Climate change questions for Johannes Ackva and John Halstead

post by lukefreeman · 2021-06-04T01:41:07.724Z · EA · GW · 28 comments

This is a question post.

This weekend [EA · GW] we are celebrating World Environment Day by exploring how big the risks posed by climate change are and how we might best mitigate these risks.

Please share the questions you have for two esteemed researchers in this field, Johannes Ackva and John Halstead.


answer by freedomandutility · 2021-06-04T14:02:54.490Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

How do they think funding the development of alternative proteins might compare to donations to the Clean Air Task Force?

answer by JoanMM · 2021-06-04T06:46:51.705Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I often get asked from people outside the EA community what is the best place to make a donation to fight climate change.
When I mention the options proposed by Founders Pledge (CATF, Carbon180), they are almost always put off and end up not donating at all. It seems to me like for them the concept of donating to policy advocacy or technology innovation is counterintuitive. Note that these people are usually not willing to invest hours reading about or listening to all the arguments that FP offers.

For those cases, I miss being able to confidently give an alternative that:

  • might be not as effective as those mentioned above, 
  • but it is still at least an order of magnitude more effective than the usual donation 
  • and it is kind of sexier/more understandable (meaning probably nature-based or supporting specific actions).

I lately mention Eden Reforestation Projects based on this post [EA · GW], but I am not sure how reliable that is study.

I guess I could sum-up my recommendation strategy as follows:
1. Give to the organisations recommended by Founders Pledge
2. Try to convince them of doing so, explaining why it is so effective
3. Give to an alternative organisation that is still pretty effective and easy to understand

What are your thoughts about this situation?
Is there any organisation that could reliably be recommended as second-best and is at the same time easily understandable for non-EAs?

comment by BrianTan · 2021-06-04T09:42:26.527Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Why do they find policy advocacy or technology innovation counterintuitive or off-putting?

Replies from: JoanMM
comment by JoanMM · 2021-06-04T15:17:20.514Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Some of the reasons I heard are:
* it is difficult to understand that donating for technology innovation is really a donation, it feels more like investing in companies. 
* policy advocacy sounds like lobbying
* it is kind of abstract if one compares it to other donations more widely known like planting trees; or donating medicines, vaccines or books to improve the health of the poorest.
* the impact of the donation is uncertain and based on estimations only.
* such a donation does not give this inner glow/good feeling that they expect to get when making a donation

comment by henrith · 2021-06-04T07:33:19.316Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the good question, I hope they raise the topic at the event! 

It might not be completely satisfactory to what you're looking for, but from what I hear it seems like the work at seems to have exactly those people in mind by giving more recommendations than just policy.

I have anecdotal evidence from Swedish donors being happier with BURN Manufacturing as an evidence backed climate intervention with positive effects on the local community, than an option more effective on a co2e/$ basis.

One question we might still want to ask ourselves, if Clean Air Task Force are >10x as effective as the more accessible choice – would it perhaps be worth losing 9 in 10 potential donors and still have a larger effect? Personally I would imagine a second best option can have a gateway effect to be more receptible to evidence based giving, and make this a priority in future donations.

Replies from: JoanMM, jackva,
comment by JoanMM · 2021-06-04T09:09:22.637Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the input, henrith.

This anecdotal evidence from Sweden that you mentioned is what I also noticed when talking to people interested in climate change, but not into the EA-movement.

Regarding Giving Green, there was a very interesting discussion in the forum [EA · GW].

It seems like the differentials between BURN and CATF are more than 10x and could be even 100x, if CATF eventually managed to have an impact of $0.20/ton. This does not seem unrealistic considering that the estimations of $1/ton are conservative.

The study I referenced about Eden Reforestation mentioned an estimated impact of $0.36/ton. This would actually be in the same order of magnitude as the conservative estimates for the most effective organisation. This is why I mentioned that organisation as a potential alternative.

An additional point to consider is that it might not be the same:
 * making a personal recommendation to someone that might probably not donate otherwise.
* recommending it on a website. 

If an organisation is recommended on a website, there is the risk that people that would otherwise donate to the most effective organisations will change their donation to those less effective ones, having a relative negative impact. If I remember well, this was one of the arguments Johannes used, which I found fair enough, especially if we are talking about orders of magnitude of difference.

Looking forward to hearing more thoughts on this topic :)

Replies from: henrith
comment by henrith · 2021-06-05T21:07:31.867Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I was in a bit of a rush and should have looked at your link before giving too quick an answer – in that case I would have understood what you had already seen and considered. My bad!

comment by jackva · 2021-06-04T07:43:46.471Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I am happy to address this tomorrow!

It's a trade-off, for sure, but I tend to believe the differentials are much larger than 10x because of the various independent impact multipliers from advocacy  * neglectedness * innovation.

comment by KW ( · 2021-06-06T16:43:02.863Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Where can I find the CO2e/$ estimate for each of these leading organizations (CATF, Carbon180,...etc)? Thanks.

answer by JoanMM · 2021-06-04T06:16:41.710Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Advanced nuclear seems to be a technological solution where many pose a lot of hope. When is it estimated that it could be a mature enough to be implemented at large scale? 

comment by · 2021-06-05T10:23:58.953Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Additionally to this: What is the best way to convince green and left political parties (EU view), that have in many cases started and championed anti-nuclear-sentiments, that they should drop their old convictions; and that this is not a betrayal of their ideology?

Edit: And in another extension, their/the electorate that is also to a big part negatively impressed by it?

Replies from: jackva
comment by jackva · 2021-06-06T14:47:01.572Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Many US-based advanced nuclear companies aim for first commercial plants by end of this decade, here's an overview over timelines: 

I am not particularly optimistic about nuclear in much of Western Europe (with the possible exception of UK, Netherlands and France) because of the strong anti-nuclear sentiments you mention. 

But a more serious climate conversation (how to actually reach targets) could also lead to changes here. That said, my main theory of change for advanced nuclear is advanced nuclear innovation in a couple of key jurisdictions (US, maybe UK & Canada, Korea, China, Russia) and then global adoption, particularly in emerging economies where emissions are raising and the costs of air pollution are felt very acutely. 

Europe is fairly optional in this story (though, of course, things get easier when Europe is less anti-nuclear).

answer by JamesOz · 2021-06-05T21:12:07.598Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For John if he checks this: You said that you disagreed with people who said climate change isn't neglected - what are your reasons for that?

comment by Halstead · 2021-06-06T16:32:09.389Z · EA(p) · GW(p)


I agree that climate change is not neglected but I view that as a bit of a weak steer when deciding whether to work on it, for reasons I outline here [EA · GW]. Neglectedness is one determinant of how cost-effective it is to work on a problem, but there are many others. Taking the example of AI safety - it is more neglected than climate change, but I have almost no idea how to make progress on this problem, whereas with climate change there is quite a clear path to making a difference. It also might be true that certain solutions within climate are less neglected than others, e.g. CCS and nuclear are neglected. 

I think to make cause prioritisation decisions when the stakes are high, we actually need to sit down and figure out directly which cause is more cost-effective to work on. 

Replies from: JamesOz
comment by JamesOz · 2021-06-06T22:05:20.729Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great - thanks for clarifying (and for the great talk)! For what it's worth, I definitely agree that whilst climate might not be neglected, the urgency, scale and tractability (in some cases) of the issue makes it a reasonable problem to work on. I asked the question above because I thought you specifically said that you didn't agree with people who said climate wasn't neglected and I assumed you meant you thought that climate was neglected in some sense.

answer by Matt_Sharp · 2021-06-04T11:40:04.327Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Clean Air Task Force appear to take the position that, while renewables can dominate the production of electricity over the coming decades, we need some 'firm' clean energy to fill-in during weeks/months of low sun and wind. If we don't do this, they argue that we will need vastly more renewables, which will increase the cost and lead to issues around land use, and ultimately put at risk achieving zero carbon.

  1. What do Johannes and John think are the strongest arguments against this line of reasoning? Or put differently, what do they think are the strongest arguments that we could indeed rely on renewables?
  2. What are their thoughts on (yet-to-be-developed) long-duration storage technologies? How much do they think they can contribute?
  3. If we accept CATF's line of reasoning, which firm clean energy approaches seem best? i.e. considering technical challenges around development as well as broader risks (political, local opposition, safety and health issues), should we prioritise new nuclear, gas with carbon capture and storage...or something else?
comment by jackva · 2021-06-06T15:02:08.509Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My position is roughly the following:

1. I agree with this line of reasoning in the way that CATF presents it, i.e. that while there is a possibility that intermittent renewables alone could be sufficient, this is not particularly like and, crucially, this is not where most climate risk is that we should hedge against.

Of course there is (and CATF acknowledges this) a future where intermittent renewables solve almost the entire decarbonization challenge, but this requires a lot of things to go right including (1) continued cost reductions, (2) solving the challenge of seasonal storage, (3) massive transmission infrastructure, (4) very cheap conversion technologies to zero-carbon fuels (related to 2) for storage, transport applications and industrial applications, etc., (5) a world where many regions with poor renewable resources are happy to remain / become more energy-dependent,  (6) a re-organization of the global energy market that finds a way to provide revenue to zero-marginal-cost resources, etc.

This is probably not impossible, but it does not seem very likely. In the same way that we are prioritizing AGI-safety interventions that do not assume that AGI is inherently safe, I don't think we should assume this to all work out when thinking about high-impact philanthropic interventions. Indeed, because damage is concentrated in world where this does not work out, we should probably focus on stuff that works in those futures.

2. Storage would solve some of this, in particular if it is chemical storage (rather than electric) because zero-carbon fuels can also be used to create heat for residential and industrial applications, to power heavy-duty transport, to store energy over seasons, etc.  But it needs to get really cheap if we only rely on intermittent renewables (because the storage/conversion tech would not work 24/7, i.e. not be optimally economical). 

It doesn't solve potential problems around land use and potential energy, of course.

3. I would say advanced nuclear & super-hot-rock geothermal are tied for first position from an environmental and public health perspective, gas with carbon capture would be much better than coal with carbon capture (15x less air pollution), comparing this with large-scale hydro or large-scale bio-energy would be tricky and I am a bit out of my depth here. But neither of those second-best options is really great.


Replies from: Matt_Sharp
comment by Matt_Sharp · 2021-06-07T15:59:29.907Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you! This is helpful - I'm currently looking at CATF as part of my work with SoGive. The case CATF makes seems sensible and evidence-based, but given my relative lack of expertise in this area it's hard to know how they selective they are being in terms of the evidence they present. So it's useful to have an outside view.

answer by JamesOz · 2021-06-05T21:12:56.945Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If we’re expecting low-coordination futures, does that mean that funding advocacy work for policy leadership (e.g. 2008 Climate Change Act in the UK) is less impactful as countries are now less likely to copy one another and we should focus predominately on innovated-focused policy work?

comment by jackva · 2021-06-05T21:25:39.083Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is one consideration among many, but if low-coordination futures are (a) a significant part of the probability mass (b) and are sufficiently bad (both of which seem plausible) this can be an important consideration in favor of innovation / solutions that work when shit hits the fan.

At FP, we're trying to get a better handle on the quantitative import of this consideration and others to be able to make more informed statements about how the balance shakes out (e.g. hypothetically, what if policy leadership was really neglected and super high leverage?) 

That said, policy leadership could also be really good if impactful policy indeed cascades. The main barrier I see to this right now is finding policies that are cascading and are effective in a variety of settings. E.g. carbon pricing policies are arguably cascading, but implemented at such weak levels that they are relatively inconsequential with regards to global emissions. And something like the Climate Change Act, a binding commitment to an emissions trajectory, seems hard to pull off in a developing/emerging economy.


answer by KW ( · 2021-06-06T03:30:25.361Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What are your book recommendations for layman to learn about Climate Change and understand some of the effective causes that can make a difference for Climate Change? Thanks.

comment by jackva · 2021-06-06T15:06:21.643Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Bill Gates' How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a pretty good introduction to the challenge, very accessible and framing the challenge of climate change in the wider context of  a developing world with rising energy needs (something the debate too often forgets).

Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air  is somewhat dated now, but a classic and available freely on the internet (

The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success by Mark Jaccard is also good, although it does not give a full overview in the way the other books mentioned here do.

Replies from: Halstead
comment by Halstead · 2021-06-06T16:37:50.698Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Victor and Cullenward - Making Climate Policy Work  is good.

On the science side, for an overview, I would recommend just reading the summary for policymakers or technical summary of the IPCC 2013 Physical science basis report. 

For long-termist/ex-risk takes the following are good

King et al Climate Change a Risk Assessment

Hansen et al, Climate Sensitivity, sea level and atmospheric CO2

Clark et al, Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change

answer by JamesOz · 2021-06-04T18:37:00.304Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What are the most promising career pathways or current opportunities for early-career people interested in mitigating risks posed by climate change? 

comment by JamesOz · 2021-06-04T18:38:37.065Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My own thoughts: I have a bias against doing a PhD in climate science (which is generally recommended) and going into research. This is because that by the time you're doing great research and are well-respected (5-10 years), you've lost a lot of time in terms of carbon lock-in and you could've have potentially done some great advocacy work in the mean-time or supported clean-tech work etc.

Replies from: jackva
comment by jackva · 2021-06-05T21:06:26.188Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with that answer, I think now is not the time on climate to do something that takes 10 years to have significant effects. Apart from that, it seems unlikely that the marginal climate scientist will have much impact on climate progress.


answer by freedomandutility · 2021-06-04T14:07:38.447Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Some people argue that we not only need to prevent further greenhouse gas emissions, but that it should also be a priority to reduce the current amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

Do they share this position, and if so, do they think that it could be more effective to fund the development of greenhouse gas absorbing technologies (which could potentially reduce the current amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) than to fund initiatives to reduce further GHG emissions, which do not share this potential.

comment by jackva · 2021-06-05T21:12:26.850Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I (and I think we?) very much agree with that -- that's why we (FP) are supporting Carbon180 as the key advocacy org focused on this solution:


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