A New Estimate of the ‘Most Effective’ Way to Fight Climate Change

Climate-concerned donors should focus on helping to pass climate policy, not offset their emissions, an advisory group says.  

Members of Sunrise Movement stand in front of the Capitol during a press conference.
Allison Bailey / NurPhoto / AP

On a dollar-for-dollar basis, where will your money do the most to fight climate change?

The economist Daniel Stein has a clear answer: You should give to groups that lobby for aggressive climate policies. And if you’re an American, he has three such groups in mind: the Evergreen Collaborative, Carbon180, and the Clean Air Task Force.

“If you’re like Joe Schmo, and you’re looking to do something for climate, I think you should give to policy,” Stein told me. “We think it’s something like 10 times more effective to give to policy than to give to one of these projects that are directly doing emissions reductions.”

A year ago, I profiled Giving Green, a new organization that applies the principles of effective altruism to fighting climate change. It tries to answer one of the most common questions I get as a reporter—“Where should I give my money to fight climate change?”—but with some degree of quantitative rigor.

Its list of recommendations has changed slightly since last year. Gone from the list is the Sunrise Movement, which Stein lauded—“I really do believe that the existence of Sunrise has led, at least to a certain extent, to major climate bills being passed in the Biden administration,”—but which is going through an internal restructuring and has yet to publish a strategy for the next few years. (It also needs individual donations less than it did, Stein said, because it has secured more institutional support.)

In its place are Carbon180, which advocates for policy to accelerate direct carbon removal, and the Evergreen Collaborative, a policy shop composed of veterans of Jay Inslee’s climate-focused presidential campaign. Evergreen “has very quickly become very influential, in terms of figuring out how to take the broader ideas of the progressive climate movement and turn [them] into actual laws that can be passed,” Stein said.

And Giving Green has continued recommending the Clean Air Task Force, which works with politicians from both parties to deploy technologies, such as carbon removal and even carbon capture and storage, that will ultimately be necessary in a zero-carbon world.

Giving Green’s list does include a few groups that will offset carbon pollution or remove it entirely. Among these are Tradewater, which finds and destroys industrial refrigerant gases that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, and Climeworks and Charm Industrial, two start-ups that remove carbon from the atmosphere directly. But it “really, really, really does not recommend” that individuals who can donate to political causes give to these offsetting or removal groups, Stein said—the bang for your buck is just much higher passing a bill. The only reliable carbon-removal firms are fully booked for the next few years as well, according to Giving Green’s research, meaning that even if you paid them to remove a ton of carbon from the atmosphere today, they wouldn’t do it until 2023.

Giving Green is an experiment in effective altruism, a social movement that fuses traditional charity, classical economics, and a particularly cosmopolitan strain of utilitarianism to form a new approach to philanthropy. Where, the movement’s adherents ask, can a marginal dollar do the most good? On what causes can spending the smallest amount of money prevent the most suffering?

The answer is almost always making a small addition to a very poor country’s health system, such as distributing mosquito bed nets or vitamins. Or it’s just giving very poor people money. EA tends to target the world’s most impoverished people for assistance, both because they presumably suffer the most and because their problems are the cheapest to solve. It might take hundreds of thousands of dollars to cure an American of a chronic disease, for instance. But according to the nonprofit Givewell, which makes EA-informed charitable recommendations, only $3,000 can save the life of someone in Burkina Faso or Côte d’Ivoire by providing them with free vitamin-A supplements.

Even though I don’t always agree with it, I find EA’s answers to the problem of how to be a good person fascinating. But focusing on climate change reveals some of the limits of this strategy. Climate change will harm extremely poor people, but most carbon pollution comes from rich or middle-income countries—and so it must be addressed at the (very expensive) source. The climate problem throws EA, which often looks for interventions so simple that they seem apolitical, back into the world of politics.

This year, Giving Green’s recommendations were adopted by The Life You Can Save, an EA nonprofit co-founded by Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethics professor. Singer, a luminary in the EA world, is famous for arguing one of its most important ideas: If you can help someone at minimal cost to yourself, you should.

“Climate change is something that is having, and increasingly will have, a huge effect on extreme poverty. It’s people in extreme poverty who will be the worst affected by it,” Singer told me in an interview. “So we feel we need to get into that area, simply in order to carry out successfully a mission of continuing to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, large-scale extreme poverty around the world.”

Of course, intervening in a political system is harder than figuring out a precise health-based intervention. Whereas EA advocates normally prefer to measure their interventions through arduous economic assessments and randomized control trials, you can’t run an A/B test on history. Giving Green tries to do the best that it can in this regard, and indeed, it advises donors to give to policy groups specifically because the models show they have an outsize impact. But it has to fall back on models alone.

Singer recognized that Giving Green’s methodology differed from that used in other EA problems. That’s fine, he said—“rigorous methodology is not applicable to all of the problems that cause and maintain extreme poverty.”

“If we are to deal with those causes, we need to relax some of those standards,” he continued. “You know, things like randomized controlled trials can’t really apply in all areas, and we would be missing out on some very important issues if we don’t broaden that methodology.”

You can read more of Giving Green’s recommendations on its website.