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This is a linkpost for a new 80,000 hours episode focused on how to engage in climate from an effective altruist perspective.

Rob and I are having a pretty wide-ranging conversation, here are the things we cover which I find most interesting for different audiences:

 

For EAs not usually engaged in climate:

  • (1) How ideas like mission hedging apply in climate given the expected curvature of climate damage (and expected climate damage, though we do not discuss this)
  • (2) How engaging in a crowded space like climate suggests that one should primarily think about improving overall societal response, rather than incrementally adding to it (vis-a-vis causes like AI safety where, at least until recently, EAs were the main funders / interested parties)
  • (3) How technological change is fundamentally the result of societal decisions and sustained public support and, as such, can be affected through philanthropy and advocacy.
     

For people thinking about climate more:

  • (1) The importance of thinking about a portfolio that is robust and hedgy rather than reliant on best-case assumptions.
  • (2) The problem with evaluating climate solutions based on their local-short term effects given that the most effective climate actions are often (usually?) those that have no impacts locally in the short-term.
  • (3) The way in which many prominent responses – such as focusing on short-term targets, on lifestyle changes, only on popular solutions, and on threshold targets (“1.5C or everything failed”) – have unintended negative consequences.
  • (4) How one might think about the importance of engaging in different regions.
  • (5) Interaction of climate with other causes, both near-termist (air pollution, energy poverty) and longtermist (climate is more important when disruptive ability is more dispersed, e.g. in the case of bio-risk concerns).
     

For people engaging with donors / being potential donors themselves:

  • (1) The way in which philanthropically funded advocacy can make a large difference, as this is something many (tech) donors do not intuitively understand. We go through this in quite some detail with the example of geothermal.
  • (2) The relative magnitudes of philanthropy, public funding etc. and how this should shape what to use climate philanthropy for, primarily.
  • (3) A description of several FP Climate Fund grants as well as the ongoing research that underpins this work.

     

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I think an argument by Johannes is very likely overstated, and perhaps also quite wrong:

That seems more true to me based on what I read about political culture and looking at those things, and also looking at the fact that solar and wind are cheap now, marginal-cost-wise, but they’re very far from an optimal energy technology.

The alternative that seems most promising today is Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). However, I would be quite surprised if these managed to beat solar and wind on cost as SMRs are nothing like solar cells, and also quite far away from even the largest wind turbines - wind and solar are extremely modular and easy to fabricate and assemble! One point that illustrates this is that current SMR (I do not mean to strawman by using SMRs as an example, I honestly think these are the strongest contender to solar and wind) construction projects take on the order of years to assemble on site. In contrast, I would be surprised if the first wind turbine or solar panel to be erected took more than a couple of months (it might actually just have taken days!). Nuclear waste projects are also part of the nuclear story and often ignored by proponents of SMRs. These projects are the worst projects of all megaprojects in terms of cost overruns and scheduling delays (or a close contender to Olympic Games). This part of the nuclear industry seems less likely to be modularized.

There is also references in the podcast to intermittency but this argument is misleading (I realize that perhaps there was not enough time to expand on it in the podcast). One can do a few things to make renewables much less intermittent from a consumer perspective, and this is being done currently at scale:
 

  1. Overbuild and curtail
  2. Batteries for solar, transmission for wind
  3. [addition 27APR] Demand response, especially industrial demand response
     

This will in most places get one to ~90% wind and solar. The rest is really not that important in terms of emissions or cost as one has already cleaned up 90% of the power supply with surprisingly cheap generation. Ideally one could close the gap with hydro, bio, SMRs and the like, or just run some fossil plants and do carbon capture.

That said, there might be something more optimal than solar and hydro, but after decades of research it does not really seem to be any strong contenders, even in early stages of R&D. To say that solar and wind are "very far" from being optimal seems wrong. If the statement instead had been "there might be something more optimal than solar or wind, but this is speculation" I think this would have been a more true statement. That said, I definitely buy the argument that politically favorable conditions have helped wind and solar get to the prices they have today, it might not have been possible without. But I very much doubt that we would have as cheap, carbon free electricity today if we had used that political capital on a different technology.

Disclaimer: I have worked in wind energy for over a decade and am biased. But I have also followed cost trends across a range of technologies quite closely.

Also, I really enjoyed the rest of the podcast and changed my views on some aspects on marginal effectiveness in the climate space. So I do not mean my criticism to detract from the overall argument put forward - a lot of the content seemed very sensible.

I find this an interesting discussion, and hope that it will continue.

My own knowledge of this domain is very limited. I'll just mention some points from World Without End (WWE)... not because I endorse them, but to keep the discussion going:

  • Because of low energy density, wind and solar require 1-2 orders of magnitude more land use, metal, and concrete per kWh than nuclear power. EROEI (Energy returned on energy invested) is worse.
  • If batteries are used, the numbers become even worse; also greenhouse has emissions go up. WWE claims nuclear electricity emits about 6g CO2/kWh; wind 10g, battery storage +50g
  • Intermittency is important. According to WWE, it is harder to mitigate than you suggest, since mitigations increase cost.
  • Because of intermittency, wind and solar are typically complemented by power that is highly flexible (gas, coal, not nuclear). This means their impact on the climate isn't all good, since they prevent phasing out gas and coal.

I would be keen to hear specific arguments from the recent downpour of disagreement votes. I have a suspicion there might be some people who think nuclear is a more promising alternative to solar and wind and if so I would be keen to hear some concrete arguments. And if not, I am even more curious to hear what the disagreements are.

Update 28APR: The reason I used the word downpour was that at one time, the agreement vote was down to -8. Now it is up to -6 again. I guess this means there is a chance there might in total be >10 votes on disagreement (I would love a feature on the EAF where one can see the total number of votes either way so one can highlight comments/posts that receive a ton of votes both ways - now these are hidden as they show up as "unimportant" as only net votes are counted).

Addition 02MAY: I now see one can see number of votes by hovering over the karma or agreement net vote count - I guess the engineers of this forum is one step ahead of me. Great job! This shows there is actually no downpour. I think I had 2 people strongly disagreeing, and then only 1 more person strongly agreeing (3 agreement votes to get from -9 to -6).

Hi Ulrik,

just quickly to say that (1) I did not downvote your comment and that (2) I am still planning to respond to the substance of your comment (just had surgery last week and working at much reduced capacity).

Hi Johannes, no worry about downvoting, I just hope someone can explain why I am wrong (maybe I am!). And I wish you a speedy recovery and no rush on responding - I am not losing sleep over it.

I found myself strongly aligned with the opinions expressed in this podcast. I strongly agree with Johannes’ opinion on personal emissions reduction, pro-nuclear, funding in high growth, large population countries, governmental advocacy and almost everything else said. So the following isn’t meant to be a broad critique.

I was confused about a small section that had several layered points that I didn’t really agree with after a whole podcast of opinions that aligned with mine. The comments around the idea that indirect effects of climate change leading to higher conflict are predicated on severe climate impacts. From the podcast:

"And then there is a, from my perspective, really plausible critique of [the report], which is saying that we’re having a lot of indirect unforeseeable effects and generally a situation of decreasing political stability feedback loops.

The thing I would say there, though, is that all of that kind of requires pretty severe climate impacts still. So, the fact that the climate picture overall has been getting so much better makes all of those things less likely, and we should be honest about that.”

• Indirect effects kick in at much lower temperature thresholds

I guess it largely depends on what is meant by “pretty severe” but the following sentiment about the climate picture getting better had me thinking that what was meant was a world of >4 °C or another future world that is considered unlikely even in business-as-usual scenarios. I have always pictured severe climate impacts (in the sense of significant pressure on governments and populations) at much lower, even on a +2 °C pathway.

• The climate picture overall has been getting worse

In terms of government responses to climate change, public perception, scientific understanding there have been many positive events in the last 10 years but nowhere near the requirement to avoid significant harm. The picture on climate effects at different temperatures appears to be getting worse, such as Thwaites, ocean circulation slowdown and extreme temperature anomalies all of which are way outside of predictions for this temperature. We have also made slow progress on understanding and incorporating feedback loops in models and planning. So with effects being worse at different temperatures the expected instability is also worse.

I may just be misunderstanding what was meant as there are a few plausible interpretations, but those are my thoughts from what I understood. As said slightly earlier:

“Increasing conflict is kind of the reason mostly to prioritise climate from a longtermist perspective.”

So I think it’s an important point.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I've actually recently become worried about similar issues and am planning a post on the question whether climate risk is decreasing. There's a lot in here so let me decompose.

Overall climate risk looks something like

(1) Emissions > 

(2) Warming as a function of climate sensitivity and tipping points >

(3) Climate impacts at the level of warming >

(4) Vulnerability to direct climate impacts >

(5) Vulnerability to indirect climate impacts (e.g. dealing with climate-induced migration)

Going through the chain:

Expected warming has gone down a lot
Expectations of (1) have strongly moved down.

Climate sensitivity has remained roughly stable, narrowing somewhat (for this and (1) see here), I think recent work on tipping points suggests that they are less severe than previously thought (see here, and discussion of this and a paper from last year here), overall this does not suggest a stronger climate response than previously assumed (2), if one had to make a directional update it would probably be a downward one.

So overall we should expect less warming and, crucially, we should expect a disproportionate probability decrease in tail warming scenarios (because emissions observed essentially rule out RCP 8.5).

Insofar as mechanisms 3-5 are independent of our knowledge of them, I think it is safe to say “it looks like climate risk has significantly decreased”. Of course, we could be badly surprised.

How expected climate risk might not have decreased
What got me worried was Figure 4 from the SMP of the recent IPCC Synthesis Report suggesting higher risks at lower levels of warming (for all observed reasons for concern, the likely occurrence has moved downward between AR5 and A56 (2014 to 2022)):

I haven’t yet had time to do the math on this, but it could be that, as you suggest, expected climate risk is not decreasing (or even increasing) because, at the same time as we observe much lower expected warming we discover that impacts occur at lower temperatures. 

Assessing this requires a lot more work, also because a lot of the knowledge here is very politicized, but it could be that I was wrong here and that risks have not decreased. 

More correctly I should have said something like “It looks like climate risk has decreased a lot based on emissions and expected warming, but of course this holds impacts constant and this could be wrong.”


 

Verbalising the distinctions between 1 - 5 was something I was struggling with, so thanks for putting it so concisely and comprehensively. I agree with all the points you have made and the clarification at the end, which is what I was trying to say in a jumbled up way.

My impression on tipping point sensitivity was based on specific events happening significantly ahead of projections from modelling. I will have a read through the linked paper suggesting tipping points aren't as bad as thought and comment on your linked post from March if necessary, but otherwise will update based on that.

I also agree that while the expected temperature trajectory is moderating (as well as the risk of higher trajectories), we may be underestimating the "political climate sensitivity" which is a function of the risks you provided in Figure 4 rather than warming, and which appear to be getting worse. I also don't think great power conflict is significantly exacerbated by these indirect effects until much higher warming but Israel / Arab world and Pakistan / India are a couple of conflicts I think could be worsened and would still be of global concern, despite not being between Great Powers.

I haven't done a deep dive on it but my reading has leant towards political instability being very sensitive to increases in risks, risks which are plausible at temperatures expected in the next 30 years. That being said, the frequent example of the Syria drought-conflict could be the wrong narrative in favour of unsustainable agricultural policies. So I think I need to investigate more.

Thanks for the discussion!

Thank you!

I agree with you that the biggest uncertainty right now is on "how does warming and its impact translate into societal consequences?" and I would be keen for anyone reducing the uncertainty there.

As I also discussed in the podcast, I think the biggest indirect longtermist risk from climate likely stems from a situation where non-great-power conflicts made more likely through climate become more catastrophic (e.g. through more distributed bio WMDs).

I appreciated the episode and I'm interested in getting some more discussion on this, so I'm curating the post (despite the fact that it's 3 weeks old and a link-post). 

I also shared the episode in the latest EA Newsletter — I'm copying the relevant bit here in case someone is interested and/or wants to correct me if I got something wrong (in which case I'll try to add a correction in the May edition).

Why unconventional approaches to climate change can be more effective 

On the 80,000 Hours podcast, Johannes Ackva discusses promising climate strategies and how effective approaches can diverge from popular ones. Two highlights: 

  • Interventions can look a lot more — or less — effective when you evaluate them on a global scale. For example, some groups in Switzerland are advocating for thorough insulation of all homes to make them more energy-efficient. This would reduce emissions in Switzerland, but it would have a small impact globally because most emission growth is in countries where insulation isn’t the problem. Conversely, Germany’s investments in solar power in the 2000s might have seemed ineffective — solar panels were very expensive and Germany isn’t particularly sunny — but in part because of this push and the resulting innovation, solar power today is much cheaper and is deployable on a global scale.
  • We should accelerate the development of new clean energy technologies. It’s very important to have backup solutions in case today's promising clean energy solutions fall short. A diverse portfolio of approaches, like carbon capture and storage or modular nuclear reactors, would provide crucial insurance if that happens.

The episode covers many other considerations. (Ackva's team is hiring.)

I'm glad that this is being researched; it routinely comes up a lot in real world conversations about x-risk. I think it's a good idea for anyone x-risk affiliated to be well-versed in this, at minimum, it's HUGE for making and breaking first impressions.

engaging in a crowded space like climate suggests that one should primarily think about improving overall societal response, rather than incrementally adding to it

That was a really, really good way to put it.

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.

Thanks for your comment!

I don't think I am actually saying what you disagree with, to quote:

But I think it’s not so much that I’m not a fan of this; I think that, as soon as it only a little bit crowds out your political action, that’s not the thing to focus on. That’s the way I would put it.

I am saying that if it crowds out your political actions, then it is not worth it.

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