Effective Altruism, Environmentalism, and Climate Change: An Introduction


I’m seeking to write a series of essays for the Effective Altruism Forum about effective altruism, and its potential interaction with the environmental movement, as well as how both movements weigh climate change mitigation relative to other considerations. Now, I don’t mean one blog post; I mean a definitive series. I feel like there’s an elephant in the room in EA about what other social movement(s) it shares a reference class with. It’s too unlike various civil rights movements, but I’ve read some people compare it to the animal welfare or animal liberation movements. However, while the scale of ambition in effective altruism is similar to that of animal liberation, the diversity of institutions effective altruism seeks to work through to achieve its goals seems more akin to the environmental movement. While I mostly associate animal rights activism with decentralized grassroots advocacy and a some of non-profits, both the environmental and effective altruism movements seek to work through a wider infrastructure of institutions, such as universities and research programs, all manner of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and increasingly, politics, government, and for-profit enterprises.

For the last few years, the question of environmentalism has popped up, and effective altruism has postponed answering the question. I believe now is the time effective altruism has matured as a community to the point it can start answering questions about its relationship to this other big social movement. However, it’s more complicated than merely answering the question of whether acting to mitigate climate change might be the most important cause to work on.

First, climate change is a giant consideration that already interacts with each major object-level focus area of effective altruism, such as global poverty alleviation, global catastrophic risk reduction, and animal advocacy. There is a lot of ground to cover there. Second, as effective altruism grows, other bodies our community will engage with may view Ea through the lens of already being nudged by the environmental movement towards prioritizing climate change mitigation, a major shift which has taken course over many decades and is still ongoing. Governments, corporations, and polities at large may ask if other causes EA advocates to prioritize cut into efforts spent working against climate change. Thirdly, on the topic of tradeoffs, it seems to me there is a non-negligible chance effective altruism will butt heads with the environmental movement. Nuclear power, climate engineering, bioengineering and food security measures, in-vitro meat, wild animal suffering, and global catastrophic risk mitigation are all issues which effective altruism does or will begin to support more over time, and whose rising profiles could plausibly face opposition from the environmental movement.

Research Outline

Here is the sequences of posts I aim to research and write on each of these topics, clustered under a few major headings.

  1. Climate Change and Poverty Alleviation (2 planned articles)

    1. Climate Change and Global Health

    2. Climate Change and Poverty Alleviation

  2. Climate Change, Environmentalism, and Effective Animal Advocacy (4 planned articles)

    1. Climate Change, Industrial Farming, and Animal Advocacy

    2. Climate Change and Wild Animal Suffering

    3. Environmentalism, Animal Advocacy, and Wild Animal Suffering

    4. Environmentalism, Animal Advocacy, and Cultured Meat

  3. Climate Change, Emerging Technologies and Global Catastrophic Risks (7 planned articles)

    1. Climate Change as a Global Catastrophic Risk

    2. Climate Change and Geoengineering

    3. Climate Change and Cultured Meat

    4. Climate Change, Environmentalism, and Renewable Energy Technologies

    5. Climate Change and Other Emerging Technologies

    6. Climate Change, Food Security, and Biosecurity

    7. Climate Change GCRs, and X-Risks: Multiplicative Factors

  4. Environmentalism: Coordination, Policy, and Effectiveness (9 planned articles)

    1. A Brief History of Modern Environmentalism

    2. Climate Change, Environmentalism, and Domestic Policy

    3. Climate Change and International Cooperation

    4. Movement Environmentalism: Its Track Record on Policy Change

    5. Movement Environmentalism: Its Track Record of General Effectiveness

    6. Movement Environmentalism: Other Long Term Consequences

    7. Environmentalism and Its Results: Learning From Its Successes

    8. Environmentalism and Its Results: Learning From Its Mistakes and Failures

    9. Movement Environmentalism: Lessons From A Similar Social Movement

  5. Environmentalism and Effective Altruism (4 planned articles)

    1. Engaging Environmentalism: Potential Sources of Conflict

    2. Engaging Environmentalism: Potential Sources of Cooperation

    3. Action on Climate Change as Cross-Cutting Effective Altruism

    4. Facing Environmentalism and Climate Change: Strategy and Coordination

Altogether, I’ve planned 26 articles on the considerations from environmentalism and climate change for each of EA’s object-level causes, including a foray into how these will play out into the near future; evaluating environmentalism from an EA perspective as a similar social movement, with a longer and richer history, we can learn from; and the relationship between EA and environmentalism going forward. I may add or subtract research topics from the above list as it becomes more apparent how necessary they are. Of course, the depth and length of each of these articles will vary. For the sake of completeness, I intend to include short articles about the relationship between industrial farming or global poverty and climate change, even though these are better known. On the other extreme, some of these essays will require the collation of several dense sources and original research, with help from multiple collaborators, to form essays which will be several thousand words long. Like many others, there is a Facebook group for those of us already thinking about the intersection of EA and environmentalism: you can join Effective Environmentalism here on Facebook.

If there is any research topics you think should be on the above list which are missing, please let me know, and I’ll look into them. If you would like to help out with this, please contact me and I’ll let you know where to get started. In particular, if you want to learn more about any of the above specific topics, ask me questions and I’ll put you in the right direction for where to get started learning more.


When I originally had this idea a few months ago, Brian Tomasik asked me why I think environmentalism is such an important social movement for EA to interface with well, compared with tons of other social movements.

Firstly, I think effective altruism has a lot of common ground with environmentalism in its beginnings and motivations. When the environmental movement started two generations ago, Baby Boomers rallied around a problem that looked important, neglected, and tractable. In particular, they were successful in helping push through regulations of pollution-causing industries. Even beyond the policy taking hold in an activist’s country of origin, these policies had positive knock-on effects, i.e., flow-through effects, of easing the passage of such legislation in other countries. One only need to look at how, in the face of its rapid industrialization with relatively few regulation of pollution, the People’s Republic of China is now facing an environmental and public health crisis.

As the environmental movement found successes and failures, and became settled, it was reinvigorated by a new generation of activists who focused on climate change, which has become a movement in its own right. 20 or 30 years ago, climate change was something of a crisis which was ongoing, and was unprecedented in scale. It was something already then that science was giving the world reason to believe was a very serious issue, and yet it wasn’t receiving nearly as much attention as it deserved. It was something humanity could do something about to mitigate, that was hardly being focused on at all. We see it again: importance, neglectedness, and tractability.

This is an intuitive heuristic framework effective altruism uses for evaluating and prioritizing causes. I think of environmentalism as EA as it might have been. I believe, for many of us, had we been born a generation or two earlier, environmentalism would’ve become the primary social movement we had fallen into, in a time before effective altruism. Heck, there are many members of this community who might consider themselves environmentalists first, and effective altruists second. I don’t think one needs to prioritize action on climate change as the most important cause to see the importance of studying and learning lessons from this movement.

Many of the values of us as individuals can also be seen expressed in environmentalism. A concern for humanity as a whole, future generations, non-human animals, and the well-being of life on Earth as a whole are all motivations that make environmentalism seem crucial to so many. That common ground with effective altruism can lead to future cooperation and collaboration between our two movements. Effective altruism can teach environmentalism to take its motivational backing and pour that into new, more effective focuses, and the environmentalists can join effective altruism to use their vast experience, numbers, and social capital to more readily achieve common goals for increasing well-being and mitigating catastrophes.

However, if environmentalism came into conflict with effective altruism, it could use that same vast size and social capital to deafen or silence multiple causes EA currently prioritizes. I outlined above several innovations EA is considering and I expect will prioritize even more in the coming years, but which environmentalists might misinterpret, condemn, and criticize. In any number of head-on collisions with environmentalism, as it currently stands, I think EA would tend to lose. There are at most several thousand self-identified effective altruists; there are several million self-identified environmentalists. Other social and political movements often nowadays define themselves in part on their relationship with environmentalism. Enormously global institutions such as the United Nations, and the Catholic Church have been forced to address climate change and environmentalism as one of the most important issues of all time.

In short, if the real growth of effective altruism comes to match its highest ambitions, it will need to contend with the environmental movement. Because of overlapping concerns, it will collide with environmentalism sooner than it will other movements. Environmentalists can become the sort of allies which boost effective altruism to swifter and more controllable successes, but they could also do the opposite. I’d like to ensure the relationship between the two movements is cooperative rather than adversarial, because we cannot leave this up to chance alone.

Comments (12)

Comment author: egastfriend 10 March 2016 02:32:09PM 6 points [-]

This is definitely something I'm interested in learning more about, and haven't seen a thorough analysis from an EA perspective anywhere. I respect both Bjorn Lomborg and Martin Rees on this subject, even though they have opposing views. Bjorn Lomborg thinks that cost-benefit analysis shows reducing carbon emissions to be a bad investment compared to global health spending, and that we should instead just try to accept climate change and adapt to it. Martin Rees thinks Bjorn Lomborg is using the wrong discount rate in his calculations, and that the tail risk of catastrophic climate change alone makes its prevention a worthwhile investment. I haven't dug any further than that yet.

Comment author: r3m0t 25 May 2016 08:22:24PM *  3 points [-]

Hi egastfriend, I would recommend not respecting Lomborg. He regularly writes op-eds on climate change that are rated as "scientific credibility very low" on Climate Feedback due to his selective and misleading use of statistics. His books have numerous errors and his first one was found to contain: "Fabrication of data; Selective discarding of unwanted results (selective citation); Deliberately misleading use of statistical methods; Distorted interpretation of conclusions; Plagiarism; Deliberate misinterpretation of others' results". On top of that, he's received fossil fuel funding, as documented on DeSmogBlog.

Although he is right to suggest cost-benefit analyses, this is something that environmental economists already do in spades, and the reason his analyses (which have not been published in detail) come out with different answers is because of his biased and unsupportable assumptions that, frankly, reach beyond just having a different opinion.

Links: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2015/08/bjorn-lomborg-just-a-scientist-with-a-different-opinion/ http://www.lomborg-errors.dk/ http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Bjorn_Lomborg

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 14 March 2016 12:14:07PM 2 points [-]

The Giving What We Can report on Climate Change can be found here, in case you're interested.

Comment author: RayTaylor 13 November 2016 11:11:06PM 4 points [-]

Great Evan! Will try to contact you.

On Global Catastrophic Risks, relative risk of extreme weather vs abrupt climate change etc and health+food system recovery it's worth contacting Prof David Denkenberger an EA from GCRI.

(I work with him on www.FoodSystemShock.com, and before I came to EA on www.globalcoolingproject.com, which is an alternative to climate engineering, more like climate restoration, with support from NASA and Prof Peter Cox and others - difficult but possible.)

I think you should maybe include a section on common weaknesses of both EAs and the environmental movement

for example:

  • naivetee of idealists in relation to power, realities of implementation, finance and effectiveness of lobbying, denialism, media/mass psychology strategies, post-factual socio-political realities

  • western cultural blind spots / lack of awareness of own hypocrisies

  • lack of awareness of just how much we are a minority

  • poor communication and psychology awareness and strategies

  • the things I've missed, because I'm both an EA and an environmentalist, and have been for too long

Comment author: turchin 10 March 2016 08:13:10PM 3 points [-]

There are two possible ways of climate change - relatively mild, which means 4 C increase, and runaway catastrophic, in which atmosphere will become hotter for may be 50 C and humanity goes extinct. The second one is much less probable, less that 1 per cent in my estimation. But its consequences will be much more grave, so it total negative utility may be higher than in first scenario.

Are you going to address this issue? I could provide many links on the second scenario, but it may turn the discussion in the wrong way about it validity, while my question is about distribution of negative utility between more and less probable scenarios.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 11 March 2016 03:25:59AM 1 point [-]

I will address this issue when I discuss climate change as a GCR, and in particular as a potential x-risk. However, I won't be doing this for a while, as I intend to do some research first.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 March 2016 02:50:17PM 2 points [-]

environmentalists can join effective altruism to use their vast experience, numbers, and social capital to more readily achieve common goals for increasing well-being

The goal of environmentalism is to preserve the natural order, not to increase well-being. This is definitely not a common goal.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 11 March 2016 03:29:32AM 6 points [-]

I tend to think of social movements as giant System 1's made of many people. To ascribe to them a single rational goal which they optimized pursuit for is to model them in unrealistic ways. Environmentalism isn't a bunch of people with a common goal, but people with different goals taking a similar approach. That approach may be preserving the natural order. However, as I said, the motivation for pursuing the natural order is to preserve the moral value of human and non-human life, in general and as an aggregate of all the individual moral patients, including future generations. There is lots of common ground there with effective altruism.

Comment author: RyanCarey 10 March 2016 10:26:55PM *  2 points [-]

He just said that there are goals to be worked on together, not that they all have a full and exact overlap. And fortuitously there are certainly some interests that can be worked on together including catastrophe prevention. If there are people working to create ecological catastrophes, then if the movement grows to a sufficient size, people will become obligated to disavow that support, sever institutional ties and suppress those elements of the movement (as with extremism in all social movements), and although it's not going to take a trivial effort to split, it's only going to be more painful to do it later.

Comment author: PatrickCampbell 25 November 2016 04:41:24PM 1 point [-]

Hi Evan, sounds like a really cool project and I'd love to help out in whatever way I can. I'm new to the EA community, but as someone who's spent the majority of his career working in conservation, I was somewhat surprised to find so little attention being given to the intersection of EA and environmentalism, so I'm glad to see someone taking the time to address it. I'm not sure how much help I'll be, but I'd love to get involved if you don't mind providing a bit of direction.

Comment author: weeatquince  (EA Profile) 16 March 2016 08:37:23AM 1 point [-]

Hi Evan, This looks super interesting. What if anything could others do to help you achieve this? (For example volunteers to help with research / connections with environmental activists / connections to experts on climate change / etc)

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 29 March 2016 04:00:55PM 0 points [-]

The section for which I have the least idea with which to start my research is the section on climate change as a GCR, and its relationship to other emerging technologies.

  • The potential of geoengineering, also known as climate engineering, is something which could reduce the (worst) impacts of climate change, should mitigation by moving away from fossil fuels or other measures fail to achieve as much slowdown of climate change as humanity desires. As with many things, familiarizing yourself with the Wikipedia article on climate engineering is a good place to start if you're not too familiar with it. Seth Baum of the Global Catastrophic Risks Institute wrote a paper on 2013 on how if intermittent aerosol injection in the atmosphere, otherwise among the more promising geoengineering interventions, could backfire if not well managed, and cause climate change to accelerate over a period of time. I don't know how important this consideration should loom.

  • Things like cultured meat, cellular agriculture, and cas9/CRISPR gene-editing technology could bolster food security in unprecedented ways, by producing new strains of food which aren't prone to famines. Regions of the world which will be most dramatically effected by climate change are already poor, are more at risk of being unable to respond to a regional or continental food shortage, and their destabilization could pose other systemic or security risks. Learning about how to use these technologies as a response to the side effects of climate change on world agriculture seems very important.

  • Just for me to find great resources in books on the history and track record of environmental and climate movements on policy change, or advocacy efficacy, might be the most valuable resource in uncovering yet-unconsidered info for the EA movement. If you know of one or more books like that, that'd be great.

  • I imagine having connections to experts on the various facets of climate change will helpful in the future, but I don't know enough right now to know who I'd be looking for. Connections with environmental activists, especially long-time ones or of previous generations of activists, would be valuable, as I'd be willing to have extensive conversations with them.

I haven't had time to start this project proper yet, so I'm afraid what help I'm looking for is vague. However, I appreciate and will take you up on the offer. We don't have to do the research in exactly the order I laid out above. For example, I'm starting with a focus on writing the essays about animals. If there are any topics which appeal to you, let me know, and I'll let you know what sorts of questions I have in mind needed to be answered on the topics, and places you can look to find answers.