Climate Change

Satellite photo of the Sundarbans, low-lying mangrove swamps in Bangladesh under threat from rising sea levels (Jesse Allen / NASA / Public Domain)

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Notice about research

Giving What We Can no longer conducts our own research into charities and cause areas. Instead, we're relying on the work of organisations including J-PAL, GiveWell, and the Open Philanthropy Project, which are in a better position to provide more comprehensive research coverage.

These research reports represent our thinking as of late 2016, and much of the information will be relevant for making decisions about how to donate as effectively as possible. However we are not updating them and the information may therefore be out of date.

Impact Summary

  • Importance: 4.5/5
  • Tractability: 2/5
  • Neglectedness: 1/5

Charity Impact

  • Robustness of Evidence: 1/5
  • Track Record: 3/5
  • Room for More Funding: Yes
Learn More Citizens' Climate Lobby / Citizens' Climate Education

Charity Impact

  • Cost Effectiveness: 2/5
  • Robustness of Evidence: 4/5
  • Track Record: 5/5
  • Room for More Funding: Yes
Learn More Cool Earth

Fast Facts

  • 2015 represented the hottest year in recorded history, and if emissions from human activities are not significantly curtailed, Earth's surface temperature is expected to increase by 3.6°C by 2100 .
  • The annual rate of sea level rise over the past two decades has been almost double that of the preceding 80 years. This places increased strain on water-based ecosystems and threatens to displace hundreds of millions of people, some in the world's most vulnerable areas.
  • Recent environmental treaties show a willingness to work towards meaningful change, but fall short of what is required to sufficiently reduce the risk of catastrophe.

Climate change poses a considerable threat to human health and well being, and is directly attributable to human activities.

The scope of the problem is potentially greater than many of the individual diseases and risk factors which currently influence morbidity and mortality, and warrants a timely and substantial response on the part of governments and institutions which may be able to enact substantial mitigation policies.

However, in terms of investment, the problem of climate change appears to be far from neglected (see below). Also, due to the lack of highly cost-effective interventions which prevent or mitigate climate change, it may not be as tractable a cause area as others that we have looked at previously.

For individual donors, it appears that the only positive impacts that can be made with any degree of certainty are through direct action into either emission reduction or by responding to the adverse effects of climate change. There is, however, a large discrepancy in cost-effectiveness between the two methods, with emission reduction providing far less value for money. Meanwhile, responding to the worst effects of climate change, through adaptation, meanwhile, can be done through existing interventions into global health and we expect that this have a greater positive impact.

It is worth noting, however, that here we have primarily considered the impacts of climate change on human health and wellbeing, and have not been able to fully assess the effects on biodiversity, preservation of the natural environment, and other areas. There have been fewer quantitative estimates of the impacts in these areas, and the metrics available to evaluate them are a great deal more controversial, but it is still expected that impacts in these areas will be quite considerable. For donors who place particular importance on biodiversity or preservation of the natural environment, climate change may still be a very worthwhile cause to focus on, although a great deal of further research is still needed.

Also relevant to the choice of climate change interventions is one’s attitude towards risk. Those who are comfortable with interventions which have a low probability of very large impacts may wish to donate to a charity focused on political advocacy. This is an extremely difficult area in which to make any strong predictions, but we have examined organisations which could most plausibly produce substantial political change at a relatively low cost.

See also our recent post on modelling the cost-effectiveness of climate change interventions.