Developing solutions to climate change
Understanding the impact of climate change and developing neglected solutions

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We’re currently in the process of reviewing and updating this profile. For a more up-to-date overview of this area, we recommend starting with this article on climate change from 80,000 Hours.

This profile is tailored towards students studying agricultural science, business, engineering, health sciences, physics and political science, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

Climate change is already causing large-scale suffering, particularly to the world’s poorest people. Changing temperatures and weather patterns are increasing the rate of natural disasters, causing food and water insecurity, and leading to migration crises, economic damage, and a greater risk of violent conflict. Climate change may also contribute indirectly to existential risks, by worsening the risk of pandemics, and making international cooperation on solving global problems more challenging. 

The causes as well as effects of climate change have additional negative effects that progress on mitigating climate change could reduce; for example, reducing air pollution could save millions of lives per year. 

Some attempts to control the impacts of climate change also carry risks – for example, it’s possible that the development of technologies such as solar geoengineering could increase the risk of international conflict, so research is also needed on how to mitigate climate change safely.

Although climate change is less neglected than some of the other research directions we suggest, working on important but neglected research areas related to climate change could be very impactful.

For an overview of some of the key priorities for work on reducing climate change, see the video below from the Royal Society.


Explore existing research

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

You could explore these suggested projects from CERI (Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative) for initial ideas:

  • ‘Climate change is expected to significantly increase the risk of drought affecting multiple critical food producing regions at once. A recent paper estimated the risk of a simultaneous failure in all 4 major maize producing countries ~50% during the 2040s, due to severe drought. At high levels of warming, this effect could produce a catastrophic global famine. This project will estimate these risks in more detail, with the aim of identifying the likelihood of global famine at moderate and severe levels of warming. The core research question is: are these risks serious enough to be catastrophic, especially after accounting for potential adaptations?’ (CERI)
  • ‘Despite the risks described above, adaptation techniques such as enhanced irrigation or genetically modified crops resistant to heat could potentially mitigate this risk. However, work on this topic is limited – for example, it is very unclear how fast sufficiently heat resistant crops could be developed and rolled out, or the degree to which irrigation can add additional risk reduction. Warming in the world’s primary food production areas may cause the areas of optimum climate for staple crops to shift slowly towards the high latitudes – how can farmers adapt to this and what are the difficulties with supplying continuing growth in global food demand despite this shift?’ (CERI)

You could explore this suggested project from CERI (Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative):

  • ‘There’s…value in technology that increases energy efficiency, for example by reducing the costs of building better-insulated buildings. And it’s also important to look at the barriers in deploying and scaling technology that’s already been developed to find potentially neglected ways to lower costs.’ (Climate change – 80,000 Hours)

Some potential research topics you could explore are below.

You could explore this suggested project from CERI (Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative):

  • ‘Climate change can encourage zoonotic spillover of circulating but novel pathogens from animals to humans (Rupasinghe et al., 2021) via mechanisms such as droughts or temperature change affecting the distribution of disease reservoirs and providing more chances for transmission, or by increased flooding creating more breeding sites for virus vectors. Improved city planning together with better drainage systems and biosecurity practices can help populations adapt to this danger. This project aims to quantify the change to risk of global pandemics from climate change and work on ways to mitigate the effects.’ (CERI)

Some potential research topics you could explore are below.

  • ‘Within climate philanthropy, the vast majority of money and attention is going towards solar, wind and batteries, as well as towards forestry. But solar, wind and batteries are already roughly on track, and we need to hedge against the world in which they don’t succeed and can’t solve the problem alone. That means we should focus on a broader range of low carbon technologies, like long-duration energy storage, nuclear fission and fusion, geothermal, zero carbon fuels, and so on.’ (John Halstead, Future Matters interview)
  • ‘Carbon removal technology, like negative emissions tech or carbon capture and storage, seems pretty neglected compared to green energy (read a popular overview), and could be a crucial way of reducing the effects of our emissions on the climate.’ (Climate change – 80,000 Hours)
  • ‘Working on hot rock geothermal could be higher impact than working on solar or wind energy — though we don’t know because so few people are looking into it.’ (Climate change – 80,000 Hours)
  • You could also look at these analyses from Future Cleantech Architects of innovation gaps focusing on hydrogen, cement and aviation.

You could explore these suggested projects from CERI (Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative) for initial ideas:

  • ‘Geoengineering refers to a set of proposed technologies which aim to make a large-scale intervention in the climate system to mitigate climate change. For example, the most well known technique is arguably stratospheric aerosol injection, which involves placing large volumes of aerosol particles into the stratosphere in order to cool the Earth (Halstead, 2018). However, there are many less studied proposals, including marine cloud brightening and ocean fertilisation. Survey these techniques and examine the risks to interstate conflict from potential unilateral use of a geoengineering technique, and the complex governance challenges that this implies.’ (CERI)
  • ‘Climate change has the potential to be an accelerant or driver of other existential risks. This can mean viewing from a climate perspective risks traditionally considered “separate” from climate change, such as nuclear war, but also underappreciated consequences from the human response to climate change (e.g. societal collapse from negative feedback loops and fragilities in human systems, global instability driving governance & coordination failures, etc).’ (CERI)

Further resources

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas.

You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area. The community directory from Effective Environmentalism is another way to find connections.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

  • Sign up for our newsletter to hear about opportunities such as funding, internships and research roles.
  • Sign up to the Effective Environmentalism newsletter to hear about events and other opportunities.

Because climate change threatens to exacerbate the risk of other catastrophic or existential risks, you could also explore the possibility of working on research directions which attempt to prevent or mitigate these risks in other ways. To learn more, see our profiles on:

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