Coming down to earth: What if a big geomagnetic storm does hit?

This is the fourth post in a series about geomagnetic storms as a global catastrophic risk. A paper covering the material in this series was recently released.

I devoted the first three posts in this series to describing geomagnetic storms and assessing the odds that a Big One is coming. I concluded that the iconic Carrington superstorm of 1859 was neither as intense nor as overdue for an encore as some prominent analysts have suggested. (I suppose that’s unsurprising: those who say more-alarming things get more attention.) But my analysis is not certain. To paraphrase Churchill, the sun is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a corona. And great harm would flow from what I cannot rule out: a blackout spanning states and lasting months.

I shift in this post from whether the Big One is coming to what will happen if it does. And here, unfortunately, my facility with statistics does less good, for the top questions are now about power engineering: how grids and high-voltage transformers respond to planetary magnetic concussions.

One reason for my incomplete understanding of power engineering is that the stuff is complicated. Another is the upshot of this post: I dug far enough to conclude that more research is needed. That phrase is a deadened cliche, but I mean it. We need to learn more! Considering the potential stakes, the effects of magnetic storms on grids are too poorly studied. Seven-figure expenditures on research might stave off 12-figure damages (as in trillions). For an employee of a philanthropy, that’s a bottom line. And the practical conclusion being reached, and my time being tight, it seemed efficient to stop there.

I’ll explain that conclusion just below. But first I stress that my view on the potential value of funding in this area is attributable only to me. The Open Philanthropy Project will weigh this cause against other possible focus areas.

I’ll touch on four lines of evidence:

  • Case studies of failed transformers
  • Statistical correlations between storm activity and transformer failures
  • Field tests
  • Mathematical modeling


Change in our fundraising policy for the Open Philanthropy Project

We previously decided to cap the amount of funding we would request from Good Ventures at 20% of GiveWell’s operating budget (more in our October 2013 blog post).

In our most recent board meeting (Attachment E), we changed this policy and now plan to cap our request for funding from Good Ventures at:

  • 20% of costs that are attributed to GiveWell’s top charities work
  • 50% of costs that are attributed to the Open Philanthropy Project

When we initially set the cap in October 2013, the Open Philanthropy Project (then called GiveWell Labs) was a small part of our overall budget. Now, it accounts for approximately 50% of our operating expenses (primarily staff salaries).

We plan to post a complete update on our fundraising needs at the end of the year. Attachments D and F from our most recent board meeting provide a limited update on our current situation.

The long-term significance of reducing global catastrophic risks

Note: this post aims to help a particular subset of our audience understand the assumptions behind our work on global catastrophic risks.

One focus area for the Open Philanthropy Project is reducing global catastrophic risks (such as from pandemics, potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence, geoengineering, and geomagnetic storms). A major reason that the Open Philanthropy Project is interested in global catastrophic risks is that a sufficiently severe catastrophe may risk changing the long-term trajectory of civilization in an unfavorable direction (potentially including human extinction if a catastrophe is particularly severe and our response is inadequate).

One possible perspective on such risks—which I associate with the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and some people in the effective altruism community who are interested in the very long-term future—is that (a) the moral value of the very long-term future overwhelms other moral considerations; (b) given any catastrophe short of an outright extinction event, humanity would eventually recover, leaving humanity’s eventual long-term prospects relatively unchanged. On this view, seeking to prevent potential outright extinction events has overwhelmingly greater significance for humanity’s ultimate future than seeking to prevent less severe global catastrophes.

In contrast, the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on global catastrophic risks focuses on both potential outright extinction events and global catastrophes that, while not threatening direct extinction, could have deaths amounting to a significant fraction of the world’s population or cause global disruptions far outside the range of historical experience. This post explains why I believe this approach is appropriate even when accepting (a) from the previous paragraph, i.e., when assigning overwhelming moral importance to the question of whether civilization eventually realizes a substantial fraction of its long-run potential. While it focuses on my own views, these views are broadly shared by several others who focus on global catastrophic risk reduction at the Open Philanthropy Project, and have informed the approach we’re taking.

In brief:

  • Civilization’s progress over the last few centuries—in scientific, technological, and social domains—has no historical parallel.
  • With the possible exception of advanced artificial intelligence, for every potential global catastrophic risk I am aware of, I believe that the probability of an outright extinction event is much smaller than the probability of other global catastrophes. My understanding is that most people who favor focusing work almost entirely on outright extinction events would agree with this.
  • If a global catastrophe occurs, I believe there is some (highly uncertain) probability that civilization would not fully recover (though I would also guess that recovery is significantly more likely than not). This seems possible to me for the general and non-specific reason that the mechanisms of civilizational progress are not understood and there is essentially no historical precedent for events severe enough to kill a substantial fraction of the world’s population. I also think that there are more specific reasons to believe that an extreme catastrophe could degrade the culture and institutions necessary for scientific and social progress, and/or upset a relatively favorable geopolitical situation. This could result in increased and extended exposure to other global catastrophic risks, an advanced civilization with a flawed realization of human values, failure to realize other “global upside possibilities,” and/or other issues.
  • Consequently, for almost every potential global catastrophic risk I am aware of, I believe that total risk (in terms of failing to reach a substantial fraction of humanity’s long-run potential) from events that could kill a substantial fraction of the world’s population is at least in the same ballpark as the total risk to the future of humanity from potential outright extinction events.

Therefore, when it comes to risks such as pandemics, nuclear weapons, geoengineering, or geomagnetic storms, there is no clear case for focusing on preventing potential outright extinction events to the exclusion of preventing other global catastrophic risks. This argument seems most debatable in the case of potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence, and we plan to discuss that further in the future.


Good Ventures’ $25 million grant to GiveDirectly

Good Ventures has granted $25 million to GiveDirectly for the support of GiveDirectly’s general operations. While the grant is unrestricted, we expect that GiveDirectly will most likely use this grant as follows:

  • ~$6-9 million: to hire a marketing team to raise significantly more funding than GiveDirectly has raised in the past.
  • ~$16-19 million: to provide cash transfers to extremely low-income households, either using its standard operating model or as part of collaborations with large aid institutions or governments. These collaborations are intended to address questions that institutional funders have about cash transfers and could include running experiments comparing other aid programs against cash transfers.

We see this grant as an outstanding giving opportunity because:

  • We believe that GiveDirectly is an exceptionally strong organization, and we see supporting its growth as an excellent opportunity.
  • Providing funds to help GiveDirectly build its marketing team and arrange partnerships with large institutions could lead to future funding for cash transfers that dwarfs this initial investment.
  • Funding GiveDirectly’s current model is one of the best giving opportunities we know of. A significant portion of this grant will directly fund GiveDirectly’s core model.

However, we see GiveDirectly’s plans as ambitious, so we would not be surprised if GiveDirectly fails to meet the full scope of its goals. More details on what we see as some of the risks to the success of this grant are below.

GiveDirectly continues to have significant room for more funding, so this grant is unlikely to have a direct impact on our end-of-year recommendations to donors.

Below, we go into more detail on:

For more background on GiveDirectly and its core operations, see our GiveDirectly review.

Could raising alcohol taxes save lives?

I’ve just posted a review on the effects of alcohol taxes on alcohol consumption—and on the lives that alcohol abuse can cost. This literature review is unusual in the degree to which it replicates the studies it examines, so I have called it a “replication review.” Data, code, and spreadsheets are here.

The literature on this topic is large, and at first glance it seemed that the high-quality studies contradicted each other. Yet as I dug deeper, I found a pattern: the larger the experiment—the larger the price change—the clearer the effects. In the end, I believe the preponderance of the evidence says that higher prices do correlate with less drinking and lower incidence of problems such as cirrhosis deaths. And I see little reason to doubt the obvious explanation: higher prices cause less drinking. A rough rule of thumb is that each 1% increase in alcohol price reduces drinking by 0.5%. Extrapolating from some of the most powerful studies, I estimate an even larger impact on the death rate from alcohol-caused diseases: 1–3% within months. By extension, a 10% price increase would cut the death rate 9–25%. For the US in 2010, this represents 2,000–6,000 averted deaths/year.

Why I looked into the literature on alcohol taxation

Last November GiveWell convened a daylong meeting in Washington, DC, to gather and test ideas for priorities for our work relating to U.S. policy. (See the page about the event or Holden’s post.) One potential priority that came up—but which otherwise has hardly been mentioned on—was increasing alcohol taxes:

We have no particular reason to believe that the time is particularly ripe for reform in this area, but with alcohol excise taxes gradually diminishing in real terms at both the state and federal levels, it’s possible to envision work at either level.

One example of a prospect to exploit the current political environment is a successful 2011 campaign to raise alcohol taxes in Maryland. The campaign was carried out by a coalition of public health and progressive advocacy groups around the combined goal of reducing excessive alcohol consumption and increasing revenue. Many of the coalition members had previously mobilized together to support the Affordable Care Act.

The next day, Holden asked me to look into what is known about the impacts of alcohol taxes.

Alcohol taxation is not a top priority for Open Phil at the moment. Though we see the issue as uncrowded (which is promising), we see it as having only moderate importance compared to other causes we’re considering, along with highly uncertain political tractability. Nevertheless, our priorities can and do shift, and the issue seemed worth understanding better, particularly in light of the large body of studies on the topic.

My review

An excerpt from the intro:

New deworming reanalyses and Cochrane review

On Wednesday, the International Journal of Epidemiology published two new reanalyses of Miguel and Kremer 2004, the most well-known randomized trial of deworming. Deworming is an intervention conducted by two of our top charities, so we’ve read the reanalyses and the simultaneously updated Cochrane review closely and are responding publicly. We still have a few remaining questions about the reanalyses, and have not had a chance to update much of the content on the rest of our website regarding these issues, but our current view is that these new papers do not change our overall assessment of the evidence on deworming, and we continue to recommend the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and the Deworm the World Initiative.

Key points:

  • We’re very much in support of replicating and stress-testing important studies like this one. We did our own reanalysis of the study in question in 2012, and the replication released recently is more thorough and identifies errors that we did not.
  • We don’t think the two replications bear on the most important parts of the case we see for deworming. Both focus on Miguel and Kremer 2004, which examines impacts of deworming on school attendance; in our view, the more important case for deworming comes from a later study that found impacts on earnings many years later. The school attendance finding provides a possible mechanism through which deworming might have improved later-in-life earnings; this is important, because (as stated below) the mechanism is a serious question.
  • However, the replications do not directly challenge the existence of an attendance effect either. One primarily challenges the finding of externalities (effects of treatment on untreated students, possibly via reducing e.g. contaminated soil and water) at a particular distance. The other challenges both the statistical significance and the size of the main effect for attendance but we believe is best read as finding significant evidence for a smaller attendance effect. Regardless, the results we see as most important, particularly on income later in life, are not affected.
  • The updated Cochrane review seems broadly consistent with the earlier version, which we wrote about in 2012. We agree with its finding that there is little sign of short-term impacts of deworming on health indicators (e.g., weight and anemia) or test scores, and, as we have previously noted, we believe that this does undermine – but does not eliminate – the plausibility of the effect on earnings.
  • In our view, the best reasons to be skeptical about the evidence for deworming pertain to external validity, particularly related to the occurrence of El Nino during the period of study, which we have written about elsewhere. These issues are not addressed in the recent releases.
  • At the same time, because mass deworming is so cheap, there is a good case for donating to support deworming even when in substantial doubt about the evidence. This has consistently been our position since we first recommend the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative in 2011. Our current cost-effectiveness model (which balances the doubts we have about the evidence with the cost of implementing the program) is here.
  • While we think that replicating and challenging studies is a good thing, it looks in this case like there was an aggressive media push – publication of two papers at once coinciding with an update of the Cochrane review and a Buzzfeed piece, all on the same day – that we think has contributed to people exaggerating the significance of the findings.

Details follow. We also recommend the comments on this issue by Chris Blattman (whose post has an interesting comment thread) and Berk Ozler.