How can we help the
environment the most?
Effective Environmentalism means using evidence and careful analysis to find the most effective interventions for fighting climate change.
But analysis is not enough. It's no use answering questions unless you also act on your knowledge.
Effective Environmentalism is about following through. It's about being effective with your time, skills, and money to help the planet as much as you can.
It's about finding and acting in ways that have a massive positive impact on the environment when so many actions do so little (and some even make things worse).
An outstanding opportunity
Sometimes, the solutions that are widely known aren’t the best ones.
For example, a common recommendation is to turn the lights off when you leave the room. But lighting only accounts for 3% of household energy use, so even if you never used the lights in your house you would save only a fraction of a metric ton of carbon emissions. This is even further amplified when using LED light bulbs that require less electricity.
Small changes like turning off lights aren't as impactful as we often expect and our focus may be better invested in more significant actions.
Read more on the topic in the Climate and Lifestyle Report.
How can we compare interventions?
Given the complexity of environmental problems, many interventions to mitigate, manage or adapt to climate change are highly resource-intensive, both in terms of labour and finances. With limited resources, we have to prioritize available interventions.
The ITN (Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness) framework is a tool we can use to compare different interventions and guide our decision-making.
Using a framework adds transparency, structure, and an objective standard to our decision-making processes. It can help narrow down a broad selection of interventions.
How important is this problem?
The importance of a problem determines how much potential impact your actions could have. How do we know which problems are important?
Environmentalism is a large and complicated topic that encompasses many different problems, ranging from climate change to biodiversity loss.
For example, we may think that climate change, and specifically greenhouse gas emissions, is one of the biggest threats to the environment because it negatively impacts almost every environmental issue.
Identifying a subproblem
Problems are often too manifold to be solved by one intervention. Once we've identified a promising problem, we need to break it down into subproblems that are more actionable.
For example, there are many sources of greenhouse gas emissions and we can't work on all of them at once. Choosing a subproblem, such as reducing the emissions from energy production, could be more manageable and actionable.
Choosing the right intervention
What are possible interventions within your chosen subproblem and how much of the subproblem do they solve?
For example, clean energy can substantially decrease CO2 emissions because fossil fuels are a major contributor to emissions.
How much attention does this problem get?
Neglectedness assesses how many resources are already dedicated to this intervention. The more neglected an intervention, the bigger our potential impact.
Resources include people employed in relevant sectors and working on an intervention, grants given to the respective project, and general public awareness about the problem. Neglectedness can highly depend on the size and scale of an intervention. Let’s explore this relationship a hypothetical example about solar energy production in Egypt and England.
Consider the following data on introducing solar panels in Egypt and England.
With $52M government investment, Egypt is more neglected than England where the government allocates more money to solar energy production. In absolute terms, Egypt is thus more neglected than England.
Let's assume that the English government focuses only 5% of their renewable energy investment on solar while the Egyptian government invests 80% of their allocated renewable energy investment in this area. In relative terms, England is then more neglected.
Now, there may be less popular support and awareness of solar energy in Egypt, making it easier to advance solar-supporting infrastructure and policies in England.
This leads us to our third factor: Tractability.
How much of the problem can be solved per additional resource added?
Tractability assesses how realistic it is to solve the problem. The harder it is to solve a problem, the less likely we are to have a large impact.
Technical feasibility includes the knowledge about and availability of technology.
The cost & efficiency of solar panels has dropped significantly in the past 15 years making it viable for both England and Egypt.
Political feasibility includes political interests and incentives.
The English government heavily subsidizes solar panels and thus creates a positive awareness around it.
Social feasibility describes the acceptance of an intervention by society.
In our example, awareness and popularity of solar panels in Egypt are rather low since there was a destructive campaign against solar energy several months before.
Let's take a final look at our example of Egypt and England. In our hypothetical case awareness and popularity of solar panels in Egypt is rather low. There may have been a destructive campaign against solar panels a few months before. At the same time, the English government heavily subsidizes solar panels, thus creating positive awareness around it. In this case, introducing solar panels in England would be more tractable because people already embraced the intervention.
How Can You Have an Impact?
Now that you have defined what the most important, neglected, and tractable problem is – learn how you can use your career, free time, and money to be part of the solution.
Do you want to learn more? Join the discussion and get involved.
About Effective Environmentalism
The Effective Environmentalism community empowers people to engage in climate action in the most effective way possible. Whether by finding a climate-related career, engaging in climate policy advocacy, donating to effective charities, or being involved in movement building.
Effective Environmentalism is a subcommunity of the Effective Altruism movement. Effective Altruism is changing the way we do good by using evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit the world. As part of the EA community, we care about having the most impact and being open to different ways of having an impact, because there are many pressing problems in the world.
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