February 07, 2023

Johannes Ackva (Founders Pledge Climate Fund)/Dave Roberts (Volts) transcript

Johannes Ackva (Founders Pledge - Climate Fund) and David Roberts (Volts podcast, formerly Vox) got together last summer to talk about climate philanthropy, the Founders Pledge Climate Fund's approach, and the role of small-scale smart giving in the climate space. I found the conversation notable and decided to transcribe it.

Few highlights from the conversation and the approach:

  • Climate damage is highly non-linear -- going from 1.5 C to 2 C is less bad than 3.5 C to 4 C

  • Most climate folks (including me) prioritize reducing emissions rather than 'minimizing damage'; however since damage is non-linear, the two approaches don't always track and it's important to focus on the actual goal

  • Low-risk, well-understood solutions are currently well-funded; higher risk solutions are often underfunded for structural reasons

  • Those underfunded higher-risk solutions likely are ones most required in higher-'damage' worlds

  • A particularly valuable (high leverage) role for philanthropy is to take risks; hedge against the worst outcomes; and accept failure

Transcribed with OpenAI Whisper followed by a hand-editing pass.

David Roberts

Hello, hello everyone.
This is Volts for June 15, 2022. Volts podcast, Johannes Ackva on Effective Climate Altruism. I'm your host, David Roberts.

Say you are a private individual or a company or a foundation who cares about climate change and has some money to spend on it. What is the best way to spend that money? How can you ensure the largest possible impact? Similar questions about maximizing philanthropic impact have led to an entire field of study and practice known as effective altruism, which seeks to apply logical and empirical rigor to do gooderism. But it is only very recently that effective altruists have turned their attention to climate change. One of the leading effective altruism voices on climate is Johannes Ackva. He is a researcher at Founders
Pledge, an organization through which business owners and entrepreneurs donate a portion of their earnings to charity. For years, Ackva has been thinking through the puzzle of how best to channel climate philanthropy given the structure of the problem and the politics around it. If you're interested in what groups Founders Pledge has chosen for its donations, you can find a list on their website. But I was more interested in the thinking that led Ackva to those recommendations. Given the enormous spatial and temporal scales involved in climate change, the many social and political complexities, the extensive and irreducible
uncertainties, how can a well-meaning donor have any confidence in their choices? I found our conversation quite enlightening, a new lens through which to view this familiar problem, and I think you will, too.

Johannes Ackva, welcome to Volts. Thanks for coming.

Johannes Ackva

Yeah, thank you, Dave. Thanks for having me. It's an honor and pleasure to be here.

David Roberts

Let's start a few steps back, since I'm not entirely sure that the Volts audience will be familiar with effective altruism, the effective altruism movement, even though it's gained quite a bit of press attention recently, but I don't know that it's still all that well-known. Why don't just to start with, just tell us briefly, what is effective altruism and what is it trying to do?

Johannes Ackva
Effective altruism is really a social and intellectual movement that tries to answer
the question, how can we do the most good possible and not only answer that question in a theoretical way, but kind of in a very practical way, actually trying to do as much good as possible?

And there are these two components to it. I think the first one, of course, is that
I would stress is like altruism, which is about trying to be real serious about helping other people and other beings, so effective altruists usually take a global take, including all humans, also all future humans, also all animals, so having a really expansive form of altruism and many effective altruists donate a large part of their income to the global poor or change the career, so this is the altruism piece of it. And then there's this effectiveness piece, which is like thinking really hard and long and trying to use as much evidence as possible to think about how can we have the most impact, so the most positive impact. And one thing about impact here that I think is crucial, because I think it will come up throughout our conversation, because I think a lot of what I'm saying on climate is kind of motivated by this is the notion of counterfactual impact, so given what everyone else is doing, what is kind of the thing that is additional that should be done next, so kind of not only trying to have impact, but trying to have impact that otherwise would not happen in the world. And I think that's really key to how we think
about climate.

David Roberts

And this is the concept of additionality.

Johannes Ackva

Additionality, yeah.

David Roberts

Doing something that would not otherwise be done.

Johannes Ackva

Yes, that's the concept of additionality.

David Roberts

I won't claim any deep familiarity with the ins and outs of the movement, but my impression over the last few years is that some of the most prominent spokespeople for effective altruism are relatively down on climate change as a target for philanthropic giving. I think the idea is that, as you say, they're trying to think about all humans today and all humans that will ever be, and so they're thinking about what might cause the extinction of the human
race, and they say, well, climate is unlikely to cause extinction, whereas a terrible pandemic or, I don't know, an asteroid or an AI that becomes sentient and does a terminator on us are much greater threats of extinction. So why, within the context of effective altruism, do you think that climate change is a worthy sort of target for people's giving and attention?

Johannes Ackva

Yeah, I think first, I would say you're broadly right there. And it was kind of funny because I've been a climate person before. I've been an effective before. I'm kind of an effective altruism. So it's kind of the first time where I kind of had to justify myself for why I'm working on climate, which growing up in Germany was kind of something I never had to justify myself for. So I think that that's probably right that most effective altruism actually do not focus on climate, and I think the reason that your outline is probably right. So climate is a really big threat, and I think effective altruists acknowledge that, and there's very serious threats from extreme climate change. So the view is not that climate isn't a serious
problem. I think effective altruists take it very seriously, but seeing a broad set of
problems of similar magnitude or nuclear war advanced artificial intelligence that you mentioned or bio risk, many of those issues receive far, far less attention than climate change. So this is the reason that many effective altruists would not first go to climate.

David Roberts

But you think they're wrong about that. The climate is a worthy target of giving and philanthropy. What is the effective altruism justification for focusing on climate?

Johannes Ackva

Yeah. Okay. So I think the effective altruism justification for caring about climate kind of has these two different aspects. One is kind of if we think about humans alive today or humans alive in the near future. So there's obviously like, I think we as we know from kind of the literature on climate impacts, like the vulnerable populations on the global south will kind of suffer the most from climate, like helping them can be quite effective also because solving climate change is related to solving some other really big problems, in particular the air pollution and energy poverty. So if you kind of think about clean energy abundance as one possible solution for climate change, that would actually solve all of those issues.

David Roberts

Right. So you're kind of solving three problems in one there when
you when you solve this problem?

Johannes Ackva

Yeah. That's I think the first piece and I think the second piece that I would say is if you kind of think about global catastrophic risk or if you think about the importance of like geopolitical stability and like kind of good international
cooperation and you think about like how climate change can go wrong, how climate change can cause like migration, international attention, etc. So I think that's another kind of set of reasons to care about climate change, just making the world in general, less fragile, more resilient, kind of trying to reduce geopolitical pressure.

David Roberts

Yeah, because they say climate is a threat multiplier, right? That's the term that you also. So in a sense, by decreasing the threat of climate, you are also decreasing all those other risks.

Johannes Ackva

Yeah. So to add one little bit of nuance here, I'm not kind of saying to
effective altruists, do more on climate to less of these all of these other things. I
like to sort of be very clear about this. I think what I gave you is like, I think what
I kind of think as the strongest case for caring about climate change. But it is true
that there are other risks of similar order of magnitude in terms of risk that we're spending a hundred or less of the attention on. So I think if I think about this, I think it's probably right to think about climate, not as the most neglected issue, globally speaking. So even you would say from an effective altruism point, while climate is worthy of attention, there are other risks worthy of attention that are getting less attention than climate, is that what you're saying? I think that's what I would say if we would only think about like importance and neglect in us of those problems. There is, however, another dimension.

And I think that's also really important in making the case for climate. And that dimension is tractability. So like the ability to make additional progress. And I think climate looks extraordinarily good on that dimension compared to many of those other problems that I mentioned for a couple of reasons.

David Roberts

Tell us about that then. Tell us why in terms of tractability, meaning there's progress to be made, there's low hanging fruit available, you might say. So why should we think that climate philanthropy in particular can produce results?

Johannes Ackva

Yeah, great question. So I think there are essentially like three reasons that I would kind of mention that make me believe that to be true. The first one is that attention to climate overall, like societal attention, like including policy, economics, et cetera, is actually really high and is at an all time high, right? So like we're now kind of spending about a trillion or so and the global economy and policy on like climate and kind of has been a really important part of Biden's agenda has been a really important part of Europe, of course, for a long time. So there's a lot of attention to climate. I think that's the first piece.

The second piece is a lot of that attention is not spent optimally in terms of ultimate goal, what I kind of see as the ultimate goal of acting on climate, which is like reducing climate damage as much as possible. And there's some very predictable biases. So for example, the US and Europe are like maybe like 15% of future emissions. So like kind of the fact of climate action should always kind of think about global emissions, but there are lots of political incentives to kind of focus locally. There's lots of ideological issues, there's lots of special interests. So like a lot of the attention on climate is like kind of not spent optimally. So that's kind of the second piece.

And the third piece is if you think about climate philanthropy on the role that climate philanthropy can play. So if you kind of think only very conservatively that like you can kind of shift how the public response is improved by like something like, I don't know, a tenth of a percent or something like that, something like that can still be extraordinarily valuable. So essentially leveraging the attention and kind of trying to help steer the climate momentum that exists in a way that it's more useful for global decarbonisation.

David Roberts

Right. So you sort of got the raw material there. You've got the attention and the will to do something. And you think a little bit of sort of nudging it in a better direction could have a big positive effect. Yeah. I want to focus in on one of the other things you said there. And this is a quote from one of your papers. It says, the goal of high impact climate philanthropy is not to maximize emission reductions, but to minimize climate damage. It might not be obvious to people what the distinction is there. So explain that a little bit and
explain sort of what those two different approaches would sort of imply.

Johannes Ackva

Yeah, no, that's not obvious at all.
And it wasn't obvious to me for a long time. I only really fully grappled with this last
year when I wrote this paper. So I guess the first intuition to think about maximum impact
and climate philanthropy would really be okay. We want to maximize emissions reductions. But
there's something particular about the climate challenge that I think makes this intuition wrong.
And that is the fact that kind of climate damage is highly nonlinear. So if we kind of think about
a three degree world, this is much worse than twice as bad than a 1.5 degree world. Again,
a six degree world is much worse than twice as bad than a three degree world. This means,
if we think about or if we use a concept like the social cost of carbon that would be a similar
concept, the social cost of carbon at like different levels of temperature is very different. It's
much more valuable to avoid an additional ton of carbon in a six degree world than in a 1.5 degree
world. And the key thing here, I mean, I think that that standard climate science, and I would say
like, it's really kind of, I would think like one of the most uncontroversial facts about climate. But the key thing here is that we actually know quote unquote things that must be true if we're kind of in a four degree world and compared to like a one degree world. So for example, if we're in a four degree world, Zeke Hausfather, the climate scientist has said, we're not in a four degree world and renewables have succeeded beyond all expectations.

David Roberts

Johannes Ackva

Because like, so this kind of means that in this four degree world, there's solutions or there's hedges that can be like extremely valuable. So one of them would, for example, be advanced nuclear, which to like to a degree is kind of a hedge against failure of renewables to some degree, which might not play a big role in the best case world, right?

Maybe there's the best case world where renewables succeed all expectations, but there's like an extraordinarily like hedging value of those kinds of solutions. So this is kind of something where like maximizing emission reductions would not kind of lead to this conclusion, but minimizing climate damage leads to other kind of conclusions.

David Roberts

Right. So if you're trying to maximize emission reductions, you would just spend for the cheapest, most obvious reductions available now, which will generally be renewables or something like that. But you're, it sounds like describing something more like trying to reduce risk rather than emissions.

Johannes Ackva

David Roberts

And risk rises non linearly. So you think philanthropy should be hedging against failure, hedging against the failure of mainstream approaches, basically. Does that sound right?

Johannes Ackva

Let me answer this in two parts. I think the first, it's not really about time. It's not really about spending now versus long term impact. So it's not about spending on renewables now for the cheapest back. It's more like thinking about what kind of correlates with different climate futures. So for example, if you think that like one thing that's often described as very cost effective, like forestry, avoiding deforestation, that is very cost effective. Say like having agreements between like Europe and Brazil to kind of avoid deforestation, that is very cost effective in the best of worlds where like international cooperation and like the quality of agreements are stronger than it actually is right now. If we're in that kind of setting, we're not going to have a lot of climate damage. So even though this might maximize emissions reduction and expectation wouldn't minimize damage. So it's not about the timing but what kind of correlates with different kind of scenarios. So what I'm talking about always is counterfactual impact and what to do given what everyone else is doing. So I'm absolutely not saying like we shouldn't focus on renewables or we shouldn't focus on natural climate solutions.

It's more about like given that we have a large focus on this, what should we do next? And then my argument would always be like the value of like hedging against the failure of mainstream solutions is extremely valuable because right now we're in a situation where mainstream solutions get a lot of attention. We can also see the success of that, right? So like the future future emission trajectories have gone down a lot because of the success of renewables like more than I think most people appreciate. So like there have been like really big successes. If we think about how things can go wrong, how shit can hit the fan, it's not because we spend like 1% less of additional climate for climate retention on renewables. It's because something goes wrong there or something goes wrong with another solution like let's say international climate policy falls apart which looks more realistic now than a couple of months ago. So something like that happens, right? And like this is how we get into those worst worlds. And so we want to hedge against those worlds. We want to look at solutions that kind of on one hand are robust to those worlds and on the other hand provide explicit hedges. So in the case like protect against likely failures that are true in those worlds.

David Roberts

Right, right.

And another big piece of this and this is something I've run into a lot of times when I talk to both just sort of individuals
who are thinking about what to do with their money but also foundations and sort of people
who have access to big pots of money is that unlike some altruistic endeavors you could imagine,
like I say you're buying mosquito nets, you know, this is the sort of cliche example,
but mosquito nets for children in Africa, you can calculate pretty firmly and clearly
exactly how many lives you will save per dollar spent. But when it comes to climate change,
the problem is so big and sprawling. It's so long term and it's so unclear what will work
and what won't that just this sort of sheer wall of uncertainty I think is daunting to people and
often pushes them toward those climate solutions that are more kind of short term and tangible
and measurable. But you're sort of counseling against that approach. So talk a little bit about
how climate philanthropists should think about uncertainty and what uncertainty means for their

Johannes Ackva

Yeah, I think that's right. So I think the worst thing you can do on climate is trying to
avoid uncertainty. I think I sometimes say it's much better to probably have a large impact than
to like certainly have a low impact and if you optimize for certainty, there's a huge trade-off
to be made there. And the reason is I think as you alluded to like climate is incredibly
complex, there's like three or four intertwined systems like how much will economies grow,
how emissions intensity will grow, growth be, how will the climate system react to this,
how much damage will this cause. So it's a situation of vast, vast uncertainty and also not only in
kind of the climate response, but also kind of on the solution side, right? I mean, I think you've
covered this a lot. Like if you think about the debates, about 100% renewable, if you think about
the debates about how far will electrification go. So like there are a lot of those debates
where there's like really large uncertainty and those uncertainties will not be resolved in a time
that is action relevant. There will be kind of result when it's too late, right? So you kind of
have to like you have to kind of think like this uncertainty is a fact of the situation and we need
to make decisions under this deep uncertainty where like we don't know anything for quite sure. So
I think the way to deal with this is to think about, I mean, first of all, what do we know
and what can we conclude from this? And I think two or three key facts that I think
guide a lot of my thinking and my ground making certainly is like if you kind of think about like
one thing that I mentioned before, which is like the nonlinear climate damage, so kind of
higher failing at higher levels is like disproportionately worse. So I think that's really
important. The other piece is like, okay, there's already a fair amount of attention on some of
the like mainstream solutions. And then the third piece is kind of what do we know about
this uncertainties and how they resolve? So if we kind of think about electrification or the
success of renewables or et cetera, like if all of those things kind of resolve positively and
positively here means like, okay, they're resolving in the way that kind of has minimal climate damage.
That's pretty good. In those cases, additional climate philanthropy will not be very valuable.
If those solutions kind of resolve negatively, those are the worlds that contain the most risk.
Let's say a world with like lots of growth and emerging economies break down of international
cooperation, some kind of limitation to kind of getting renewables over 50%, something like these
other worlds where like by far the most risk is even if those worlds are not very probable and
I would not say they're like those are not like the majority of my probability mass,
but they're the majority of the worlds that I kind of care about because there's so much damage
there. So that's kind of where this comes from like hedging against the worst cases and also
thinking about the structure of how different uncertainties relate to each other. I can talk a
bit more about that as well.

David Roberts

One of the points you make that I think is really good and worth
emphasizing is that even if we can't measure in an absolute sense what effect particular
solutions or particular giving strategies might have, we can draw conclusions about their relative
impact, one set of solutions versus another. And that's what you need to act, right? It is a
prioritization of solutions, not necessarily final answers about what they'll do, but just
which are more likely to have positive effects.

Johannes Ackva
That's exactly right. Yeah.

David Roberts

I want to get back to one of those uncertainties, but first I want to talk about to get a little tangible here. One
of the things you point out and there's some great charts in your reports is about, you know, you
say that climate philanthropy is on the rise. Now there's quite a bit of money flooding into this
space in recent years, but there are sort of two key imbalances in where money is currently
being spent. One of those is that most of the money is going to the US and the EU, even though
as you say, they are together responsible for maybe 15% of future emissions. And the other is
that most money is going to clean electricity and natural solutions, i.e. trees and reforestation
and the like. And you know, as you say, it's not that those things are bad, but there are spaces
being neglected and this sort of whole notion of neglectedness plays a huge role in all the
effective altruism stuff I've read. So tell us a little bit why you think those imbalances are bad
and what spaces, important spaces in particular do you think are most neglected these days?

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, just to be clear, I think the case that I want to make about neglectedness is not that we're
overspending on renewables and trees. I think that the case is much more we're underspending on a lot
of other sectors. Like if we kind of think about where the next dollar should go, they should
probably go to those other sectors. So I guess the first piece about kind of the geographical
distribution of that, right? So like it's okay, about 15% of future emissions at most will kind
of come from the US and Europe. And if you kind of think about affectable emissions, that share
is probably lower because if you kind of look at the world in the US and Europe, climate policy
there is like above average binding. So like, which means like, if you reduce an emission
and like if you're in a liberal state in the US or if you're kind of in the EU, if you reduce
an emission there, the additionality of that is rarely 100%. So actually, the actual shares
actually lower because there's policy already overdetermining this.

David Roberts
Yeah, let me I want to pause and kind of put an exclamation point on that because I think it's
an important point. If you are in a place where emission reductions are sort of in statute,
it's arguable that your additional reduction throwing into that pot is not going to do anything
additional since the reduction is going to happen anyway by statute. So that's where you fail these
sort of additionality test is when you're operating in a place where the trends in law and regulation
are already sort of mandating what you would be trying to do anyway.

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, that's exactly right. And that's disproportionately the case kind of in those
jurisdictions. So I think that's kind of the first piece. Obviously, like I'm not saying
only 15% of climate philanthropy should be focused on those regions because there's obviously like
if we look at climate attention and if we look about ways to kind of shape future emissions through
climate leadership, through innovation, et cetera, the US and Europe do play a disproportionate role.
So like it wouldn't be right to say like what we should be aiming for is like 15% for those
regions. But we can still see various systematic effects. Like I think the reason that there's so
much spending on the US is not because someone decided, okay, this is the impact maximizing solution.
The reason is because like most climate philanthropy is from the US and most people find it much
easier to donate to an American-focused organization. And the reason this is problematic or the reason
that I would kind of say this leaves impact on the table is because there are dynamics about
future emission growths and particularly carbon lock-in that are kind of dependent on where you
are in the world. So like they're not kind of the result of like global innovation, they're the
result of like infrastructure decisions, policy decisions being made right now. And a lot of those
85% of the future emissions come from regions that are growing very strongly right now that
I'm making a lot of kind of infrastructure decisions about how to build grids, how to build new coal
plans or not. But will kind of have consequences for decades and through the future. So those are
like really high leverage points for intervention and there's very little attention paid to these
in total. And if there is, it's very focused on like a couple of key sectors or key solutions.
And then you have situations where like if for example, if you look at like climate
philanthropy targeted at Indonesia, like Indonesia has one of the places where like coal is kind of
growing the most and still there's like fairly little attention to this. And you will find this
in many of these sectors that are like large parts of future emissions that receive very little
attention where it's kind of probable that if you would look a bit more closely, if you would kind
of start and do some early philanthropic work that you would find like quite high impact
leverage points because early engagement is often much more impactful than later engagement.

David Roberts
Right. So the first dollar there is probably going to have more impact than, you know,
whatever the millionth dollar in the US.

Johannes Ackva
Yes, that's exactly right. Yes. And
crucially, the millionth dollar in the US is easier to fundraise for than the first dollar there.

David Roberts
Right, right, right. Also, in terms of, you know, clean electricity,
I sometimes think I go back and forth on this. I sometimes think that there's almost too much
talk about clean electricity being kind of, you know, a done deal that we can move on from now and
and focus on other things. But you know, like when I hear that, I want to point out clean
electricity is on a positive trajectory, but not anywhere close to the slope it needs to be on or
the speed it needs to be on it's not it's by no means a done deal. So what's the sort of
justification for turning attention away from clean electricity, which I think you and I agree
is going to be is probably going to be the bulk of the solution. What's the sort of justification
for looking elsewhere in your giving?

Johannes Ackva
So at no point would I suggest to turn away an
attention from clean electricity. It's more like we are in a space like climate that is
strongly growing and the question is where to put additional money right now. But I think about
like if you kind of look at those clean electricity numbers and by the way, like this clean electricity
funding, I mean, 90% of that is like renewables and I think like 90% of that is like solar and wind
like if I would have to make a guess. And this philanthropic funding has played a huge role in
kind of triggering the policies that led to the cost reduction. So like this has been hugely
impactful. So like this was like absolutely the right priority to set. But if we kind of think
about like geothermal, for example, like super hot rock geothermal or like innovations in geothermal,
which are also renewable also by clean electricity, they receive like a very, very small share of
that. So like I've just talked to the Clean Air Task Force yesterday, they have a like
they have a program on super hot rock geothermal, which is kind of the essentially the geothermal
anywhere solution, the solution that would might geothermal available location independent.

David Roberts
Potentially huge, huge resource.

Johannes Ackva
Potentially huge resource and like potentially like
exactly like attacking this problem that I think is kind of the bottleneck problem and
clean electricity, which is like firm or balancing, right? So like it's Jesse Jenkins on. So like
if you think about that, right, and this is a solution that have huge impact and clean electricity,
but there's like 1 million or so like philanthropic effort to make this happen, right? And like
at the same time, we're spending something like on the order of six to 700 million
unclean electricity in general. So I agree with you, like clean electricity is not solved.
But the thing that can reduce risk there is kind of not what the priority of the current clean
electricity philanthropic spending is focused on, probably like a bet of like 1 million philanthropically
right now. And I mean, if you think about advanced nuclear, something else is probably something
like 10 million. So there are also within these categories, these are what I think would be like
quite huge imbalances. And I think the other part is also like what's the role of philanthropy?
The reason that I think it was great to invest philanthropically really heavily in like wind
and solar kind of maybe until like 10 or 15 years ago and that this would have been an absolute
priority is like, because this really like helped really unleash kind of the policy change,
which then led to the technological change, which leads to kind of like a trajectory change in
emissions and future emissions, right? But we're not in that moment anymore, right? So like we're
not in the moment where like solar and wind are kind of niche industries, like at this point
those industries are growing. And I think there's like really hard problems to be overcome there.
But like if I think about philanthropy as kind of catalyzing early change, I don't really see like
wind and solar failing because the next 10 million of climate philanthropy go towards other solutions.
Let me go this way.

David Roberts
Right, right. So you know, so we have some clean technologies that are on
a positive trajectory, you know, whether it's going fast enough or not, at least it's on the
sort of on the learning curve. And then there's a bunch of other climate technologies that are
widely expected to be needed that are not on those trajectories at all. They're not on the
learning curves at all. So to draw an analogy to what we were saying earlier, like the first dollar
spent on getting one of those technologies on a good trajectory will have more impact
than the millionth dollar spent accelerating the wind and solar trajectory.

Johannes Ackva
Exactly, exactly. And like I would say, tremendously more impact. So I would say like
the differentials here is not like 2, probably my best guess would be more in the order of like
100 or 1000. So like because there's essentially nothing happening. I mean, super hard to argue
geothermal it's essentially mean quite literally putting this idea on the map, like building the
kind of coalitions of government, yeah, like getting innovation funding for this, like connecting
the different industries, the research labs, etc, like connecting this to people who could
implement it. So like, this is like very early stuff with like really outsized impact potentially.
And I mean, if you've seen similar things like for something like carbon removal,
right, where it's like been clear from the scientific literature, like we're definitely
going to need carbon removal. Kind of if we want to get to 1.5 degrees, I think that has been clear
since 2015 or so at the latest, right? And has taken time for this to like sink into policy
discussions and like again, like philanthropy or like NGOs kind of philanthropically funded. So in
this case, I want to like mention another kind of grantee of ours like Carbon 180 are quite important
and like early field building, like early attention building, etc. So like can play a really huge
role. And then we're having a stimulus in the ass or like an infrastructure investment bill.
And it makes a real difference. Like there's this clear, there's going to be a huge climate
component, but kind of the organizations that are going to be present there kind of shaping this,
like it makes a difference that there is an organization that is really strong and
connecting the science to the policy needs under the most neglected technologies. Because this
makes a difference.

David Roberts
That gets us to innovation. My impression is that one of the things that
almost everybody in the effective altruism movement who's thinking about climate at all
agrees on is that innovation is a good target. But you know, the sort of the mirror, I don't know
if this is the right analogy, the mirror image of innovation is carbon lock in. So we were talking
earlier about uncertainties. And one of the key points you make is that not all uncertainties
are additive, meaning you just sort of multiply one uncertainty by another by another and just get
bigger and bigger and bigger uncertainty bars. Some of them are negatively correlated. So talk
about how that plays out in terms of innovation and carbon lock in. Those are sort of two key
concepts here.

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, when I think about future emissions and what will determine those, I think
there are these two really big trajectory changing dynamics. And one of them is like innovation,
as we've seen with solar, as we're seeing with electric cars, kind of really radical changes.
And we're like early decisions and like geographically quite specific decisions, right? It's not
global decisions can make a huge stand on like global emissions, changing kind of trajectory
for decades to concepts. So this is the innovation piece.

David Roberts
And just to pause there, because you make this point well in the paper, is that, you know,
one of the key players in that early innovation in solar was Germany, you know, on solar. And as
you say, if Germany had been approaching this problem from a how can we maximize emission
reductions per dollar approach, they never would have spent on solar. They were there was extremely
inefficient way to reduce emissions at the point they were spending, but it sort of catalyzed this
trajectory. And so the indirect effects were huge in terms of emission reductions.

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, yeah, the short term solution would have been to buy Russian gas. This would have been
a much cheaper way. And I think this is really why we should never evaluate kind of climate
actions by their local short term effects, we should always evaluate them by their global
long term effects. But so like, this is the innovation kind of dynamic. And then there's
this counter railing dynamic, which is carbon lock in, which is like infrastructure decisions
and capital investment decisions and the new coal plants, new steel plants, etc. That kind of
determined or really strongly influenced emissions over decades to come because like once kind of
this asset is built, the decision about how much kind of to produce is like much, much lower than
compared to like just like, okay, we're going to have this high emitting asset there. So if you
kind of think about this to dynamics as kind of competing, then you kind of see, okay, actually,
on the innovation front, pushing an innovation forward five years is actually often much more
valuable than just like five years of reduced emissions, because it kind of can kind of think
at the lever points before, like, let's just think about how the world would be different if
we had had cheap solar when China started to expand, like the world would look very different
today. So there's these huge, huge lock-in effects. But of course, there are these two dynamics and
again, uncertainty, my friend, uncertainty here. If we think about like the ultimate potential of
like acting on those two mechanisms on the one hand trying to avoid carbon lock and on the other
hand, kind of trying to accelerate and improve the success of innovation, the relative like
potential of those two theories of change is negatively correlated. What do I mean with that?
So there is a world where kind of carbon lock-in is relatively benign. Let's say it turns out that
we can get renewables so cheap that it becomes easy, like renewables and storage and we solve all
of the attendant problems, right? Like let's say we're in the very best case world. In this case,
maybe it becomes realistic that we're retiring coal plants early or we're replacing them and
something that we're working on is like repowering coal. Maybe we can kind of replace the heat source
and coal plants with geothermal or with advanced nuclear. So this is a world where like kind of
carbon lock-in maybe has a relatively less influence because like retrofitting is easy or like
premature retiring kind of becomes possible politically and economically. So this is a world
like kind of the maximum impact of innovation would be in this world. So in this world like
carbon lock-in is kind of maybe less important, avoiding carbon lock-in is less important. Of
course, there's also this other world where it's not true, right? And we're like, yeah, we maybe
get all of those innovations but kind of those innovations will not really fully realize they're
potential because kind of lock-in is really severe. Like there's a lot of infrastructure,
political cloud, invested capital that kind of leads to a situation where we have new low-carbon
solutions but we're not adopting them at the scale that we're at. So those two dynamics
are negatively correlated. So like which means kind of like one of them if we're kind of on the
more like bullish side in innovation, maybe if we now invest in innovation and avoiding carbon
lock-in, maybe that carbon lock-in investment was less valuable, the other thing kind of goes the
other way, right? If carbon lock-in is kind of more severe than investing carbon lock-in is
relatively more valuable. And if we're kind of in a situation, when I think that's the situation
that we're in, where it's like really, where I'm really like genuinely uncertain about those two
theories of change or about the relative value of additional investment, I want to kind of diversify.

David Roberts
Investment in innovation versus investment in avoiding carbon lock-in?

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, sorry, I mean here like philanthropic investment, right? So yes, and if I'm so like
I'm genuinely uncertain between those two solutions, but again, I think about kind of the nature of
climate damage and I'm reminded of the fact that my goal is not to maximize emission reductions,
but to minimize climate damage. And now I have these two really big uncertainties that are
negatively correlated. So in this situation, investing in both of them can actually be like
impact maximizing because of the structure. So like if the one kind of succeeds more,
the other fails a bit more. It's that's like a more robust kind of investment,
given the shape of climate damage, given like how much worse it is to fail, if that makes sense.

David Roberts
Right, so each is kind of a hedge for the other, in a sense.

Johannes Ackva
Yes, and I think something similar kind of applies to investing and accelerating
decarbonization and investing in carbon removal, for example. Yeah.

David Roberts
One of your conclusions you come to, and this is a quote too, is the plausibility space
for high impact climate philanthropy primarily contains solutions and approaches that are
considered controversial, speculative, or remote. So you sort of, this is where your logic takes
you is that if you're counseling people where to give their climate philanthropy dollars,
you're probably counseling them not to give to the sort of sexy,
popular solutions that everybody's hyped about, but some of the more kind of obscure
and controversial stuff. And that's all just, you know, so sort of spell that out a little bit.

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, I mean, first of all, like, so like this quote was kind of written in December,
or actually it's November last year, under this impression of like, okay, climate philanthropy
and climate philanthropy foundations essentially doubled within a year with the Bezos Earth fund
kind of , right? And also kind of these dynamics essentially to a large
degree, like reinforcing like existing kind of foci of like climate philanthropy. So like
increasing the emphasis on clean electricity, on the one hand, particularly renewables,
on the other hand, kind of natural climate solutions.

David Roberts
As a side note here, do we know where Bezos's money is going yet? I mean, has it been sort of
laid out where his giving is going?

Johannes Ackva
So it's evolving. But like we did include,
so like in our like November analysis, we use the data from ClimateWorks kind of for the 2020
baseline. And then we kind of looked at all of the Bezos grants that had been made in 2021 and
like tried to account for that. And that's these comparative charts there. And there you kind of
see that, I mean, the main takeaway from this for me was like, okay, by and large kind of the
Bezos commitment, at least the early Bezos commitment kind of increased spaces that were
already like relatively well funded. I mean, it also kind of increased funding in other spaces,
but like in absolute terms, this is kind of like more or less kind of increasing those emphasis.

David Roberts
So you, I mean, if you were counseling, you know, Bezos or whoever's controlling that pot of money,
yeah, you are going to tell him to channel his money away from those things, basically.

Johannes Ackva
Again, always about the margin. So it depends on what everyone is doing. But like given what
everyone else right now is doing and given kind of how climate philanthropy has been like,
increasing it really strongly and also like increasing really strongly over a really short
time, right? So like it's, it's not that there are like a lot of like great funding gaps left
and kind of popular solutions. I think that's very implausible to say at this point. So that
kind of means that yeah, I would say like, if you're kind of looking for the highest impact
opportunities, trying to like look at things that are like controversial or not on the radar,
et cetera, it's probably like the way to go stuff like super hot rock geo thermal, stuff like carbon
removal, stuff like advanced nuclear stuff like solutions that are not like solar, wind, electric
cars, and trees. And not for the reason that those four aren't like great parts of the
decarbonization puzzle, they are, but they are the ones that we all know. And we all like and then
we all kind of already invest in heavily.

David Roberts
Right. We're back to hedging.

Johannes Ackva
So sort of the strategy you come down on in terms of recommendation is robust diversification. So
so does that just mean what we sort of been discussing sort of hedging by putting some of your money
at the margins outside popular solutions or what do you mean by robust diversification?

Johannes Ackva
Yeah. So I think there's a couple of more dimensions. So the robustness here is robustness
to uncertainty. Right. As I think as we've mentioned before, like there's really large uncertainties
that will remain on all relevant timescales, right? Like how far technologies will go,
how emissions will evolve, et cetera, how what will happen to the Paris agreement.
So like part of that is about just like generally like choosing a portfolio right now. If you're
kind of choosing a portfolio, you're coming into the space kind of that kind of hedges against the
failure of mainstream solutions out of logic that I laid out before rates are like damage is kind
of much worse when the mainstream when the mainstream solutions fail. And right now kind of the
mainstream solutions are like relatively speaking much, much better funded than like some of the
more hedgier solutions and for systematic reasons. So that's part of it. The other part is kind of
within your portfolio trying to kind of diversify in a way that kind of takes into account what I
mentioned like the negative correlation of the uncertainty, because again, you're not trying
to maximize emission reductions. You're trying to minimize damage. So you're kind of choosing,
for example, you're complimenting your focus or that's what we're doing like our focus on like
say, accelerating decarbonization, which we do with like ground teeth, like Clean Air Task Force for
a future clean tech architects, Terra Praxis, like people working on different kind of pieces
of that puzzle, then combining this with like a focus on like carbon removal, like Carbon 180
would be our recommendation in that space. So there's kind of this negative correlation there.
And then I think right now we're trying to take this kind of the next step kind of looking at
different theories of change and diversifying there and always kind of driven by this idea of
like importance as this robustness to kind of the worst worlds where we're kind of the majority of
the damage is concentrated.

David Roberts
It's not really entirely different than a just sort of financial
investment strategy.

Johannes Ackva
David Roberts
It's a portfolio approach for the same reasons.
Johannes Ackva
It's a portfolio approach for the same reasons, right? I mean, essentially,
if you're doing this on financial terms, what you're saying is like, okay, the marginal utility
of money is decreasing, right? So like you're, you're not trying to maximize your income, you're
trying to maximize your your well-being and you're kind of saying, okay, if you're like a millionaire,
like getting to 1.2 million, it's not as valuable. So it's like, it's exactly the same. That's
exactly the same logic. Yes.

David Roberts
And so one of the things I found really interesting in your work is that
you end up really recommending advocacy, public policy advocacy, as opposed to, you know, so if
I'm like the Bezos fund, I could make strategic investments directly in early stage companies.
I could make investments directly in, you know, research or found a research center or something
like that. But you end up pushing for advocacy. In other words, try to get policy passed, try to
change public policy. Why do you come down there?

Johannes Ackva
Yeah. So first, a clarification, I should be
clearer about this in my writing and I'm trying to be clearer here. When I say advocacy, what I
really mean is like trying to address large scale societal resource mobilization. So this can be
like changing policy, et cetera. It can also be like changing behavior of large corporate actor.
So that's one piece. And also like, this is not only like on the Hill lobbying. So like this also
does like can include stuff like doing research kind of on new technologies, like on the viability
of like new technologies, kind of putting things on the map. So just to clarify this a little bit.

David Roberts
Advocacy broadly construed.

Johannes Ackva
Advocacy broadly construed not only like beltway lobbying.
So if we kind of think about that, it's like why focusing on that, I think like there's kind of
two or three answers to this. I think the first one is that even if you kind of take the most
expanse of some off climate philanthropy, let's say right now, it's kind of like something like
on the order of like 10 billion, this is still at the most like a hundredth or so of the overall
effort spent on climate.

David Roberts
Right. Compared to public money.

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, public. Yeah. So like, this is one
reason. So if you think that you can have like, you only need to have like a small multiplier,
right? Like it's not, I'm not saying like you get a hundred x multiplier. That's like still
given those numbers, it's likely that kind of focusing on advocacy can still have an outside
impact. There's also like literature on that that shows that this works kind of from other fields.
But I think the other kind of key part of the answer is, which I think is the deeper answer,
is like, I mean, ultimately climate change, solving climate change is a policy problem and
requires a huge amount of policy. So like technological change, I mean, it's not a garage
factory thing, right? It's like technological change is like fundamentally the result of like
government policy and government incentives being correct and like public investment and
innovation, et cetera. And this is not only true for innovation, right? This is also true for
for other parts, like for rolling out technology. So for every kind of garage
entrepreneur, there's like, there's a policy kind of behind that that came before, usually that came
before. So in that sense, like, I think public policy is really crucial for essentially all
parts of the climate challenge. And if kind of the policy is set right, like the private action
and the research, et cetera, like kind of will follow. So like in the causal primacy,
that what I would call like the causal primacy really relies with like making sure that political
conditions are as good as they can be.

David Roberts
I'm sort of curious how philanthropists respond when you
pitch this because, you know, we've talked about uncertainty, but you know, if I'm Bezos,
I'm an executive, I'm used to, you know, quantification and results, and I want to see numbers. And if
I want that out of my climate advocacy, you know, like I can spend on a forest and then I can see
the forest and I can measure, you know, the tons from the forest or whatever. Whereas advocacy,
even broadly construed, is so uncertain. It's so unclear what can move politics. I mean, this is
very much kind of the central dilemma of climate change is what can move public policy, what can
get things moving. So if you commit to that, you are very much taking on the risk, the possibility
that you could be wasting your money, that you could spend a bunch of money on advocacy and
it could just not do anything. I mean, I think we've seen, unfortunately, in the last year or so,
an enormous, enormous amount of really well organized and funded climate advocacy that really is
starting to look like is not going to come to anything. And I can imagine if I'm a rich
philanthropist looking at that and saying, well, you know, screw that, I'm just going to go get
some verifiable tons where I can. So how do you address that and how do people react when you
sort of pitch this?

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, that's a great question. There's like lots in there. So let me try to
answer all of those different aspects there. So the first one is that I'm not making it
easy for myself saying that. I talked to a lot of entrepreneurs and executives that have like,
I think as you as you outlined, like very different institutions on that that want to like do impact
investing or that kind of want to do stuff that's like fast and certain and like me saying like,
let's invest in this policy thing that's highly uncertain. Like it's not the way that kind of
maximizes the giving I can kind of influence. So it's kind of a position I take because I believe
it very strongly. And I think that's also like an additional reason why we should think it to be
like relatively speaking under provided.

David Roberts
Right. It goes against a lot of intuitions.

Johannes Ackva
And against a lot of intuitions in particular of like new climate money. So if we kind of think
about like new climate money coming into the voluntary space, a lot of that is kind of coming
from people who got rich in tech, apply kind of their own like mental models and their own success
story. So like for them, like it's much more natural to invest kind of impact investing or
start their own company than to say like we're going to do this policy advocacy thing. So like
if you kind of think about this, this is one, once again, like one of these like psychological
factors or like one of these systematic features that should make you expect that
advocacy is under provided, relatively speaking to its impact. Because well, it's much more uncertain.
And even if it's highly effective, often times you will not know it, because the best advocacy
is the kind of advocacy where we're an organization will influence a policymaker. And they will never
talk about it publicly, but because talking about it publicly would like to destroy the entire
impact. Because the whole point of it is that the policymaker things they come up with this

David Roberts
Right. It's thankless.

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, it's thankless work. But I mean, that's I think why
it's so crucial to support it. And I think one thing I would kind of a little disagree here with
like, okay, with saying like, there's been this huge effort and nothing kind of came of it. I
mean, so like, we also invested hugely in the wake of Biden wins in the US advocacy space. And
I wouldn't say nothing came of it. So like, there's there's the infrastructure bill,
there's the Build Back Better plan. The infrastructure bill is not what we like hoped for, like, would
be much better with both back better as pass as well. But there is a lot of stuff in the
infrastructure bill that's kind of helping with relatively like nice and solutions. So like, I don't
see the other of the bets there were a failure.

David Roberts
Right. Well, maybe I was too cynical. And I think
you could say, even if Build Back Better ends up not passing, which is very much a possibility
at this point, you could say that advocacy was successful in causing Biden and really the
Democratic Party in general to prioritize climate, which is, which is a long term effect. It's not
just, you know, necessarily measurable by what gets passed these past two years.

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, absolutely.
And also I would say like, these philanthropic investments are still like small compared to like
investments and direct technology or like what we're spending overall on climate change. So I
think really one really shouldn't be too cynical on advocacy at all.

David Roberts
By way of wrapping up, pull
this back to because I know what a lot of listeners ask, you know, this is a question anybody who
writes talks about climate change in public gets this question a lot. I'm sure you get it a lot,
which is just individuals who want to do something and don't know what to do. You know, it's one
thing. Obviously, you get a lot more leverage affecting what Bezos wants to do than some average
schmo off the street. But nonetheless, like it would be nice to have guidance for average people.
And I think that a lot of the same dynamics here in terms of uncertainty in the sense that
individuals think, well, if I buy an EV, right, there's a measurable impact, right? It's not huge,
but it's certain and I did it. Whereas like, you know, tossing money out to an advocacy group
can feel a little bit like just throwing dollars out into the ocean and then never knowing what,
if anything, came of them. So what's your, you know, is your pitch to individuals more or less
the same? Or I guess to put the question more simply, what should individuals do if they have
climate money to spend? How do they maximize their impact?

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, I think the first thing I want to
kind of say is like, I don't think like consumption choices or behavior change and like giving,
it's like not neither nor. So like for myself, I'm a vegetarian. I actually don't have a driving
license because of climate reasons.
And like, I do my fair share of like lifestyle changes. At the same time, I don't believe,
and like, like, this is not only because of my professional role, but also just in general,
because I'm like a middle income person in a rich country. I don't think this is like anywhere close
to max the maximum impact I can have. And the reason for that is like, it's twofold. Like,
once it's like, if you're like a typical like middle class person in the Western world in the US,
let's say, let's say in the US, you're emitting something like 11 tons or so, something on that
order per year. And again, you can reduce that to zero. Also, like, it's really hard to reduce
that to zero. But even if you would like reduce it to zero, and that would like take like a really
extreme measures, the first one would be like a lot of that reduction would actually not be
additional for the reasons that we kind of alluded to before.
So I think that's the first thing. And the second part is like, reducing emissions
by 11 tons per year is actually really unambitious, if you think about what you can do. So, and it's
kind of saying like you're responsible only towards your own emissions, not towards the
emissions related to the fact that like the West got rich on fossil fuels. So it doesn't really
make sense as a benchmark either, like even from this perspective. So that's the first part.
The second part is like, even if you're like, so like I would probably say like you can, if you
focus on factor philanthropy, you can probably avoid a ton of carbon for a dollar or something.
Even if you're like 100 times more pessimistic than me, you can kind of like, if you're kind of
doing lifestyle changes and also donate a thousand dollars, you already kind of having the same
impact with your philanthropic investment. And of course, you don't need to stop there, right?
There's no natural bound on what what you can do philanthropically, where there is like a very
natural bound to what you can do for your lifestyle changes.

David Roberts
Right. Yeah. One of your charts that really made an impression is where you sort of chart the tons
of carbon impact of various lifestyle changes and you grant in the chart. Let's say that like you
buy an EV and it inspires 10 other people to buy an EV. Even if you 10x all your lifestyle choices,
you're still not going to have anywhere close to the impact you would have, just direct impact you
would have by giving your money to a climate organization, a climate advocacy organization,

Johannes Ackva
Yeah. Again, I guess I would kind of add the coverage here, like a climate organization
that kind of drives to like maximize impact at the margin.
Yeah. But one thing I really want to stress on this case, because I think it's like the
most common kind of misunderstanding and kind of the thing that makes people really
uneasy about this is like, I would really not think about this as offsetting. Like people
sometimes ask me like, how much do I have to donate to a charity to kind of reduce my impact?
Like this is really the wrong mental frame. I think like the mental frame that I want people to take
is really different. It's really more about like not offsetting, but like kind of acting morally
in the world in accordance with the values and trying to like have a positive impact.
The other thing that's like for me donating is very much it's not an offsetting choice.
It's a political action. So like in the same way that kind of going into the streets,
participating in a protest or calling your representative, it's in that bucket of
activities. It's also structurally similar in that like these activities will always have
more impact because they're kind of addressing the problem there. There's multipliers to be
out there and the same kind of multipliers that you can have in your civic engagement kind of apply
probably somewhat stronger, but like whatever, like the same kind of logic applies. So like
if you think that like going into the street or calling your representative is like higher
impact than your lifestyle choices, and I think in almost all cases, this will be true,
then you should believe the same about philanthropy and you shouldn't see it as like offsetting at all
with the form of political action.

David Roberts
The whole focus on offsetting is such a weird artifact
of Western individualism. It's such a bizarre way to approach the problem of climate change.
Like if I can just eliminate my tons, I'm good. Like it just doesn't it makes no sense in the
context of climate as a as a global problem.

Johannes Ackva
No, no, it absolutely makes no sense at all.

David Roberts
In conclusion, say I'm an individual, I'm hearing your message and I'm convinced and I want to give
to a good climate organization. Is there somewhere I can go where you lay out which climate organizations
you think are good and effective, like a guide to individual giving? Is there some where people
can go for some help?

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, so what we do have on this is, I mean, we as Founders Pledge do have
a climate fund where we're kind of trying to make the best commitments like philanthropic
commitments, which we think are possible. The logic that lies behind this is kind of explored in our
reports that we're publishing on our website. So for example, one of them, I think that we've
discussed a lot now today is the Changing Landscape report from last November. So you can go to
founderspledge.com and find the report there, can also include the links in the show notes.
And yeah, I think the charities that we're highlighting right now would be someone like
the Clean Air Task Force with a focus on like neglected solutions, kind of in decarbonization,
Carbon 180 with a focus on carbon removal, Future Clean Tech Architects in Germany,
which is kind of focused on innovation and hard to decarbonize sectors with a European focus,
where there's kind of less attention philanthropically to innovation, but a lot of the policy action
is there. So that's kind of the bet there. And then Terra Praxis, which is focused in advance,

David Roberts
What if I'm on the other side of things, what if I am in a climate organization,
a climate advocacy organization, and I want to get on your list to make the case that I'm a
worthy recipient of your funds? Is there any kind of formalized process for that, or do you guys
just go out and look, or is there some kind of application thing, or how does that process work?

Johannes Ackva
So what we're kind of trying to do, because I think a lot of kind of what I played out today,
and what I got in our report is like, we really kind of try to understand systematic things
about the space, and then kind of find the organizations that are doing high impact work,
and kind of the most neglected spaces. So we're not having an application process as such.
That being said, I'm happy for people to reach out to me at Johannes at Founder's Pledge,
but this is not our usual process. So our usual process is kind of we dive into the field,
we kind of try to understand how it's changing, where kind of the margins are, and kind of try to
support solutions at the margin that we think of as like great bets for counterfactual impact.

David Roberts
And I promise this is really the final, final question, but it just occurred to me.
Say you do an analysis, and you find a neglected space that you think could be high impact,
and there is no organization devoted to that space. Have you ever thought about trying to spin off,
or create organizations to fill those spaces?

Johannes Ackva
Yeah, I mean, that's absolutely something we're open to doing until now.
This has kind of been a little bit beyond our capacity, but I think what we have been doing
a lot, and I think we also think of as high impact, like high impact solution in general,
as to like support organizations that have like our one or two people strong,
because those are the organizations that do not have the bandwidth to kind of apply to large
foundations. So this is actually a really important part of our strategy to support those organizations.
And also there, we're taking like high risk bets, like we're very risk tolerant,
like we're not expecting an organization with two people to have the same kind of like strategic
plan. So we're kind of making bets on people or bets on kind of working on neglect the solutions.

David Roberts

Yeah, diversification. All right, well, thanks so much,
you know, it's been really interesting reading your work and sort of watching the logical stepwise
process by which you sort of go through this space and think about the shape of the space and the
shape of the uncertainties, everything. It's quite, it's quite clarifying and interesting.
So thanks so much for coming on. Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

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Posted by vsrinivas at 04:23 PM