Guest post by Ben West
I argue that EAA’s [now Animal Charity Evaluators] Top Charities are not only efficient at preventing the suffering of animals on farms, but also good candidates among the best charities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change presents a difficult challenge, as well as a tremendous moral responsibility, to those concerned about the future of our planet. Not only is it expected to cause the extinction of a third of all species within the next forty years, but it has been estimated to give our own species a one in ten chance of extinction in the next century.
The magnitude of this threat means that we need to take climate change seriously. With a trillion sentient beings on our planet, even a slight reduction in extinction risk could potentially save a large quantity (and presumably quality) of lives. Furthermore, if life cannot recover from the imminent disasters caused by climate change, then a truly mind-boggling cost will have been incurred, for a tremendous number of beings will never exist.
It’s recognized that one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions is animal agriculture – but how effective are EAA’s Top Charities at reducing the risk of climate change?
Online ads undertaken by The Humane League and Vegan Outreach have been estimated to create one vegetarian-year (i.e. one person going vegetarian for one year) for about $11. A vegetarian prevents about 1.5 metric tons of C02-equivalent emissions per year. meaning that these ads decrease emissions at an approximate cost of $7.40 per ton.
How does that stack up against conventional environmental charities? Several organizations allow you to purchase “carbon offsets”, which are investments in alternative energy and carbon “sinks” like trees, which will decrease CO2 emissions by a given amount. Carbonfund sells offsets at the cost of $10/ton and Terrapass sells them for around $13/ton.
So, even ignoring the animal welfare benefit of these charities and focusing solely on enivironmental impact, The Humane League and Vegan Outreach come out ahead of some mainstream “environmental” organizations!
There are a wide variety of charities/issues we can support, and much more research needs to be done to find the best one. But at least in the case of animals and environmentalism it appears that we might not have to choose: EAA’s Top Charities may be great across both categories.
1. Thomas, Chris D., Alison Cameron, Rhys E. Green, Michel Bakkenes, Linda J. Beaumont, Yvonne C. Collingham, Barend F. N. Erasmus, et al. “Extinction Risk from Climate Change.” Nature 427, no. 6970 (January 8, 2004): 145–148.
2. Bostrom, Nick. “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority.” Global Policy (forthcoming).
3. Tomasik, Brian. “How Many Wild Animals Are There?”, n.d.
4. Bostrom, Nick. “Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed
Technological Development.” Utilitas 15, no. 03 (2009): 308–.
5. Steinfeld, H., P. Gerber, T. D. Wassenaar, V. Castel, and C. de Haan.
Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. FAO, 2006.
6. Eshel, G., and P. A. Martin. “Diet, Energy, and Global Warming.”
Earth Interactions 10, no. 9 (2006): 1–17.
Brian Tomasik says
Thanks, Ben! This is a great post. In fact, it’s extremely similar to “Animal-welfare organizations vs carbon offsets” by Pat on Felicifia.
I’m slightly wary of promoting this argument too strongly only for the following reason: Just as veg outreach contributes to the longer-term trend toward concern for animal suffering, might promoting global-warming reduction contribute to the longer-term trend for environmental preservation? I think it would be unfortunate to encourage environmentalist memes because environmental preservation often increases wild-animal suffering. However, maybe fighting global warming specifically is more tame, because it could very well be that reducing global warming also reduces wild-animal suffering.
Another note: the blog post suggests that one reason it’s good to prevent climate change is because doing so preserves the existence of trillions of sentient beings in the wild. I personally think the lives of most of those beings are not worth living, since almost all wild animals are small, short-lived creatures (fish, rodents, etc.), many of which die soon after birth. But even if the average birth of a wild animal were a good thing, it’s not clear that climate change hinders this. 1/3 of species may go extinct, but the remainder will take their place after a short while. What matters for welfare is population size, not species diversity.
In any event, this is just a small quibble. The “astronomical waste” point makes it clear that you’re focusing on human survival as the most important consideration. Whether it’s good for humanity to expand into the galaxy is itself a matter for discussion, but I’ll leave that off this forum and direct readers to Felicifia for more.
Those are all just minor comments to an excellent post. Keep up the great work, Ben!
P.S., this piece was cited in the Vegan Outreach blog.
A case could be made that campaigning for legislation to reduce emissions would be far more effective than offsets.
If we ignore geoengineering and the possibility of a cheaper-than-coal, easily transportable, storable energy source, the solution to climate change will have to be an international treaty that reduces emissions. If you’re concerned about climate change, it would make sense to devote your resources to campaigning for this treaty rather than to small-scale emissions reductions. At best, these reductions buy useful time; at worst, they allow the world to procrastinate a little bit longer, or to adopt slightly less stringent targets.
When you think about all the coal-fired power plants that China is building, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a global solution to climate change. It’s not just that the amount of carbon emissions prevented by carbon offsets is a drop in the bucket; it’s that the main payoff would be in preventing the bucket from overflowing. Campaigning seems like a more effective way of accomplishing this. I’ve never heard anyone argue that people should stop giving to environmental organizations and buy offsets instead. Offsets seem more a way of assuaging guilt than an optimal way of reducing climate change.
But for people who do want to assuage their guilt, the Humane League is probably on a par with offsets with regard to reducing emissions.
Ben West says
Good points Brian! Felicifia seems to be down at the moment, but based on the title this does sound extremely similar to Pat’s idea. I cede priority 🙂
I am reading a book now about wild animal pleasure (and saw the author speak) which has made me less certain about the “red in tooth and claw” view of nature. But I agree that the points you bring up present a strong argument against environmentalism.
Ben West says
Yes, we really need an equivalent of EAA/Givewell for environmental charities (and every other type of charity…)
I personally am uncertain about the cost-benefit of lobbying, but it would not surprise me to learn that it’s better than offsets. I wouldn’t be surprised to find the opposite though – Freakonomics has a discussion indicating that campaign donations don’t really influence things that much, for example.
Planet Money did a show that suggested that the return on investment for money spent on lobbying is high. The effectiveness of lobbying and public advocacy would presumably vary a lot (by issue, strategy, etc.).
Have you seen this (https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/blog/2013-11-14/less-burn-for-your-buck-part-ii) post estimating that Cool Earth is the best charity for reducing CO2 emissions, at $1.30/ton? They refer to your calculation too.