123 karmaJoined Nov 2022



Great podcast!

One point of disagreement: I don't think you are correct in dismissing personal lifestyle change, or in being concerned that it will crowd out political/collective action (unintended consequences). There is beginning to emerge some experimental evidence, and so far it does not seem like it crowds out collective behavior. See here for a recent study: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214629622003784?casa_token=Jp_mgkE8mkUAAAAA:oUltc3n4ndueQHddP6iTKRtB2U7Rru1W7RsTWOFWtPXSDQSoENdOZrI-pVs8PAQxGGI0DIdBh8Q

From a more historical perspective, which is more difficult to investigate causally of course, it also doesn't seem like social movements which emphasize the personal and lifestyle change stop being political or set themselves up for failure. Look at the Christian right in the US: very personal and very political at the same time. There is evidence that the cultivation of a certain lifestyle and culture has even been important for the long-term success of some movements, such as the NRA. See here: The Political Weaponization of Gun Owners: The National Rifle Association’s Cultivation, Dissemination, and Use of a Group Social Identity | The Journal of Politics: Vol 81, No 4 (uchicago.edu)

So I, for one, think that lifestyle interventions which link changes in lifestyle to political and collective goals, may actually be under-utilized and effective form of intervention.


The fact that a commonsensical proposal like this gets downvoted so much is actually fairly indicative of current problems with  tribalism and defensiveness in EA culture.


...and updated research on climate risk.


I agree. 

It looks like an interesting book, btw. At first I thought it had come about after the SBF scandal, but it seems to have been in the work for quite some time. 

Regarding what they write in the blog post, their criticism does come from a valid place, kind of. They certainly don't advocate doing nothing as an alternative to engaging in EA. That said, I think they are probably mistaken.

One of their unspoken assumptions seems to be that if EA was not around, much of the energy that has gone into EA would have gone to leftist movements for social and environmental justice. If this assumption is correct, then I would probably be inclined to agree with them. I'm an EA adjacent eco-socialist who has followed core EA tenets in my own life for many years, but I still think that the actual EA movement as it exists probably does less good in the world than labor movements, environmental movements, etc. 

I don't think that their assumption is correct, however. If EA was not around I think it's much more likely that the energy that has gone into EA would just have gone to into making privileged people  even more privileged. EA kids would probably not have become EAs without EA, but rather have gone on to lucrative careers which was mostly about themselves.

I don't have any strong data backing that prior, but it's my hunch at least. 

So I think EA is probably more good than bad. 

That said I will read the book when it comes out.


Thanks a lot for this. This is good and detailed work. From my point of view it's a clear improvement on what I've seen from other EA orgs on climate change previously! Keep it up :)

Regarding "key questions you are unsure about": I think the main weakness in this text and your assessment is your lack of critical engagement with the IPCC reports. You state higher up that "nothing in the IPCC’s report suggests that civilisation will be destroyed". This is correct, but it does not follow from this that IPCC suggests that civilisation will NOT be destroyed, or that IPCC reports can be used to argue that point. There are two main reasons:

  1. There is actually almost no research which has looked into the danger climate change may pose to civilisation. IPCC only synthesizes existing research, and when there is on research to start with, it doesn't include it. Why is there no research on the possible end of civilisation due to climate change? Probably many reasons, but one reason may be that this is something that is inherently difficult to quantify. Or that researchers are afraid of being labelled as alarmist. You are probably aware of this article already, but Luke Kemp et. al. cover this well in this article, which documents the lack of research on "climate endgames":  Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios | PNAS
  2. It has been documented that both IPCC reports and many climate scientists have consistently "erred on the side of least drama" - i.e. one has preferred to to be conservative in one's estimates, rather than risk being wrong in the other direction. You are probably aware of this as well, but still saying it. This is the classic article on this, but it still stands: Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? - ScienceDirect The basic finding has been confirmed in later articles, such as this one: Evolution of 21st Century Sea Level Rise Projections - Garner - 2018 - Earth's Future - Wiley Online Library  This may also have to do with the fact that IPCC's conclusions are consensus based. The latter article says on sea level rise, for example: "Upper projections of SLR from individual studies are generally higher than upper projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, potentially due to differing percentile bounds or a predisposition of consensus-based approaches toward relatively conservative outcomes". 

My prior is therefore that outcomes will almost certainly not be better than what IPCC predicts, but that there is a very good chance that outcomes will be worse. This prior is supported by the fact that the "surprises" in the climate system seem to be in one direction only - things consistently appear worse than researchers have commonly assumed (40 degrees in London, ice melt which appears to move much faster than researchers have modelled, etc). I cannot be completely sure about this, of course, but so far I have found very little evidence which points in the other direction, and cannot see strong reasons to update these priors (even though I would sleep better at night if things weren't as bas as I fear).


Then, regarding what to do. You ask towards the end on things you are unsure about: "Which areas within climate work (e.g. extreme risks, links to other risks, or specific kinds of green tech) are most neglected relative to their impact?" 

This is an important question, and I think you slightly miss the mark in your actual recommendations. Regarding green tech and renewable energy etc, there is actually no lack of research or engagement at all. There are LOTS of people doing research on this. One reason is that this is potentially very lucrative, so people want to be in on it. There could arguably be more research on nuclear power, which unfortunately hasn't been favored by policy makers, but here as well there are already many people doing important work. 

Where there is NOT a lot of research or money or engagement is in two other areas: 

  1. Lifestyle change or cultural change
  2. Activism, and the impact of activism

On the first point: If we want to reduce emissions from long distance aviation, one alternative is to come up with new fuels which don't pollute as much. But another alternative is simply to reduce long distance aviation. On the first alternative there is already a lot of well-funded research. Of course the airline companies are interested in keeping going or increasing the number of flights. On the second alternative there is very little research. How would an international transport system with less long-distance flights look like, and more importantly, how do we achieve this, politically and socially? We don't know much about this. There is some research, but not a lot. (see this recent article for example: Banning super short-haul flights: Environmental evidence or political turbulence? - ScienceDirect

This also applies to other issues - like achieving just transitions for workers in fossil-based industries, driving less, moving away from meat, etc. The reason is probably that there are few funding bodies which have clear interests in lifestyle change - but there are many funding bodies which have an interest in continuing as we do today, only with less emissions. 

On the meat issue there is already lots of EA engagement of course - but similar engagement could also be applied to the issue on lifestyle changes in other domains, in developed countries at least. Your comment that focusing on one's carbon footprint "is a distraction" is almost certainly wrong, by the way. There is by now much research which shows that carbon footprint has a huge signaling effect: People simply trust climate advocates more when we focus on our own carbon footprint. Here is one such article, but there are many more: Climate change communicators’ carbon footprints affect their audience’s policy support | SpringerLink

Within EA circles one is well aware of the importance of signaling. This applies just as much to climate change as to other issues. 

The second point regarding activism and impact is also important. We actually know very little on how to change things regarding climate change. What activism actually works? EA James Ozden is one of the few who actually does research on this. Radical tactics can increase support for more moderate groups - EA Forum (effectivealtruism.org)

Following up on that, there is also an argument for actually supporting and engaging directly in the kind of activism that we have reason to think may work - non-violent civil disobedience, advocacy groups who work towards lifestyle change, etc. Green advocacy groups are massively underfunded compared to fossil fuel interests, and could well use some influx of smart EAs. 

Ok, that's it for this comment. Thanks again for working on the issue.


Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer in such detail. You are more patient than I am. Great points.

I fully agree that reduced energy use going forward is absolutely essential. That is one reason I decided to abstain from flying some years ago, in order to send a costly signal about what is needed. I am not sure I share your pessimism concerning alternative energy sources, though. Sunny parts of the world can build out lots of solar energy - with storage - fairly quickly. Non-sunny and stable parts of the world can build nuclear energy rapidly, like France and Sweden did in the 70s and 80s. 

The modelling that has been done these issues have generally found that it is feasible to arrive at zero-carbon economies within two or three decades, if one combines changes in consumption and demand with rapid build-out of low-carbon energy sources. If we abolish animal agriculture and rewild large parts of the world, stop the expansion of private car use, fly less, etc - AND build nuclear and renewables like crazy, all while starting to keep fossil fuels in the ground, things can indeed change. 

Here's a very recent study, for example, which finds that a rapid transition is possible and not extremely expensive: Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition: Joule (cell.com) Such modelling is uncertain, of course, but I don't think the present state of research validates deep pessimism about the physical possibility of doing an energy transition. The real difficulties seem political to me: Groups and actors who are heavily invested in polluting economic sectors and activities, and will often fight against change.

(I do believe that we will have to patch things up with solar radiation management in the end though, even though that will open up a new can of worms)

Not saying that any of this is going to happen or even that it's likely, but the possibility to turn things around is there. It strikes me as odd that so many EAs seem uninterested in working on making these changes happen. For the next couple of decades, I think that contributing to making such a transition happen may be some of the most high-impact actions possible in the entire history of humanity. 


Ok, either SBF is actually a complete moron, or this was a very calculated ploy. Making it seem like it was not intended for the public just make his statements seem more authentic. 

But: Even though there is lots of stuff here which is incriminating, it nevertheless lets him off the hook somewhat: 

  • he is adamant that there was never any intent to do anything bad with customer deposits, things just happened along the way
  • he says that the hack had nothing to do with him or anybody in his circle (that's assumed at least)
  • there is no mention of the "backdoor" which allowed him to do things with customer money without oversight
  • he comes off as bizarre and incompetent, rather than as a evil super-villain

Given that he so far has been known to be very media savvy and to cultivate his and FTX's image in a way that benefits him, I would be very surprised if he just assumed that his journalist friend would not publish these things at all.


Thanks, that's a thoughtful response! 

Let me say that straight away that I'm very much in favor of work on nuclear risk, animal welfare, poverty reduction etc (on AI I struggle to see an established mechanism between the work that is being done and the desired outcome, but I'm very open that I may be wrong on that one).

Just to expand a bit on spending and cost-effectiveness on climate change vs. other causes: It all depends what you mean. Climate change is not one single issue, given that it's about our whole way of production and consumption. Reducing animal agriculture is also very important for fighting climate change, for example, not just for animal welfare. But if we break it down to different domains, we still see a lack of funding in many areas: 

So seen in comparison to fossil fuels - which is the cause of climate change of course - the fight against climate change is heavily underfunded. So I think there is not much doubt that spending additional money can be useful in the fight against climate change.

The issue of cost effectiveness nevertheless remains. How much can one additional dollar do in the fight against climate change, compared to one additional dollar on other causes? The honest answer is that I don't know. But neither do others, I would argue. I think these things are very difficult to quantify. How much have the dollars spent on avoiding nuclear catastrophe aided against the nuclear danger we are now facing in Russia/Ukraine? I have no idea. How much will the dollars spent on AI safety help down the road? I don't think anybody knows. 

If I am to make a qualified guess, it is that the most cost-effective money to spend on climate change right now is to pour money into funding green activism, grass roots movements and civil resistance. If you look at the political right in the US, a major factor in their success has been various grassroots groups - NRA, Christian churches, pro life centers etc, Tea Party, etc - which have been heavily funded. There is no comparable funding for green grassroots movements. Additional millions here will probably be of great benefit down the road. I doubt that this is the direction Jeff Bezos will take in his funding, I was a benevolent super rich funder who was concerned with climate change, my first instinct right now would be to fund green activists and social groups.

This is not strongly related to the main topic of your post, though :)

Answer by oivavoiNov 15, 202210-3

This is interesting. Hopefully there are indeed changes happening within EA, not only concerning voting patterns but also real epistemic and epistemological changes. Miller's comment, for example, seems to me like an excellent example of an intellectual over-confidence which has been all too common in EA circles - that reasoning from first principles can lead to better conclusions than painstakingly following empirical evidence or established best-practices in relevant knowledge communities. We can for example be very certain by now that climate change is not only "moderately severe", but an extremely severe challenge. The claim that it is "politically intractable" is not, AFAIK, based on empirical evidence - there are clear differences between countries and polities concerning climate policies and their effectiveness. The claim that it is "far from neglected" is also not in line with survey evidence and qualitative research on societal elites, which shows that it's quite often far down on the priority list for many people. There are therefore good reasons to believe that the position which is here referred to as a truism within EA circles is mistaken. 

And Bezos is no idiot. Ok, he's doing lots of bad things in his business practice. But he is no idiot, and we can have fairly high confidence that he has discussed his future funding with very smart people. Still, some EA people still assume that they just know better, and are in a position to provide advice to Bezos on what to do. This is even more questionable after the complete disaster of FTX, where very important EA leaders displayed spectacular failures of judgment.

So the assumption that EAs are now in a position to weigh in on optimal allocation of funding for Bezos, away from climate change, strikes me as odd and not intellectually justified. 

So my hope is that new voting patterns in this case indeed reflect an intellectual reorientation among some EAs, hopefully in the direction of more intellectual humility.


Thanks, that's great to hear. I definitely stand corrected on the vaccine issue then!

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