Climate Change in the Present Century and Longtermism/Effective Altruism

I had never heard of “Longtermism” or “Effective Altruism” before last night, when I stumbled upon an article critical of it. There seems to be a lot of controversy about different aspects of it, but the discussions about it in relation to climate change are what caught my attention. I’m wondering whether anyone on this forum has any insights about how this movement relates to efforts to deal with climate change on Planet Earth in the present century.

(I am purposely not linking to any articles I found describing the movement because they have different viewpoints and I don’t understand them nearly well enough to choose fairly.)


Longtermism and effective altruism are two different ideas which are sometimes but not always held by the same people, so whatever you think about them, I suggest thinking about them separately.

Briefly: effective altruism is about doing the most good you can with your donations. If you want to save human lives, then donating to effective anti-malaria charities in sub-Saharan Africa will go a lot further than donating to an anti-poverty charity in the US, for example. If you care about climate change, then the effective altruist approach would be to donate to the projects that get the maximum possible reduction in CO2 for your buck. Givewell is the most prominent example of an organisation following this approach.

Obviously, there are extensive technical debates about what counts as the best thing to do. For example, if you donate money to an anti-malaria charity that hands out bed-nets now, you can save a reasonably quantifiable number of lives. If you donate money to an organisation that is researching a malaria vaccine, you have some chance of saving a lot more lives (if the vaccine works) and some chance of wasting it. And doing work to mitigate potential future pandemics that haven’t happened yet, like trying to invent an Ebola vaccine, is another step up in potentially-huge-but-hard-to-quantify. So there is a debate about how to think about that and different individuals within the effective altruist movement will have different takes on what is the ‘best’ thing to do. Some effective altruists do focus on trying to prevent/mitigate climate change, but a majority tend to focus on health and anti-poverty measures in developing countries.

As I understand it, ‘long-termism’ is an umbrella term for people who believe we should take long-term consequences and futures seriously. They generally believe that we owe future people the same moral consideration as we owe people who are alive today. So long-termists care a lot about preventing major future catastrophes, including runaway climate change, and are especially focused on the risk of human extinction, be it from climate change, nuclear war, or rogue AI, or some other event. The long-termist argument is that preventing extinction or failure of civilisation doesn’t just save the people who are alive at the time of the extinction event, it saves all future people who would have existed if human civilisation kept going, which is an incomparably larger number. (I am trying to do my best to summarise the long-termist view, but it isn’t my personal view, so I hope I’m not getting it too wrong.)

Effective altruists generally want to spend money on saving/improving the most human lives (although there is a live debate about how much weight people should put on animal welfare vs human welfare). If an effective altruist is also a long-termist, they generally conclude that preventing even small risks of extinction is better than anything else they can do with their money. It’s a clear strain of thought within the effective altruist movement, but I don’t think it’s a majority, and you can certainly be an effective altruist without being a long-termist. You just have to care about actually doing good with your money. Not being seen to do good, not getting kudos for following the latest fashionable cause, not getting your name on a fancy building, but care about actually helping people. Or climate, or animals, or whatever it is you want to help.


Longtermism is definitely a part of the effective altruism outlook. It boils down to the idea that reducing greater suffering in the long term is worth more than reducing less suffering in the short term. The controversy begins with terms like suffering. What is it and how do you measure it?

When it comes to climate change the issues become even more complicated. Calculating the long term effect of something like closing down a coal fire powered plant is relatively easy but how do you calculate the effect of a rewilding project? Am I a more effective altruist if I save my money for an electric vehicle or if I donate the money to a group advocating for greater government climate action? How would I know? How do you measure and compare?


And just to play devil’s advocate, maybe the most effective way to reduce suffering and future extinctions of the highest number of all living organisms, not just people, is to hasten the extinction of humans.

Yes, I’m a little crazy.


That has definitely been proposed in the past. Some fringe philosophers have opined that the best way to end human suffering is to end humanity. Look for the VHEM (voluntary human extinction movement) and antinatalism for more.

Having said that, eliminating humans would hardly make a long term dent in non-human suffering or extinctions. Most organisms on earth went extinct long before humans showed up. The nonhuman world would still be full of suffering without us. Almost every species on earth is dependent of the death of something else. There will be predators, parasites, diseases, accidents, famine, and fire long after we are gone.


This longtermism makes me think of those who ask you to suffer some privation for a brighter future, but just for a while and everything will soon be ok. And when you think you have done, the goal is always some more privation away. In the end you aren’t there anymore to see if your sacrifices were worth being made…

There is nothing about longtermism that suggests the person who follows it needs to suffer. The idea is to try to make sure that the good you do has maximum benefit in the long term rather than just immediate short term benefit.

Imagine you have 100 dollars that you have decided you can spare and you want to put it to good use helping other people. Imagine you have two option:

Option A: You can donate your 100 dollars to an anonymous fund that will help fund a child’s treatment that might save her life.

Option B: You can donate to a charity that provides treated mosquito nets to families living in malaria prone areas. Over time the nets could save the lives of many children.

You are only on the hook for $100. You don’t know any of the children. You will never truly know the results of your investment.

Which do you choose?

Well, I have no doubts about it. I just wrote that it makes me think of.

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