iii) high likelihood of not happening for the wrong reasons (given that pro-nuclear climate philanthropy is small for reasons related to the history of environmentalism). (iv) The grantee has a clear track record of implementing similar work to the grant and (v) this work has had important uptake by relevant stakeholders.
I had the same impression, that a big picture view talk was expected but that the actual talk was focused on a single issue and in a fairly philosophical framing.
So I thought it was an excellent talk but it still gave me a strange feeling as the dominant and first EAG response to what happened (I know this made sense given other sessions covering other aspects, but I am unsure it will be perceived this way (one slice of the puzzle) given its keynote character).
Yes, the messaging of the papers is certainly vastly different.
That said, I think there is also a meaningful substantive difference, e.g. Wang et al suggests pretty minimal additional uncertainty through tipping points (less than 0.6 degrees by 2100 on net on plausible emissions pathways).
Would SoGive be interested in looking at these papers comparatively?
I agree that this would be great to exist, though it is likely very hard and the examples that will exist soon will not be the strongest ones (given how effects can become visible over longer time-frames, e.g. how OP discusses green revolution and other interventions that took many years to have the large effects we can now observe).
Hey Ben, thanks for the replies -- adding some more to get closer to the same page 🙂
Re your 1), my criticism here is more one of emphasis and of the top-line messaging, as you indeed mention these cases of advocacy and research.
I just think that these cases are rather fundamental and affecting the conclusions very significantly -- because we are almost never in the situation that all we can choose from are direct interventions so the solution space (and with it, the likely variance) will almost always look quite different than what is discussed as primary evidence in the article (that does not mean we will never choose direct interventions, to be sure, just that the variance of solutions will mostly be one that emerges from the conjunction of impact differentials).
Re your 2), I think this is mostly a misunderstanding -- my comment was also very quickly written, apologies.
I am not saying we should always choose the most leveraged thing ever, but rather that the solution space will essentially always be structured by conjunction of multipliers. There are reasons to not only choose the most leveraged solution, as you point out, but I don’t think this is enough to argue that the most effective actions will not usually be conjunctive ones.
I agree that the data in the article is useful for specifying the shape of a particular impact differential, I am mostly arguing that it understates the variance of the solution space.
(I worry that we are mixing expected and realized value here, I am mostly talking about conjunctive strategies affecting how the variance of the solution space looks like on expected value, this does not preclude the realized value sometimes being zero (and that risk aversion or other considerations can drive us to prefer less leveraged actions.)).
Re your 3) & 4) I agree -- my understanding was that these are the factors that lead you to only 10x and my comment was merely that I think direct intervention space variance is not that informative with regards to solution selection in most decision contexts.
Aside: I agree with you that I don’t think that advocacy by itself is a 100x multiplier in expectation.
I am worried that the cited data does not really inform this question -- as we can always choose solutions that leverage "conjunctions of multipliers" (e.g. advocacy, changing trajectories) so that real variance also in solutions should be *much* larger than 10x for anyone being a funder within a cause area.
To make this more concrete, when choosing what to fund in climate one would not choose between different policies or lifestyle actions (the evidence for climate presented here), but between fundable opportunities that stack different impact multipliers on top of each other, e.g. advocacy instead of direct action, supporting policies with large expected long-term consequences (e.g. by accelerating technological change, whereas -- AFAICT -- the data from Gillngham and Stock displayed here is their static case which they describe as focused on current technology and project cost, contrasted to their dynamic case studies which seems much more likely to be something attractive to fund), etc.
So, it seems to me the evidence presented significantly underplays the real variance in solution effectiveness that a funder faces because it uses data on single-variable direct intervention variance as a proxy for variance in effectiveness of interventions, despite the most effective interventions not usually being direct actions (certainly outside GHD, most EA funding does not buy equivalents of malaria nets for ex-risk etc.) and not actions where impact differentials can be easily quantified with certainty (despite being very large in expectation).
This also seems to potentially lead to biased comparisons between solution variance and cause level variance given how strongly differences in cause level variance are driven by expected value calculations (value of the future, etc.) that are far more extreme / speculative to what people comparing interventions on single interventions would have data on.
"As another example: climate change is not a neglected problem. But different solutions get very different amounts of attention. One of the most effective interventions seems to be preserving the rainforests (and other bodies of biomass), yet only a lonely few organizations (e.g. Cool Earth and the Carbon Fund) are working on this."
This does not matter much for the overall context of this post, but this is very wrong empirically -- almost nothing is as well-funded as natural solutions within climate philanthropy (see e.g. founderspledge.com/landscape for more) and , IIRC, conservation philanthropy is larger than all of climate philanthropy.
(Trying to understand the space better, not being acusatory.)
How is it that there is not a well-thought-out response right now?
E.g. it seems that it has probably been clear to people in AI safety / governance for some time that there would be an increase in the Overton window in which placing some demands would be more feasilbe than at other times, so I am surprised there isn't a letter like this that is more thought through / endorsed by people that are not happy with the current letter.