Updated Climate Change Problem Profile

post by mchr3k · 2019-10-07T15:47:24.173Z · score: 25 (23 votes) · EA · GW · 10 comments

Contents

  Feedback on current Climate Change problem profile
    Scoring - Neglectedness - Methodology
    Scoring - Solvability - Under-scored
    Out of Date Sources
    Focus on Extreme Risks
    Reasons not to work on it - Somewhat crowded
    Reasons not to work on it - Difficult to make progress
  Proposed new Climate Change problem profile
    Summary
    What is this problem and how much does it matter?
    What is our analysis based on?
    What is this problem and what are the arguments for working on it?
    What are the major arguments against working on it?
    Key judgement calls you need to make
    What can you do about this problem?
    What approaches exist for solving this problem?
    What skill sets and resources are most needed?
    Who is already working on this problem?
    What can you concretely do to help?
    Learn more
None
10 comments

In this post I have detailed several points of feedback about the current 80,000 Hours Climate Change problem profile (published in April 2016) which I have used as motivation to draft an updated problem profile. I propose that the revised total score for Climate Change should be 26, upgrading its status to being a “Recommended” cause.

I look forward to receiving feedback on any part of this.

Related: In a recent AMA, Will MacAskill was asked "Do you think climate change is neglected within EA?" [EA · GW]. This topic was also previously discussed in a thread titled "Does climate change deserve more attention within EA? [EA · GW]" back in April 2019 on this forum.

Feedback on current Climate Change problem profile

Scoring - Neglectedness - Methodology

The existing profile assigns a neglectedness score of 2 out of 12 with the comment:

“The resources dedicated to preventing climate change globally, including both inside and outside all governments, is probably $100-1,000 billion per year. However, we are downgrading that to an effective $10-100 billion per year, because much of this spending i) would have happened for other reasons, ii) is not focused on the extreme risks of climate change, or iii) is poorly allocated.”

The Neglectedness scoring guideline advises that any cause with $10 billion of funding a year is 2 out of 12 neglected.

I disagree with this approach to scoring neglectedness for two reasons. Firstly, this approach will undervalue capital intensive causes where the total required investment is so large that $10 billion/year may still represent underfunding. A better model would be one which examined the total funding required to solve the problem compared to the current level of funding. For the example of climate change, the latest UN press release (2019-10-23) states that nations need to increase their targets fivefold to meet the goal of limiting warming to 1.5C. This implies that there is still plenty of scope for further action – this is not an area which seems likely to be suffering from diminishing returns yet. Secondly, the current scoring approach favours causes where a single extra person working on the area will have a big total impact. This is an important lens to use to consider causes, but fails in cases where a cause with many people already working on it can still usefully use many more.

Scoring - Solvability - Under-scored

The existing profile assigns a solvability score of 4 out of 8 with the comment:

“Coordination is difficult due to the free-rider problem. However some options such as efficiency are straightforward.”

The Solvability scoring guideline advises that a score of 4 means that doubling direct investment would solve 1% of the problem.

The Drawdown Project lists 80 solutions for avoiding CO2 emissions in the period 2020-2050. Together, these are costed to $29.6T to mitigate 1034 GT CO2. 37 GT were emitted in 2018 (source), so assuming flat emissions in the period 2020-2050, we would expect 1110 GT CO2 to be emitted. So the solutions described in Project Drawdown are the correct order of magnitude to avoid/mitigate all of these emissions. The Climate Policy Initiative found that in the period 2015-16 there was $463B/year of climate investment. Assuming flat investment in the period 2020-2050 gives $13.9T. So a doubling of investment would be the right order of magnitude to entirely pay for the solutions listed by the Drawdown Project. This back of the envelope calculation has many flaws but suggests to me that the current solvability score is too low – a doubling of investment would solve 10-100% of the problem. Being conservative, that would suggest increasing the solvability score from 4 (1%) to 6 (10%).

Out of Date Sources

The existing profile states that it is mostly based on the “Open Philanthropy Project’s reports on anthropogenic climate change, extreme risks from climate change and geoengineering research”. These sources appear to have been primarily written based on the IPCC AR4, published in 2007. The extreme risks page also mentions IPCC AR5, published in 2014.

This whole cause profile should be written with reference to IPCC AR5 along with the more recent IPCC SR15 published in 2018. SR15 is a particularly important source as it contains the most up to date carbon budget which was 420 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide for a 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. In 2018 the world emitted 37 giga tonnes of carbon dioxide. So if emissions continue at this rate, we will have spent our remaining carbon budget in less than 12 years, starting in 2018.

Focus on Extreme Risks

The existing profile focuses on what it terms “extreme risks” from climate change but doesn’t justify why the risks at lower temperatures are not also very concerning.

“there appears to be an uncomfortable probability — small, but non-negligible — of seriously bad outcomes resulting from unmitigated greenhouse emissions. We call these the extreme risks from climate change.”

This seems at odds with the current forecasts for expected levels of warming and what the impacts will be from this warming.

The Climate Action Tracker tracks expected warming given current national commitments to reduce emissions. Their latest analysis in September 2019 forecasts 2.9C (2.3C - 3.7C) of warming if current pledges and targets are met. However, there is a “25% chance [of exceeding 4°C by the end of the century] based on the higher end of the current policies scenario”.

The detailed impacts of such large amounts of global warming are currently poorly understood. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office commissioned a 2015 risk assessment on the topic of climate change. It’s relevant to quote a section of this report here.

--- (Begin quote from 2015 risk assessment)

The detailed chapters of the same report [AR5] suggest that the impacts corresponding to high degrees of temperature increase are not only relatively unknown, but also relatively unstudied. This is illustrated by the following quotes:

A simple conclusion is that we need to know more about the impacts associated with higher degrees of temperature increase. But in many cases this is difficult. For example, it may be close to impossible to say anything about the changes that could take place in complex dynamic systems, such as ecosystems or atmospheric circulation patterns, as a result of very large changes very far into the future.

--- (End quote from 2015 risk assessment)

In 2018, the IPCC SR15 report examined the impact of 1.5C vs 2.0C of temperature increase. This report makes it clear that even the difference between 1.5C and 2.0C of warming is sufficient to impact hundreds of millions of people.

In addition to this, it’s important to recognise that there remains a large amount of uncertainty about when certain climate tipping points (e.g. melting arctic ice, melting permafrost) may be activated and speed up the resulting warming. This possibility is not accounted for in the estimates produced by the Climate Action Tracker.

So in summary, we are currently on course to experience 2.9C (2.3C - 3.7C) of warming by 2100 with a 25% chance of exceeding 4°C. We know that the impacts of 2.0C vs 1.5C is already very large. Impacts at higher temperatures will be even higher (non-linearly), and poorly understood tipping points mean we may reach these higher temperatures even sooner than expected. Therefore this profile should not just focus on the extreme risks of climate change - even the forecast level of warming takes us into very dangerous territory.

Reasons not to work on it - Somewhat crowded

The existing profile says the following:

“Although only a small amount of this effort focuses on the extreme risks from climate change, reductions in greenhouse emissions disproportionately reduce the risk of extreme temperature increases. Therefore most of the existing funding directed at climate change is going to a quite reasonable strategy for working on the extreme risks from climate change and you might think that this problem is already receiving quite a lot of resources.”

This fails to consider whether the current levels of resourcing are enough to meet the target of limiting warming to 1.5C. The Climate Action Tracker forecasts 2.9C (2.3C - 3.7C) of warming if current pledges and targets are met - hence more action is clearly needed.

Reasons not to work on it - Difficult to make progress

The existing profile says the following:

“Given these difficulties, you might expect efforts to reduce climate change to have little payoff. Consistent with that, many countries have failed to meet their stated commitments to reduce carbon emissions.”

This is too simplistic. The Drawdown Project has examined 80 scalable solutions for reducing emissions, many of which are expected to be profitable to deploy. Electricity from wind/solar is now cheaper than from coal. There are huge opportunities to make very direct impacts on reducing/mitigating emissions – they need more investment and more people working on them.

Proposed new Climate Change problem profile

Title: Climate Change [without the “(extreme risks)” suffix]

Summary

Greenhouse emissions are likely to lead to global temperature increases of 2.3ºC-3.7ºC by 2100 with a 25% chance of exceeding 4°C based on current national policies. Warming of greater than 4C takes the world into territory where the impacts on humanity are very difficult to forecast but which are likely to be catastrophic and mutually reinforcing. Poorly understood climate tipping points which are not included in current forecasts may cause us to reach these temperatures decades sooner than expected.

You are more likely to think that extreme climate change is among the most pressing global problems if you think that we have obligations to people who do not yet exist and that there is great value in ensuring that human civilization continues in the long term.

There are many options for working on this problem including reducing greenhouse emissions through careers in politics, think-tanks or journalism, work on developing lower emissions technologies as an engineer or scientist, and work to deploy lower emissions solutions by working as an entrepreneur or for a company which is already working in this area.

This is one of many profiles we've written to help people find the most pressing problems they can solve with their careers. Learn more about how we compare different problems, see how we try to score them numerically, and see how this problem compares to the others we've considered so far.

What is this problem and how much does it matter?

What is our analysis based on?

We drew on the Open Philanthropy Project’s reports on anthropogenic climate change, extreme risks from climate change and geoengineering research which are primarily based on the 2007 IPCC AR4. This profile has been subsequently updated with reference to the 2014 IPCC AR5 and 2018 IPCC SR15 reports along with Project Drawdown.

What is this problem and what are the arguments for working on it?

Based on currently announced national commitments, greenhouse emissions are likely to lead to global temperature increases of 2.3ºC-3.7ºC by 2100 with a 25% chance of exceeding 4°C based on current national policies.

Warming of greater than 2C will result in significant humanitarian harms to hundreds of millions of people, including more severe weather, food crises, and the spread of infectious diseases, which would disproportionately affect the world’s worst off. Warming of greater than 4C takes the world into territory where the impacts on humanity are very difficult to forecast but which are likely to be catastrophic and mutually reinforcing. Hundreds of millions of people may be forced to migrate, while drought and famine also affect similar numbers of people. This may result in conflict and ultimately the failure of some nation states. Poorly understood climate tipping points which are not included in current forecasts may cause us to reach these temperatures decades sooner than expected.

This warming is happening at a time when a very large number of animal species are being pushed to extinction. We are now in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event. The UN 2019 Global Environment Outlook report states that “A major species extinction event, compromising planetary integrity and Earth’s capacity to meet human needs, is unfolding.” This is being caused by more than climate change. However, a rapidly changing climate will wipe out many species which are already vulnerable.

To minimize climate change, world greenhouse gas emissions must rapidly drop to zero. IPCC SR15 stated that limiting warming to 1.5C requires a 45% reduction in CO2 by 2030 and net-zero by 2050. The remaining carbon budget for a 66% probability of limiting warming to 1.5C is 420 GtCO2. Annual global emissions of 37 GtCO2 in 2018 gives fewer than 12 years of current emissions before we are likely committed to 1.5C of warming. Hence, greater action on this problem is extremely urgent.

The Drawdown Project examined 80 different solutions which could be deployed. Taken together, these solutions chart a course to a world which would have net-negative emissions around 2050. There is no silver bullet. All of these solutions, and more, need to be rolled out as quickly as possible at global scale. This means that there is a huge amount of work which needs to be done to deliver all of this - it seems unlikely that we are anywhere near diminishing returns on the number of people working on this area and the amount of investment.

The changes required to deal with climate change are massively decentralised as they impact the way that all governments, cities, companies, and communities operate. This means that it is relatively easy to end up in a position within an organisation which has some direct control over how quickly that organisation will reduce their emissions.

What are the major arguments against working on it?

This area receives a lot of attention already from governments, think tanks, international organisations (such as the United Nations), companies, and non-profits. Climate Change has been an established problem for for over 30 years, with the IPCC being formed in 1988 and releasing the first Assessment Report in 1990. International cooperation since then has resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Climate Policy Initiative found that $463 billion/year was spent on climate action in 2015/16. There is also a long history of grassroots activism about climate change from organisations such as 350.org (2007), People’s Climate Movement (2014), The Climate Mobilisation (2014), Sunrise Movement (2017), School Strike for Climate (2018), and Extinction Rebellion (2018). Despite all of this, global emissions continue to rise. Given the broad scope of the problem and the large surface area of the required solutions, it is likely to be difficult to have any certainty about whether any specific work on the problem is the most effective work which you could be doing on the problem.

The international dimension creates a free-rider problem between countries – it is in each country’s interest to bear less of the costs of climate change mitigation, which makes international coordination on policies difficult. In particular, if you are doing work in one country to reduce emissions, this work may be more than offset by actions taken in other countries.

Key judgement calls you need to make

You are more likely to think that this is among the most pressing global problems, if:

What can you do about this problem?

What approaches exist for solving this problem?

World greenhouse gas emissions must rapidly drop to zero. There are several dimensions to this.

What skill sets and resources are most needed?

Who is already working on this problem?

Another source of information about which organisations are working in this area is to review the announcements made at climate summits e.g. the September 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.

What can you concretely do to help?

Learn more

10 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by StevenKaas · 2019-10-08T00:42:19.148Z · score: 22 (11 votes) · EA · GW

A piece such as this should engage with the direct cost/benefit calculations that have been done by economists and EAs (e.g. Giving What We Can), which make it seem hard to argue that climate change is competitive with global health as a cause area.

How much it would take to stay under a mostly arbitrary probability of a mostly arbitrary level of temperature change is a less relevant statistic than how much future temperatures would change in response to reduced emissions.


comment by mchr3k · 2019-10-09T10:17:38.237Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I’ll definitely take a look at the cost effectiveness calculations and see if I can work references to these into my draft. In particular, I’m interested to find out what assumptions they are based on.

The other blog post you shared looks to me to have a key flaw - it models emissions as having a sharp spike where they go from growing quickly to declining quickly. This seems very unlikely to me - and the smoother curve as growth slows and turns into decline implies a greater area under the curve and hence a much greater final impact of delay.

comment by Kit · 2019-10-08T14:13:49.736Z · score: 9 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for this. I found it interesting to think about. Here are my main comments.

Mainline and extreme risks

I think it would be better to analyse mainline risks and extreme risks separately.

  • Depending on whether or not you put substantial weight on future people, one type of risks may be much more important than the other. The extreme risks appear to pose a much larger existential threat than mainline risks, so if you value future generations the extreme risks may be much more important to focus on. The opposite may be true for people who apply high pure time discounting. (Relatedly, on most worldviews, the 'scale' factor will be materially different between the two.)
  • The ideal responses to mainline and extreme risks appear to be different. (Relatedly, the 'solvability' of those responses may differ, as might the amount of resources that are already committed to the relevant kinds of responses.)
  • The methodologies which are useful are different. Efforts to understand and act on mainline risks are amenable to standard economic approaches, while extreme risk analysis requires substantive judgements about empirical and model uncertainty.

Overall, putting the two together seems to make the analysis less clear, not more.

More expensive things are worse

Firstly, this approach will undervalue capital intensive causes where the total required investment is so large that $10 billion/year may still represent underfunding. A better model would be one which examined the total funding required to solve the problem compared to the current level of funding.

The framework 80k uses is designed to add up to a cost-effectiveness heuristic. Adjusting this by giving more expensive things higher neglectedness scores in effect takes the 'cost' out of the 'cost-effectiveness analysis'. Using a completely different framework would be fine, but making this adjustment alone causes one to depart from any notion of good done per effort put in.

If I put more time into this, I would focus on the solvability part

In your initial comments on solvability, you give a concrete set of interventions which you say would cost approximately a certain amount and achieve approximately a certain amount. If someone were to analyse these in detail, this could be the basis for a cost-effectiveness calculation. Of course, I don't know enough to say whether the Project Drawdown analysis you reference is accurate. Other people looking into this might want to focus on that since it seems crucial to the bottom line.

Qualified 'need's

When you just say 'we need to do Y', this seems to be sort of assuming the conclusion, adding little to my understanding of which actions produce the most impact. For example:

All of these solutions, and more, need to be rolled out as quickly as possible at global scale.

I found it much more helpful when you said 'if we want to achieve X, we need to do Y', improving my understanding of what actions lead to what effects. For example:

the latest UN press release (2019-10-23) states that nations need to increase their targets fivefold to meet the goal of limiting warming to 1.5C.

This part of my comment might sound like a nitpick, but I think attention to this kind of thing can make for better analysis and better communication.

All personal views only, of course.

comment by mchr3k · 2019-10-09T10:28:42.415Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

The ideal responses to mainline and extreme risks appear to be different.

I’m curious to know what you think the difference is. Both problems require greenhouse gas emissions to be halted.

Adjusting this by giving more expensive things higher neglectedness scores in effect takes the 'cost' out of the 'cost-effectiveness analysis'.

The neglectedness guidelines focus on the level of existing funding. I argue that this is an insufficient view - that if you have two problems who require $100 or $200 of total funding to solve completely, if they both have $50 of funding today, they are not equally neglected. The denominator matters - the $200 problem is much further from being solved.

Using a completely different framework would be fine, but making this adjustment alone causes one to depart from any notion of good done per effort put in.

Perhaps I’m proposing a slightly different framework - but it’s definitely not one divorced from the notion of caring about the good done per effort put in. I just don’t believe that climate change is really at saturation point for the level of effort.

Qualified 'need's

Fair point about use of language. I’ll try and address this in a future edit.

comment by Kit · 2019-10-09T11:43:42.288Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW
I’m curious to know what you think the difference is. Both problems require greenhouse gas emissions to be halted.

I agree that both mainline and extreme scenarios are helped by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but there are other things one can do about climate change, and the most effective actions might turn out to be things which are specific to either mainline or extreme risks. To take examples from that link:

  • Developing drought-resistant crops could mitigate some of the worst effects of mainline scenarios, but might help little in extreme scenarios.
  • Attempting to artificially reverse climate change may be a last resort for extreme scenarios, but may be too risky to be worthwhile for mainline scenarios.

For the avoidance of doubt, I think that my point about mainline and extreme risks appealing to different worldviews is sufficient reason to separate the analyses even if the interventions ended up looking similar.

if you have two problems who require $100 or $200 of total funding to solve completely, if they both have $50 of funding today, they are not equally neglected

Yep, you could use the word 'neglected' that way, but I stand by my comment that if you do that without also modifying your definition of 'scale' or 'solvability', the three factors no longer add up to a cost-effectiveness heuristic. i.e. if you formalise what you mean by neglectedness and insert it into the formula here without changing anything else, the formula will no longer cancel out to 'good done / extra person or $'.

comment by Roxanne_Heston · 2019-10-08T14:03:21.071Z · score: 6 (9 votes) · EA · GW

Many props for doing this. This is exactly the sort of careful critique I'd like to see more people generating.

Did you approach 80,000 Hours about your post before putting it up? If you didn't, it seems quite plausible that they'd have integrated some of these changes after speaking with you directly. The benefits of approaching them first are that it appears less adversarial and (less certain) they are more likely to notice. However, I think there are also arguments for publishing publicly and independently, too.

comment by mchr3k · 2019-10-09T10:32:48.478Z · score: 10 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I notified info@80000hours.org about this public post. I thought it would be better to solicit public feedback rather than attempting to work privately with 80K Hours.

comment by Robert_Wiblin · 2019-10-10T14:54:05.157Z · score: 17 (8 votes) · EA · GW

Hi mchr3k — thanks for writing this. I'm completely slammed with other work at 80,000 Hours just now (I'm recording 7 podcast interviews this month), so I won't be able to respond right away.

For what it's worth I agree with just posting this and emailing it to us, rather than letting us hold you up. Many people are going to be interested in what you're saying here and might have useful comments to add, not just 80,000 Hours. It's also an area where reasonable people can disagree so it's useful to have a range of views represented publicly.

Possibly letting us comment on a Google Doc first might have been helpful but I don't think people should treat it as a necessary step!

comment by MichaelStJules · 2019-10-09T19:43:30.967Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Seconding StevenKaas. In particular, there's this recent post: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/GEM7iJnLeMkTMRAaf/updated-global-development-interventions-are-generally-more [EA · GW]

Global health is a 21 on 80,000 Hours' list, and you're recommending updating climate change to 26. This suggests it's several orders of magnitude better to spend resources to fight climate change than to donate those resources to GiveDirectly, say. This seems to contradict the conclusion of the linked EA forum post.

You also mention donating to charities like Cool Earth. It would be good to know how they compare to GiveWell's recommended charities.

comment by agdfoster · 2019-10-08T10:12:45.380Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks! Cool perspective. I’ll just make a quick comment on the neglectedness point:

Much of diminishing returns in an area come not from crowdedness or inefficient economies of scale but because the low hanging fruit are gone. Most EA top reccommended cause areas are so neglected that the majority of the work is still focused on basic/applied research and basic policy advocacy, strategy etc. Work that can have huge ripples, steering global markets and governments where they otherwise would have done nothing for potentially many years.

Another way of evaluating neglectedness is to ask ‘what’s the chance I’ll have an outsized counterfsftual impact by doing X’ and the base rates are just going to be lower for that now given the sheer number of people working on it.

It’s also worth noting that the impact of direct work in climate is inherently limited due to the huge scale of emissions today, so I think it’s very fair to say it has a low neglectedness score.

I think the argument for climate does have to be focused on the scale of the bad outcomes that can be mitigated through additional work, and it still looks very good under that lens. We don’t have to work on neglected problems, it’s just a heuristic for affecting larger speed ups.