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Four lessons from effective altruism that we can apply to climate change

July 13, 2022

Last month, effective altruist and climate philanthropy expert Johannes Ackva of Founders Pledge sat down with climate and energy journalist David Roberts to discuss the principles of effective altruism and the way they can be applied to climate action on the podcast Volts. Ackva and Roberts had an enlightening discussion that we highly recommend listening to (full episode here), touching on what makes for effective philanthropic giving in the climate space, which approaches and organizations Ackva recommends, and how effective altruism principles can be applied to climate action. The conversation captured some important ideas that align with Clean Air Task Force’s approach to climate action — and that can help others think about how they can make the greatest impact in the climate management space. Read on for four key lessons from the episode that climate advocates can apply to their work.   

1. Pursue multiple pathways to reduce risk 
In the podcast episode, Ackva explains the importance of planning for a wide variety of outcomes and hedging against risks in an uncertain environment. This includes hedging against the risk that global cooperation on climate policy breaks down, that the political winds in the U.S. or EU change to become less friendly to certain approaches, or that war, pandemics or economic downturns hamper our ability to deploy certain solutions. It’s about planning not just for one scenario, or even the most likely scenario, but instead for all possible scenarios with the largest possible impact. In that vein, he explains that focusing only on renewable energy or only on electrification could expose us to risk, or path dependency — reminding us that we don’t know what will happen in the future, and positing that if we bet all of our money on those pathways and then fail to see them through in a volatile world, it will be too late to go back and invest in alternative pathways by the time we know for sure. Effectively, we must be careful not to put all of our eggs into one basket.  Ackva says:

Robustness here is robustness to uncertainty. There are really large uncertainties that will remain on all relevant timescales — how far technologies will go, how emissions will evolve, etc., what will happen to the Paris Agreement — so part of that is generally choosing a portfolio right now that hedges against the failure of mainstream solutions, out of the logic that damage is much worse when mainstream solutions fail.

Just as a diversified investment portfolio hedges against unforeseen circumstances, Ackva says, so too should climate advocates diversify their portfolio of approaches to hedge against risks and maximize the likelihood of success. This diversification is woven throughout CATF’s approach to decarbonization (and that of an emerging number of U.S. and global organizations) who think nimbly. CATF and its growing number of peer colleagues are unique in that we work to advance a broad set of climate solutions, understanding that the more options we have the less risky our approach is. This also applies tactically, in that CATF doesn’t pursue just one policy or private sector solution — but instead engages on a diverse array of tactical fronts, at multiple levels of government and industry, understanding that this approach reduces path dependency and dead ends, and that it increases our chances of achieving our goals.

2. Pay attention to additionality 
A central tenet of effective altruism and a valuable lens through which to approach climate action is additionality — or the extent to which an action sparks an additional change that would not have otherwise occurred. Additionality is what makes the first or second of something more valuable than the 10th or 11th. Adding a wind energy project, for example, to the grid in a heavily oil and gas reliant state with few policy incentives promoting clean energy has a far greater climate impact than adding one in a state with a strong clean energy standard and an already healthy clean energy economy (something CATF has explored in its advocacy for 24/7 clean electricity procurement). Similarly, advocating for policy support for under-supported climate solutions like carbon capture, hydrogen, nuclear energy, and superhot rock energy has more value at the margin than advocating for incentives for solutions that already receive substantial government support and are commercially mature. 
To apply this principle to philanthropic giving, Ackva reasons that funding a climate advocacy organization that is adding to a chorus of similar voices saying similar things is less valuable than funding those that highlight the importance of something critical but so-far neglected. This principle, in part, has led Founders Pledge to support CATF and other organizations like Carbon 180, TerraPraxis, Future CleanTech Architects, and the Economics of Energy Innovation and System Transition — whose work stands apart from a narrower approach held by most green groups and pushes for innovative solutions that could be critical game-changers, but that have not yet achieved widespread support.

Referring to one of CATF’s signature projects, Ackva notes:

For superhot rock geothermal, it’s quite literally about putting this idea on the map, building the coalitions of government, getting innovation funding for this, connecting the different industries, research labs, etc., connecting this to people who could implement it. This is very early stuff with really outsize impact potentially.

3. Focus on potential impact 
Ackva also touches on the importance of investing climate funding where it can have the largest impact, including by focusing on sectors and regions of the world that are predicted to have the highest emissions in the years to come. He points out that, while the vast majority of climate funding goes to advocacy in the U.S. and EU, those geographies will only account for 15% of the world’s emissions by 2050 — with the growing and industrializing economies of the Global South accounting for the vast majority of future emissions. Investing early in solutions to decarbonize those economies while meeting their growing energy demands is critical to global climate action, a concept CATF is acting on through our Energy and Climate Innovation, Africa program.  Ackva says:

85% of future emissions come from regions that are growing really strongly right now and are making a lot of infrastructure decisions about how to build grids, how to build new coal plants or not. These decisions will have consequences for decades and through the future, so they present really high leverage points for intervention, yet there’s very little attention paid to them.

Additionality applies here as well. As Ackva and Roberts note in the episode, the millionth dollar donated to climate advocacy in the U.S. is perhaps less important than the first or fifth or one hundredth dollar donated to support climate action in an emerging economy whose emissions will soon make up a substantial portion of the global total. 

4. Prioritize policy change over individual action 
Ackva and Roberts discuss a key finding of a Founders Pledge report on climate philanthropy, which is that a donation to an effective organization that advocates to advance climate policy is many times more impactful than any individual action someone can take. The report states: “We firmly believe that — on balance — funding advocacy and similar efforts to induce policy change and affect how societal resources are spent provides the most compelling proposition for impact-oriented philanthropists.” This is an important finding to remember as people all over the world work to understand how they can do their part to combat climate change. We must shift the frame from an excessive focus on how one can limit their own individual footprint (as useful as this may be to maintain emotional commitment to climate protection), to how they can effect change that matches the scope and scale of the climate challenge. Policy change is one of the biggest levers we can pull to address climate change, which is why CATF and its peer organizations are so active in the policy space around the world.  

Whether you’re a philanthropist, a professional climate advocate, or simply someone interested in understanding how to make the biggest difference, these four lessons can help guide you toward more effective action. At CATF, we have been operating on these principles for 25 years, and constantly revisit them to help direct us toward strategies and programs that have the greatest marginal impact rather than trodding well covered space. This explains why we were among the first, and in some cases the very first, to start initiatives on U.S. coal plants, methane management, dirty diesel pollution, carbon capture, advanced nuclear, zero-carbon fuels, fusion energy, 24/7/365 clean energy procurement, and superhot rock geothermal energy. And it is because of the network of partners, donors and supporters that we continue to lead with impact now and into the future. 

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