Research Engineer @ National Renewable Energy Laboratory
863 karmaJoined Working (6-15 years)


I develop software tools for the building energy efficiency industry. My background is in architectural and mechanical engineering (MS Penn State, PhD University of Maryland). I know quite a bit about indoor air quality and indoor infectious disease transfer, and closely follow all things related to climate change and the energy transition. I co-organize the local EA group in Denver, Colorado.


"A cost-effectiveness of decreasing GHG emissions of 3.41 tCO2eq/$, with a plausible range of 0.182 to 31.4 tCO2eq/$."

This is not a credible number, and Founders Pledge as of several years ago said they no longer stand behind the cost-effectiveness calculation you link to in your post.

It is based on an assumption that CATF nuclear advocacy will result in cheap enough reactors to replace coal in thermal electric power production. That is not credible now, and it wasn't at the time when the BOTEC was made. Note the 0.5%/1%/2% assumptions that nuclear will displace coal that are doing quite a lot of heavy lifting in getting the numbers to work out. The percentages are far lower than that. Be careful of arbitrary bounding your analysis in whole numbers between 1-100%. I made a copy of the sheet when it came out to capture any changes or alterations - my copy has some cells labeled that are missing in yours.

The supposed climate benefits of nuclear advocacy are contested, and far more credible and sophisticated modeling shows the possibility that there are some zero-sum trade-offs in scaling that mean more nuclear power could result in higher cumulative emissions. I see it as even odds whether CATF nuclear advocacy increases or reduces emissions in expectation. But extremely likely (>95%) that CATF's nuclear program was a total waste of philanthropic dollars.

The lesson is to be careful with BOTECs - use probability distributions instead of single-point numbers, and have several people red-team the analysis both in the numbers and the structure of the calculation.

Another issue is you are taking values derived from speculation and comparing them to measured cost-effectiveness from RCTs with a strong evidentiary basis.

Pointing to white papers from think tanks that you fund isn't a good evidentiary basis to support the claim of R&D's cost effectiveness. As with most things, the details matter quite a bit. The R&D benefit for advanced nuclear since the 1970s has yielded a net increase in price for that technology. For renewables and efficiency, the gains were useful until about the early 00s. After that, all the technology gains came from scaling, not R&D. You can't take economy wide estimates for energy R&D funding and apply them to a specific federal bill if the technology mix is quite different. And historic estimates are not necessarily indicative of future gains; we should expect diminishing returns.

Furthermore, most of the money in BIL and IRA were for demonstration projects - advanced nuclear, the hydrogen hubs, DAC credits. Notably NOT research and development. You make a subtle shift in your cost effectiveness table where you use unreviewed historic numbers on cost-effectiveness for research and development, and then apply that to the much larger demonstration and deployment dollars. Apples and oranges. The needs for low TRL tech are very different from high TRL tech.

Lastly, a Bill Gates retweet is not the humble brag you think it is. Bill has a terrible track record of success in energy ventures; he's uninformed and impulsive. Saying Bill Gates likes your energy startup is like saying Jim Cramer likes your stock. Both indicate a money-making opportunity for those who do the opposite.

(For those in the comments, you can track prior versions of these conversations in EA Anywhere's cause-climate-change channel).

  1. Last time I checked, GG's still linked to FP's CATF BOTEC on nuclear advocacy. Yes, I understand FP no longer uses that estimate. In fact, FP no longer publishes any of its BOTECs publicly. However, that hasn't stopped you from continuing to assert that FP hits around $1/ton cost-effectiveness, heavily implying CATF is one such org, and its nuclear work being the likely example of it. The BOTEC remains in FP's control, and it has yet to include a disclaimer. Please stop saying you can hit $1/ton based on high speculative EV calcs with numbers pulled out of thin air. It is not credible and is embarrassing to those of us who work on climate in EA.

  2. I never intended to assert that FP still endorses REDD+. Merely to point out that the 2018 FP analysis of REDD+ (along with CCS and nuclear advocacy) was a terrible basis for Will to use in WWOTF for the $1/ton figure. While FP no longer endorses REDD+, FP's recent reports contain all the same process errors that Lief points out about the 2018 report - lack of experience, over-reliance on orgs they fund, best guesses, speculation.

"This bravado carries over into the blunt advice that MacAskill gives throughout the book. For instance, are you concerned about the environment? Recycling or changing your diet should not be your priority, he says; you can be “radically more impactful.” By giving $3,000 to a lobbying group called Clean Air Task Force (CATF), MacAskill declares, you can reduce carbon emissions by a massive 3,000 metric tons per year. That sounds great.

Friends, here’s where those numbers come from. MacAskill cites one of Ord’s research assistants—a recent PhD with no obvious experience in climate, energy, or policy—who wrote a report on climate charities. The assistant chose the controversial “carbon capture and storage” technology as his top climate intervention and found that CATF had lobbied for it. The research assistant asked folks at CATF, some of their funders, and some unnamed sources how successful they thought CATF’s best lobbying campaigns had been. He combined these interviews with lots of “best guesses” and “back of the envelope” calculations, using a method he was “not completely confident” in, to come up with dollar figures for emissions reductions. That’s it.

Strong hyping of precise numbers based on weak evidence and lots of hedging and fudging. EAs appoint themselves experts on everything based on a sophomore’s understanding of rationality and the world. And the way they test their reasoning—debating other EAs via blog posts and chatboards—often makes it worse. Here, the basic laws of sociology kick in. With so little feedback from outside, the views that prevail in-group are typically the views that are stated the most confidently by the EA with higher status. EAs rediscovered groupthink."

Yeah, MacAskill and EA deserve the roasting on this one. FP's report from 6 years ago was a terrible basis for the $1/ton figure. MacAskill should have never used it in WWOTF. The REDD+ section proved to be widely inaccurate; it underestimates cost by at least 10x, 200x if you account for permanence. The nuclear power advocacy BOTEC was even worse. And FP and GG still reference it!

Given the differentiation between normative and factual beliefs, I'm having a hard time parsing the last sentence in the post: "It is hard to maintain tragic beliefs. On the face of it, it makes the world worse to believe them. But in order to actually do as much good as we can, we need to be open to them, while finding ways to keep a healthy relationship with tragedy."

Is the "worseness" a general worseness for the world, or specific to the believer? Does doing the most good (normative claim) necessarily require tragic beliefs (factual claim)? What is a "healthy relationship with tragedy"? Where does the normative claim that we should have only healthy relationships with tragedy derive its force? If we can't have a "joyful" flavor of righteousness, does that mean we ought not hold tragic beliefs?

Personal feelings about tragic beliefs are incidental; for someone with righteous beliefs, whether or not they feel joy or pain for having them seems irrelevant. Though we can't say with any certitude, I doubt Benjamin Lay had his personal happiness and health in the forefront of his mind in his abolitionist work. Perhaps instrumentally.

Should Benjamin Lay ought to not have lived in a cave, even if that meant compromising on acting out his tragic beliefs?

There are two kinds of belief. Belief in factual statements, and belief in normative statements.

“Insect suffering matters” is a normative statement, “people dying of preventable diseases could be saved by my donations” is a factual one. A restatement of the preventable disease statement in normative terms would look like: "If I can prevent people dying of preventable diseases by my donations at not greater cost to myself, I ought to do it."

I think tragic beliefs derive their force from being normative. "Metastatic cancer is terminal" is not tragic because of its factual nature, but because we think it sad that the patient dies with prolonged suffering before they've lived a full life.

Normative statements are not true in the same way as factual statements; the is-ought gap is wide. For them to be true assumes a meta-ethical position. If someone's meta-ethics disregards or de-emphasizes suffering, even suffering for which they are directly responsible, then “insect suffering matters” carries no tragic force.

The real force of tragic beliefs comes earlier. For insects, it is a consequence of another, more general belief: "suffering matters regardless of the species experiencing it", combined with a likely factual statement about the capacity for insects to suffer, and a factual statement about our complicity. In fact, if one assumes the more general belief, and takes the factual statements as true, it is hard to avoid the conclusion "insect suffering matters" without exploding principles. At that point avoidance is more about personal approaches to cognitive dissonance.

I'm inclined to reserve the tragic label for unavoidable horrors for which we are responsible. Think Oedipus, Hamlet, or demodex mites. But I understand there is a tragic element to believing unpopular things, especially normative ones, given the personal costs from social friction.

I suggest being highly skeptical of the work coming from the Copenhagen Consensus Center. It's founder, Bjorn Lomborg, has on several occasions been found to have committed scientific dishonesty. I wouldn't use this report to make an determinations of what are the "best investments" without independently verifying the data and methodology.

Down-voted, because I think the argument's premises are flawed, and the conclusions don't necessarily follow from the premises. It relies heavily on a "fruit of the poison tree" idea that because EA gets resources from civilization, and civilization can create the tools of its destruction, EA is inherently flawed. That is nonsense. The argument could be used to dismiss any kind of action that uses resources as being morally corrupt and ineffectual. Surely at the margin there are actions that reduce existential risk more than promote it.

I watched the video and then downvoted this post. The video is a criticism of EA and philanthropy, but there isn't anything new, thoughtful, or useful. I would have upvoted if I thought the criticism was insightful. We've had much better left-wing criticism of EA before on the forum.

Adam and Amy make basic mistakes. For example at 15:30, Adam says that GiveWell recommends funding AI alignment work, and that caused him to become critical because they weren't also recommending climate change mitigation. Adam treats GiveWell, SBF, and the entire EA movement as the same entity. Amy claims that EA is entirely about saving human lives. Neither demonstrated they were aware of the intense debate on saving vs. improving lives, or the concern for animals.

Among Amy's examples of good philanthropy are a billion dollars for the Amazon strike fund, and purchasing lots in NYC to make them community gardens instead of housing. Adam comes away from the conversation thinking that his philanthropic dollars that he gave to the Against Malaria Foundation would have better been spent on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC or a local community garden (60:00). Both celebrate scope neglect, nepotism, and a worldview that the root of problems is political. They mock trolley problems and other philosophy thought problems as a masturbatory, navel-gazing effort, with no real world implications. All they have to offer in support of their preferred charities is an onslaught of left-wing buzzwords.

GiveWell has dozens of researchers putting tens of thousands of hours of work into coming up with better models and variable estimates. Their most critical inputs are largely determined by RCTs, and they are constantly working to get better data. A lot of their uncertainty comes from differences in moral weights in saving vs. improving lives.

Founders Pledge makes models using monte carlo simulations on complex theory of change models where the variables ranges are made up because they are largely unknowable. It's mostly Johannes, with a few assistant researchers, putting in a few hundreds of hours into model choice and parameter selection - with many more hours spent on writing and coding for their monte carlo analysis (which Givewell doesn't have to do, because they've got much simpler impact models in spreadsheets). FP has previously made 1/mtCO2e cost-effectiveness claims based on models like this, which was amplified in MacAskill's WWOTF. This model is wildly optimistic. FP now disowns that particularly model, but won't take it down or publicly list it as a mistake. They no longer publish their particular intervention CEAs publicly, though they may resume soon. My biggest criticism is that when making these complex theory-of-change models, the structure of model often matters more than than the variable inputs. While FP tries to pick "conservative" variable value assumptions (they rarely are), the model structure is wildly optimistic for their chosen interventions (generally technology innovation policy). For model feedback, FP doesn't have a good culture or process in place that deals with criticism well, a complaint that I've heard from several in the EA climate space. I think FP's uncertainty work has promise as a tool, but I think the recommendations they come up with are largely wrong given their chosen model structure and inputs.

GiveWell's recommendations in the health space are of vastly higher quality and certainty than FP's in the climate space.

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