If you’ve come here from Kristian’s post and are wondering how to take action to reduce extreme risks such as catastrophic climate change, here’s the TL;DR: If you’re a founder, you should consider joining Founders Pledge as a community of like-minded individuals committed to learning about and reducing such risks through high-impact philanthropy. (Make a pledge information request here and, if you’re not a founder, you can still contribute by donating to our Climate Fund)
We explain here what we think this means for the case of climate (I), but also why we think this is a much larger problem (II) and how we think you can contribute to its solution (III). Let’s dive in.
I. What does it mean to focus on reducing extreme climate risks?
Kristian’s post has already highlighted why it’s overwhelmingly important to avoid the most extreme risks from climate change.
While it is still very uncertain how much warming a given level of emissions translates to and how much damage this causes, one thing is abundantly clear -- climate change gets increasingly unmanageable as it gets more extreme. While a world of 1.5 degrees would not be that different from today (we are already at about 1 degree of warming), a world of 3 degrees of warming would pose significantly more challenges, with risks being a lot more pronounced at 6 degrees (also see Kristian’s post, as well as this great interactive at CarbonBrief).
The question is, then: how can we best minimize the probability of these less likely, but higher severity risks?
The answer that we focus on in our climate work is to ask ourselves “What has gone wrong if we are on a 6 degree trajectory?” (Hat tip to Will MacAskill and John Halstead who have clarified this argument for me).
While predictions are hard, especially about the future, we can make some educated guesses.
We talk about likelihoods here because, ultimately, it always depends on climate sensitivity and emissions trajectories, with our reasoning here about the latter:
- Mainstream climate diplomacy has likely failed: It’s very unlikely that we are on a 6C-degree trajectory if the architecture of the Paris Climate Agreement is still intact. Even in the current situation, where national commitments do not match the global goal of the Paris Agreement (2C degree of warming, ideally 1.5C degrees), a 6C-degree trajectory is quite unlikely. Rather, on current trajectories we should expect around 3C degrees as the most likely outcome (see here, here, and here). So, it is likely that in the high risk worlds, cooperation around climate has broken down to a degree far more severe than what we currently imagine as “business as usual”.
- Mainstream technological solutions have likely failed: In a world where wind and solar continue to exceed expectations and the direct and indirect (vs. zero-carbon fuels, such as hydrogen) electrification of other sectors of the economy is easy, it is very difficult to end up on a 6C degree trajectory. This means that most of the risk lies in worlds where these solutions have -- relatively speaking -- failed compared to the most optimistic expectations. Maybe the build-out of large-scale transmission infrastructure does not become politically feasible in enough jurisdictions, maybe the growth of renewables plateaus, or maybe the production of green hydrogen just doesn’t get cheap or doesn’t scale. In any case, we will not be in a world where everything that looks promising and feasible right now will have exceeded expectations.
- There’s probably a lot of energy-intensive growth in emerging economies: In energy scenario models that “succeed” at producing very high levels of warming (in particular, the “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” scenarios 3 and 5), one typical feature is that there has been a lot of growth, particularly in emerging economies. This makes sense: because on typical trajectories emissions in OECD countries are already trending downwards as economic and emissions growth are decoupling, most climate risk comes from emerging economies becoming rich the same way OECD countries did -- burning lots of fossil fuels in energy-intensive industry and an expanding infrastructure.
- There might have been a growth explosion: One plausible way to get to lots of warming is an explosion of economic growth not accompanied by a corresponding investment into decarbonization. One can, for example, think about AI-fueled growth explosions where -- for some reason, such as an arms race or another reason for breakdown of climate concern -- little attention is paid to making this growth low-carbon.
Looking at those stylized facts about these risk drivers of extreme climate change, there are two possible responses.
The first is to minimize the probability of those risks drivers occurring, “how can we make sure these do not materialize?”. With regards to this, the risk drivers fall into two camps:
The first two, focused on preventing the failure of current mainstream approaches, are not neglected. Given all the attention these approaches get, it is hard to imagine that marginal philanthropy, additional attention beyond existing attention, can make a large difference to avoid those failures. For the latter two, it is very unclear how climate philanthropy could affect those and, more importantly, it is also morally ambiguous -- as constraining economic growth, in particular in emerging economies (3), appears quite objectionable.
We thus focus on a second response, asking “what will have a big impact when those risk factors materialize?”
This is why our Climate Fund and, more generally, our research and funding strategy is focused on solutions that could have an outsized impact but are currently neglected compared to their potential -- such as advanced nuclear power or super-hot rock geothermal. Those are solutions that can make a big difference when there is a lot of energy demand growth. In addition, solutions such as cheap carbon removal, could make a large difference in those scenarios as well, as long as there are some actors willing to invest in climate mitigation.
II. The neglect of “shit hits the fan scenarios” is systematic and much broader than climate
That extreme climate risks are probably the most underappreciated part of the climate challenge is not a coincidence.
Indeed, we find time and time again that individuals and society at large far too often treat low-probability risks as having a probability of zero (think: COVID-19, an expectable event that was still largely ignored, but that we highlighted prominently in our 2018 report on existential risks). This neglect of small probabilities, combined with a neglect of the scale of extreme risks -- such as (near-)extinction from unaligned artificial intelligence, engineered pandemics, or great power war -- leads to a frightening situation where we are systematically underprepared for the largest challenges we face.
III. You can do something to change this
At Founders Pledge, we try to do our part to improve our societal preparedness by finding and funding the highest-impact philanthropic opportunities to prevent existential catastrophe and increase the likelihood of a flourishing future; alongside addressing global poverty and improving animal welfare as immediate near-term priorities.
We do so by funding advocates that inform US and UK policy makers on existential risks, leading researchers on how to make the development of artificial intelligence safe, and university centers at the forefront of bio-risk preparedness, to name a few. This is inspired by systematic analyses on civilization’s greatest risks, which are currently still being neglected by politicians.
In the near future, we will also feature additional giving recommendations to reduce the risk of great power war, as well as approaches to improving the ability of our institutions to detect and address long-term risks. We are also launching a Patient Philanthropy Fund, which will invest and disburse money at the time of greatest need.
In short, at Founders Pledge we’re pursuing a variety of strategies -- informed by in-house research as well as leading experts -- to increase humanity’s resilience to when “shit hits the fan” and extreme risks manifest. We urge you to be a part of the solution by joining our community or donating to our funds