Climate Change and Effective Altruism: A Cause Worth Fighting ForOctober 13, 2023
By Emily Xing, 2023 Future Blue Youth Council member
Featured Image: “Draw Your Future” by Yerim Lee (Washington)
A recent philosophical movement has taken the elite, extremely wealthy world by storm, and it is called effective altruism. Its namesake principles can be seen through this example:
Say you are at a river, and both a child and $100,000 are about to drown. Which would you save? Emotionally speaking, every reasonable person would choose to save the child.
But effective altruists argue that in situations like this one, we have to make the decision that does the most social good. While we could immediately save one child’s life, the $100,000 could go on to save hundreds, if not thousands, of people by being donated to the right charities.
So while our hearts may lead us to one decision, we have to consider scientific logic and reasoning in maximizing our societal impact. Albeit simplified, that is the core of effective altruism (EA)—a movement that’s mobilized over $900 million in donations as of April 2023.
My first encounter with EA was when I participated in a Science Bowl tournament sponsored by Open Philanthropy, where young billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried spoke about this idea. He is the founder of FTX, a digital cryptocurrency exchange that recently declared bankruptcy due to fraud and siphoning money.
Even so, as a high school junior, I was entranced by his grandiose impact. He has donated millions to fight poverty, disease, and the newly budding field of AI advancement.
I wanted to be as influential as he was, to matter that much. So I worked a lot, conducting environmental health research and studying lots of science. In the process, I remember talking to one Atlas Fellow (the Atlas Fellowship is a FTX-funded EA program for high schoolers. We got into a heated argument about which was the more important issue: climate change or AI safety. One of the EA community’s key pillars is a research priority list—it reveals, based on evidence, the problems where we should allocate the majority of our resources to help humanity the most.
While my AI researcher friend argued the stark immediate threat that super AI posed, I began to realize that, to the EA movement, climate change is not a high priority. Because while it is detrimental to our ecosystems, it will not likely pose an existential risk to the human species. According to the IPCC, humanity will go on to live through scorching summers, make do with less water, and adapt to and survive a burning planet.
As someone who grew up loving nature and my Chesapeake Bay wading trips, this principle sat weirdly in my heart. A lot of EA organizations preach longtermism—the idea that future human life matters just as much as our society right now, and that our top focus should be on preserving the eonic survival of humanity.
Recently, when I talked to Harvard University ethics professor Dr. Daniel Wikler, he asked a simple, yet profound question that made me realize EA’s pitfalls. Yes, our future worlds need our current care, but doesn’t the “drowning child” need our help as well?
How can we truly measure life, and maximize lives helped? EA relies on scaling models that often overlook the marginalized communities of our world. It is third-world countries that will bear the grunt of our climate change burden, experiencing the most lives lost from its unprecedented effects. We are already seeing this happening in Pakistan’s devastating floods, and according to a Stanford study, climate change has increased economic inequality by over 25% since 1960.
While AI has immense potential to benefit our general quality of life, we cannot realize its benefits without addressing society’s widespread resource disparities first. Talking to Grace Obiorah, the team lead of one of our Fellowship grantees, TeamUpcyclers, even accessing electricity is a problem in most schools where she is in Nigeria.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I don’t find AI safety unworthwhile, or EA’s philosophy uncompelling. There are actually many EA groups out there who support climate change action. But if we examine the makeup of the faces of EA, we will find many incredibly affluent people who have pledged to donate some percent of their income to charity—such as Sam Bankman-Fried, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, and numerous other wealthy players—because those are the only kind of people who have individual power to spark change. Rather than placing responsibility on institutional systems, EA promotes personal salvation, and “earning to give.”
Thus, I believe effective altruism subtly implies the notion that certain life is worth inherently more than others. It would argue that its principles are not inhumane, but instead, it is irrationality that gets in the way of us doing the most good. It creates organizations like the Atlas Foundation and Explore Fellowship to engage youth in this way of thinking, and oftentimes these youth do go on to do amazing things.
But, in my opinion, there is an inherent danger in glorifying the pursuit of incredible amounts of money, even if it’s for “social good.” I hope we can instead mobilize our youth to hold our systems accountable on pressing issues such as climate change, social disparity, and more; to find value in giving their time, effort, and care beyond just money; to love all life on Earth, wealthy or not, because together, we make society whole and beautiful.