The Weekly Planet: The Best Way to Donate to Fight Climate Change (Probably)
These are the most effective carbon offsets and climate-advocacy groups, according to a new evidence-based group.
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Let’s say you want to donate $25 to fighting climate change. Where should your money go?
Since I started this newsletter, this inquiry (or something like it) is among the most common questions I’ve received from readers. And for good reason: There are at least 461 nonprofits in the United States devoted to environmental causes, according to the evaluator Charity Navigator. Not all of them approach climate change effectively, or even do what they claim to. The green-nonprofit world is a thicket, contained in a morass, reachable only by slog.
Daniel Stein, an economist who trained at the London School of Economics, learned this lesson about 18 months ago when he went looking for the best ways to maximize his climate giving. “I thought I could find the information after a couple hours of Googling,” he told me last week. “But not only could I not find it, a lot of the information that I could find was straight-up wrong.”
So he founded Giving Green, to help people ford the swamp. Giving Green advises people on how to fight climate change with their donations in the most evidence-based way possible. It emerged from beta and published new recommendations last month. Because today is Giving Tuesday—the capstone of America’s ersatz Holy Week and the only square on the calendar devoted to philanthropy—I wanted to look at those recommendations.
Some background: Giving Green is part of the effective-altruism movement, which tries to answer questions such as “How can someone do the most good?” with scientific rigor. Or at least with econometric rigor.
Some readers of this newsletter might be familiar with GiveWell, which tries to find charities that save the most lives on a dollar-per-dollar basis. It uses randomized control trials and empirical evidence to identify charities that it says “improve lives the most per dollar.”
Giving Green applies this same principle to climate change. It asks: If you donate a dollar to fighting climate change, where will your money go furthest? Right now, it makes recommendations in two areas: carbon offsets and policy change. Each illustrates the benefits of its approach—and the potential problems.
Carbon offsetting should be a perfect fit for Giving Green. There’s nothing theoretically impossible about using money to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet doing so has proved devilishly hard in practice. The field is haunted by an idea called “additionality,” which says that every additional dollar spent on offsets should prevent additional CO₂ pollution. According to the European Union, about 85 percent of carbon-offset projects don’t have additionality. That is, they might prevent some carbon pollution, but the amount of pollution prevented doesn’t reliably match the amount of money spent.
Giving Green recommends three carbon-offsetting programs that it says have strong additionality (among other traits):
1. The best way to offset additional carbon pollution is to permanently remove existing carbon pollution from the atmosphere. This is what the Swiss company Climeworks does: It sucks carbon dioxide from the air and turns it into a solid material underground.
This is the “most certain” way to offset carbon emissions, according to Giving Green; it’s also the most expensive. Climeworks charges more than $1,000 to remove a ton of CO₂ from the atmosphere. For context: If you wanted to offset the carbon dioxide emitted by the average U.S. car each year, you’d be set back $4,600.
This is out of reach for most people. So Climeworks offers a subscription service: You can pay the company to capture a small amount of carbon every month in your name. For $8 a month, Climeworks will, over the course of a year, remove 85 kilograms of CO₂—about as much as the average car releases in 210 miles of driving.
2. There are cheaper ways to offset carbon pollution. Giving Green also recommends Tradewater, which finds and destroys stores of chemical refrigerants that are more than 10,000 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is.
Because Tradewater targets chemicals that are so much more potent than CO₂, and because it doesn’t need to remove those gases from the atmosphere—it only needs to keep them from reaching the atmosphere—it is much cheaper than Climeworks. At $15 a ton, Tradewater “offers one of the most attractive combinations of price and certainty,” Giving Green says.
3. Finally, Giving Green recommends BURN, which provides fuel-efficient cookstoves to people in Kenya. BURN requires $10 to prevent a ton of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. (While many of the early hopes for efficient cookstoves haven’t panned out, Giving Green says that the BURN approach is backed by research.)
So if you are going to donate $25 to fighting climate change, which of these groups should you give to? None of them, Stein told me. If you want to seriously fight climate change, he said, you need to move beyond buying offsets to supporting “lower-certainty but higher-potential-impact spaces”—specifically, policy.
On policy, Giving Green recommends that donors support two very different organizations—the Clean Air Task Force and the Sunrise Movement.
The Clean Air Task Force works with policy makers in both parties to deploy technologies that could alter the basic math of climate change. Essentially that means it promotes new kinds of nuclear energy, improvements to the power grid, and machines that capture carbon from smokestacks or from the open air. It’s technocratic and nonpartisan.
The Sunrise Movement, by contrast, champions the Green New Deal, which calls for massive investment in climate-action and social-welfare programs. Sunrise is one of the most visible activist organizations on the American left, and it’s informally allied with Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other progressive leaders. So it’s assertively partisan, aiming to help Democrats win elections while compelling their party to recognize climate change as an emergency.
Giving Green certifies both organizations as highly effective, but says that donors should choose one or the other based on their theory of how the political system works. If donors believe pragmatic dealmaking gets results, then they should choose the Clean Air Task Force. Giving Green says it has a “long track record of successfully advocating for national-level policy change.” But if donors trust that passionate activism and shifting the terms of national debate will triumph over the long term, then they should go with Sunrise. Though that group is only a few years old, Giving Green says that it “shows promise” and that it has a “strong theory of change and some victories.”
(Technically, Giving Green advises that donors give to the Sunrise Movement’s education fund, which is—again, technically—nonpartisan. Because Giving Green is part of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it cannot support partisan political groups.)
Sunrise is certainly the more controversial of the two groups. It has vacillated on the utility of nuclear energy and carbon-removal technology, and it gave President-elect Joe Biden’s climate plan a low grade during the 2020 Democratic primary. (It then endorsed him during the general election.) I asked Stein whether Giving Green’s recommendation might alienate more centrist or conservative donors.
“That is unquestionably right,” he said. “Sunrise is associated with policies that are on the left side of the political spectrum … and there’s risk of that, there’s risk of blowback.
“But how does change get done?” he continued. “Sometimes it’s bipartisan compromise, but sometimes it’s extremely passionate people on one side.” Many of Sunrise’s tactics are borrowed from the civil-rights movement, he said—a cause that was undeniably effective at changing U.S. policy.
Ultimately, Giving Green reveals the value—and the limits—of an evidence-based approach to philanthropy. Jennifer Rubenstein, a political-theory professor at the University of Virginia who has written about effective altruism, told me that she thinks the methodology is good at helping donors avoid the worst 15 percent of nonprofits. Giving Green has likely done so here.
But in climate, it faces a harder, even epistemological, question. The carbon-offset question is knowable; some organizations remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere better than others, and it is possible to learn their names. But supporting political action, as Giving Green recommends, goes beyond the realm of quantifiable evidence; it requires arguing about what will change people’s behavior. Sunrise and the Clean Air Task Force are good options for certain kinds of donors. But to support either group is to make a bet about the future. And nobody can run a randomized controlled trial on the future.
Someone Else’s Weather
Our reader Karen Buczynski-Lee shared this photo of a misty, rainy day in Bagni di Lucca, Italy. November was unusually warm nearly everywhere in the world, including Italy. It was far and away the warmest November on record, and nearly 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than Novembers during the late 19th century.
Every week, I feature a weather photo from a reader or professional in this part of the newsletter, because the climate is someone else’s weather. If you would like to submit one, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
3 Fascinating Things
1. We’re still waiting to find out who will fill many of the most important climate positions in the Biden administration. We don’t know who will lead the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Energy under Biden, nor do we know who will serve as his domestic-climate-policy chief. (John Kerry will lead climate policy abroad.) But one important name has come into focus: Brian Deese will direct the White House National Economic Council, making him Biden’s top economic adviser.
Deese’s nomination has aroused some controversy. Deese led a White House regulatory office during the Obama administration. But he left to lead environmental efforts at BlackRock, an investment powerhouse that owns a huge share of the U.S. economy, by dint of operating some of the world’s most successful index funds.
Some climate activists argue that BlackRock, by idly owning many fossil-fuel companies, is making global warming worse; progressive activists take issue with its attempt to relax financial regulation. This history led the Sunrise Movement to oppose Deese’s nomination—which, in turn, led Bill McKibben, who has written about climate change since the 1980s and is perhaps the country’s most influential climate activist, to endorse Deese’s nomination.
McKibben, in fact, had officiated Deese’s wedding. “I imagine he'll work steadfastly and competently and honorably, to the betterment of the world, and that he'll get a lot done,” McKibben said of Deese.
I tell this story not to come down on one side or the other. Instead, I want to call attention to a conflict that will become more common as investment firms become larger players in the climate fight and actively push poorly performing companies to do better. Activists’ skepticism of financial power and the use of that corporate power to accelerate climate action are going to collide.
2. An EPA investigation has found that diesel-engine tuners, installed on pickup trucks, are responsible for a staggering amount of air pollution. Trucks with these devices are collectively responsible for emitting 10 times more nitrogen-dioxide pollution than the cars at the center of the Volkswagen scandal. Yet the Trump administration hasn’t yet publicized the paper that reached these conclusions, The New York Times reports.
3. Some reasonably good news: Bank of America has announced that it won’t finance any oil exploration or drilling in the Arctic. This means that none of the six major U.S. banks will fund Arctic drilling, a potential obstacle for any company that might want to pursue it. (An anemic global oil market doesn’t help much either.)
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