Geoengineering Research

post by Holden Karnofsky (HoldenKarnofsky) · 2013-10-16T16:07:52.800Z · EA · GW · 1 comments

This is a link post for https://www.openphilanthropy.org/blog/geoengineering-research

Contents

  Why did we investigate geoengineering?
  What have we learned?
  Pros and cons of geoengineering research as a philanthropic cause
    Positive:
    Negative:
  Why are we pausing our investigation here?
  What would it look like to do a deeper investigation?
  What is a reasonable goal for a medium-depth investigation?
None
1 comment

Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

We’ve completed a medium-depth writeup on geoengineering research - large-scale interventions in the climate to attempt to reduce climate change or its impacts - focusing on research around efforts to artificially cool the planet. This writeup outlines the basic case for why geoengineering research might be a promising cause for philanthropy, as well as listing all of the funded projects we know of in a spreadsheet. It is a medium-depth, rather than shallow-depth, investigation, in that it involved many conversations and represents our attempt to speak to a broad, representative set of relevant people (rather than the 1-3 conversations that typically constitute a shallow-depth investigation). With that said, it leaves many questions unanswered, and leaves us a fair distance from having a confident view on the value of philanthropic investment in geoengineering.

In this post, we first summarize why we’ve looked into geoengineering, what we’ve learned about it, and what we see as the pros and cons of geoengineering as a philanthropic cause. We then address a series of meta-questions: why are we pausing our investigation here? What would it look like to do a deeper investigation? What is a reasonable goal for a medium-depth investigation? Making progress on these sorts of questions is a key goal of our current ongoing research, which is why we’ve gone ahead with some medium-depth investigations of causes that we’ve had only very preliminary reasons to be interested in.

Why did we investigate geoengineering?

We’ve previously completed a shallow investigation of climate change, which concluded that (a) there is a substantial amount of giving around climate change mitigation; (b) one of the most concerning aspects of climate change is the uncertainty around forecasts of potential effects, which cannot rule out the possibility that climate change could be far more catastrophic than mainstream projections anticipate.

At the same time, we had read about the possibility of geoengineering: a broad term for large-scale efforts to modify the climate, which (a) was alleged to be overlooked by traditional environmental funders and nonprofits; (b) could be extremely risky but could also conceivably be our best option if facing a far-worse-than-anticipated catastrophe. As of the time when we completed our shallow investigation of climate change, geoengineering research was the most promising-seeming aspect of climate change philanthropy we had identified, based on the combination of having little attention from philanthropists and of having potentially crucial importance in the worst case. Because of this, and because climate change is one of the causes most widely held to be of paramount importance, we decided to put some further time into investigating geoengineering research as a philanthropic cause.

After a number of conversations with experts in the field, and attending a conference devoted to geoengineering research, we feel that our initial narrative of limited funding and potentially large importance continues to hold up. However, there are many questions that we would like to answer before committing funding to the field, and we expect that they will be fairly difficult and time-consuming to answer. We accordingly decided to pause and write up our current views.

What have we learned?

Details are at our writeup. In a nutshell:

Pros and cons of geoengineering research as a philanthropic cause

We see major reasons to be positive on the value of geoengineering as a philanthropic cause, and major reasons to be negative.

Positive:

Negative:

Why are we pausing our investigation here?

The general principle we’re trying to follow with investigations is, “Pause an investigation when the effort required to significantly improve our understanding is significantly beyond the effort we’ve put in so far.” For our shallow investigations, we generally talk to 1-3 people; for medium-depth investigation, we generally try to talk to enough people to create a preliminary landscape of the cause. In the case of geoengineering, the cost of achieving the latter relative to the former seemed relatively small, so we went ahead. But from here, substantially improving our understanding would likely have to mean gaining a deep understanding of the scientific and/or political issues, which could take months or even years, and the returns to a few more conversations seem unlikely to be high.

What would it look like to do a deeper investigation?

It seems to us that a funder in this area would have to make difficult judgment calls about controversial questions, such as whether the benefits of more discussion around geoengineering outweigh the costs. This is the sort of endeavor that we feel is likely to require true subject-matter expertise, and for that reason the next step in investigating geoengineering would likely to be to seek out a full-time employee to specialize in it, or to hire someone who already has considerable expertise. This is consistent with our strategy, described earlier this year, of focusing our efforts on finding causes to recommend developing philanthropic capacity in, rather than on finding projects to recommend funding directly.

We are currently experimenting with working with a consultant (who has a substantial relevant background) to make more progress on this cause.

What is a reasonable goal for a medium-depth investigation?

We’ve been eager to move forward with investigations of causes that seem unusually promising to us, even if they seem promising for highly intuitive and not very thoroughly researched reasons. This is because we are seeking to learn about what to expect from an investigation as much as we’re seeking to learn about the causes themselves.

In this case, we feel that coming to a bottom line on whether and how a philanthropist could accomplish good by supporting geoengineering-related activities would take a great deal more investigation - so much so that it likely requires at least one dedicated full-time person over an extended period of time. In other words, we don’t feel that a medium-depth investigation has been sufficient to identify or assess specific giving opportunities.

However, we think the medium-depth investigation has given us important information that will be useful in determining the value of a deeper (full-time-person) investigation. We’ve established a more confident view that geoengineering is in some sense a “neglected” area of philanthropy; we’ve established that funding it would likely require a “field building” type effort rather than simply supporting existing organizations that are already ready to scale; we’ve established that there is controversy within the field and that an investigation would have to be thorough and careful in order to reach a well-grounded bottom line on whether and how to get involved.

Armed with this level of information about many causes, a funder would be able to make much more informed decisions about which causes to make commitments to (whether in the form of hiring people to investigate them more deeply, or in the form of funding existing organizations, or both). This doesn’t mean that there would be any particular formula for making provably, or quantifiably, optimal decisions, but it does mean that such decisions would likely be more rational than the way most funders choose causes. That’s the goal of strategic cause selection.

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comment by ben.smith · 2022-01-17T21:51:05.596Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Has there been any advancement on Open Phil's thinking about Geoengineering in the 8 years since this report?