What Are the Biggest Priorities in Climate Change?

There are lots of actions we can take to halt climate change and mitigate other environmental issues. But did you know that some approaches are way more helpful than others? This is the focus of this article – to show that if you strategize, you can do far more to help the climate than you might have otherwise thought. 

It turns out that some of the actions we can take to reduce our carbon emissions are tens or sometimes even hundreds of times more impactful than others.

To show this, let’s compare the amount of CO2 we’d save by taking three different climate-focused actions: unplugging a phone charger when not in use, installing home insulation, and avoiding a transatlantic flight. 

This image displays a proportional diagram comparing carbon dioxide savings from different actions. There are three circles of varying sizes, representing the amount of CO2 saved per year. The smallest circle, labeled "Unplugging phone charger," equates to a saving of 1.5 kg of CO2. The middle-sized circle, labeled "Installing home insulation," represents a saving of 180 kg of CO2. The largest circle, labeled "Skipping one transatlantic return flight," corresponds to a saving of 1180 kg of CO2. The sizes of the circles visually indicate the relative impact of each action on carbon savings.
Sources: CO2 emissions saved for return flight from London to New York taken from TravelNav. Emissions saved for home insulation from Wynes & Nicholas (2017). Emissions saved for unplugging phone charger assumes energy use of 1.5kwh per year, converted into CO2 using this conversion chart (assuming coal as electricity source).

According to these estimates, averting one overseas trip could save the same emissions as more than six years of home insulation – and you’d have to leave your phone charger unplugged for nearly 800 years to save the same amount of carbon emissions!

Even more surprisingly, donating just $100 to an effective climate change organization could save over eight times as much carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere as skipping a long-haul flight.

This is great news! For a fairly small amount of money, we can achieve significantly more for the climate than actions that are often more laborious or expensive. Being strategic with how we help the planet can allow us to do far more than we might have thought.

Additionally, these actions are not mutually exclusive. We can (and plausibly should) insulate our homes and avoid taking long-haul flights, as well as donate money and unplug our unused electronics. To lower our carbon footprint, we can make a combination of changes to our lifestyle, and lots of smaller changes can add up to a more significant impact. 

But careers are different.

Unlike our consumption decisions, we can’t stack up lots of different jobs at once. This makes it even more important to pick the right one – if we’re only doing one thing (or even only one thing within the next few years), we want to make it count. 

And, much like the individual lifestyle changes we just discussed, by being strategic with your career choice, you can do much more for the planet than you might have thought. That is, by choosing the most high-priority problems facing the planet – and working out how best to solve them, it’s possible to have a truly huge positive impact.

But how do we work out what problems will allow you to help the most?

This is where something called the ITN framework comes in. It’s a tool for prioritizing problems that breaks them down into three factors: importance, tractability, and neglectedness, each of which can affect how promising it might be to work on a specific problem. Let’s run through the ITN framework in a little more detail, with examples.

The ITN Framework

Importance is the size or scale of an issue facing the world. For example, it’s estimated that over 12 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, damaging the environment and killing more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds annually. This makes it an important problem. 

However, if we look at how the size of this problem varies by country and region, its importance can look quite different depending on where we focus. Let’s look at the United States. Though the US produces among the highest CO2 per capita, only an estimated 0.25% of plastic ocean waste stems from the US, meaning that it contributes around 30,000 tons per year.

Though plastic pollution is a pressing cause, there are far more significant problems affecting the environment than the US’ specific contributions to ocean waste. So, if you were to live in the US and focus exclusively on US ocean waste, you might not be doing nearly as much to combat the problem as you might do elsewhere.

Tractability is the extent to which a problem has practical and effective solutions. A problem might be significant, but we won’t have much positive impact if there’s nothing we can do to solve it, or if we choose a method that doesn’t work.

In the context of climate change, thinking about tractability would push us toward problems that could be solved or mitigated with cost-effective methods. This doesn’t mean that these solutions need to be perfect yet – in fact, researching new and better solutions can be one of the best ways to have an impact. But, all else being equal, the more it seems that a problem can be foreseeably solved by cost-effective methods, the more promising it will be to work on that problem.

Take the example of #TeamSeas – an environmental initiative popularized by internet celebrities such as MrBeast. #TeamSeas uses slick-sounding “ocean interceptors” (read: floating dumpsters) to suck up waste that can then be collected by boats. As of writing, they claim to have removed over 15,000 tons of ocean waste following tens of millions of dollars in donations from supporters.

This is impressive, but compared to the 14 million tons of plastic dispensed into the ocean each year, it’s not helping as much as we might hope. The amount of plastic released into the ocean in just a few hours is more than the plastic removed by #TeamSeas in an entire year – as explained in the video below.

As #TeamSeas shows, even if our intentions are great, it’s important to try and use methods that are effective and scalable to solve pressing environmental problems rather than ones that just sound good on paper. 

For instance, Indonesia’s target to reduce plastic pollution by 70%, using measures like increased waste collection and recycling capacity could reduce over 500,000 tons of marine plastic waste per year if successful, many times more than #TeamSeas. Government work is a little less flashy, but it shows that choosing the right approach – in this case using policy to tackle plastic waste at its source – can let you achieve much more. It’s plausible there are individual Indonesian government employees responsible for reducing more plastic ocean waste than the entirety of #TeamSeas to date.

Finally, neglectedness is the degree to which a problem receives sufficient resources like funding, talent, political capital, or public attention. The fewer resources already focused toward solving a problem, the more neglected it is. And the more neglected a problem is, the more good might be able to be achieved by working on it – at least in general.

For instance, if there are already 1,000 smart people already working to solve a problem, or millions of dollars being spent, then it’s likely to be harder to make a meaningful contribution working on it than working on problems where there are only a few people already dedicated to it, or a few thousand dollars being spent. 

This is because of a concept from economics called “diminishing returns”. Diminishing returns is a common phenomenon whereby the more resources are invested in something, the less value is gained for each additional resource invested. 

Imagine you’re buying a new phone. Spending $100 will get you a smartphone with basic functionality, like a touchscreen and camera. Spending $1,000 will get you a more powerful phone with a few extra features, but it certainly won’t be ten times as good. Each dollar above $100 gets you less for your money than the first $100. Spending $2,000 would probably get you a bunch of features that most people don’t even want.

We’d expect diminishing returns to apply to many problems related to climate change. The more attention and money put into addressing these problems, the harder it will be to make a big positive difference at the margin. Though there are exceptions (for example, some problems might not be neglected, but have specific effective solutions that are unduly neglected), neglectedness is a helpful rule of thumb that, often, makes a problem more promising to work on.

What are the top areas to focus on within climate change?

In this section, we’ll use the ITN framework to analyze a range of problems related to climate change and other environmental problems. While it’s always worth looking further into the problem yourself, these assessments should help people interested in climate change prioritize which problems they consider tackling.

To explore different problems within climate change, we’ll make a distinction between mitigation and adaptation

Mitigation efforts attempt to limit the severity of climate change, for instance by trying to keep global warming below certain important thresholds (like 1.5ºC – a common target), primarily through the reduction and sequestering of greenhouse gasses. 

Efforts in the adaptation space improve our preparedness and responses to the effects of climate change, reducing their impacts on humans, non-human animals, and the planet. 

A note: This article was written in the second half of 2023. Because climate change is a quickly evolving space, some of our figures and conclusions could be out of date by the time you’re reading this. Additionally, while our recommendations are drawn from peer-reviewed evidence and experts in the field, there are many inherent uncertainties in climate change and its associated effects. So, it’s a great idea to do your own research, especially if you’re considering dedicating your career to climate change long-term.

Climate change mitigation

Around 50 billion tons of greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere each year, measured in “carbon dioxide equivalents” (CO2e) – a metric that lets us standardize the climate effects of different greenhouse gasses. 

The following are some of the most important sources of greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll rank each source of global warming by its importance – in this case specified as their estimated CO2e per year – as well as evaluate their neglectedness and tractability.

Electricity generation

Importance: ≈15 billion tons CO2e per year

Tractability: Moderate

Neglectedness: Low

Energy use is by far the biggest source of greenhouse gasses, responsible for around 73% of CO2e. Of this, the largest contributor is electricity generation, standing at over 40% of total energy-related emissions.

Fortunately, the price of renewable energy is falling rapidly, and lots of funding is coming into the space, with one source claiming that $1.3 trillion was invested into clean energy in 2022. As of 2022, over 18% of the world’s electricity was generated through low-carbon sources, and this share seems likely to grow quickly with recent policies like the US Inflation Reduction Act and REPowerEU set to accelerate the production of sustainable energy. 

This is great news, but because of the money and attention already being poured into renewable energy, as well as the increased financial incentives of producing clean energy and innovating new technologies, it may be difficult to make a substantial marginal impact without a unique opportunity, idea, or source of leverage, as it’s becoming an increasingly crowded area.

A possible exception here is nuclear power. The global share of nuclear power has slowed in recent decades, likely due in part to political reasons. Many modern environmental movements (such as Greenpeace) hold stances against nuclear energy, owing both to historic nuclear power accidents and concerns around the storage of nuclear waste. Likely because of this, nuclear power hasn’t had quite the same support in both attention and resources that renewable energy has had.

This is unfortunate because nuclear power is a very safe source of energy that could help to increase the global supply of low-carbon electricity.

Other methods of carbon-free energy production may still offer promising opportunities for impact. The scale of investment needed to switch to low-carbon energy is so high that, even though popular methods of renewable energy currently receive lots of funding, some may still be bottlenecked by further investment and labor. For instance, a 2023 report by McKinsey highlights possible investment bottlenecks for both wind and green hydrogen, and several other constraints for other renewable energy sources.

In summary: Electricity generation is the single largest contributor to climate change. Thanks to significant investment we’re seeing a steady shift to renewable energy, but the crowdedness of the sector means the best opportunities are likely to be in more neglected or bottlenecked approaches. It may also be a particularly promising problem if you already have a significant advantage in the field.

Animal agriculture

Importance: ≈7 billion tons CO2e per year (plus significant effects on animal welfare)

Tractability: Low

Neglectedness: Low

Agriculture is responsible for a large proportion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Within agriculture more broadly, animal agriculture specifically contributes disproportionate amounts of greenhouse gasses. Estimates of just how much it contributes vary, but the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization claims that 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions (not just of those emitted by agriculture) are caused by livestock. 

In significant part, this is because livestock produces methane, a greenhouse gas that carries over 25x more potential to warm the planet than equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide. On top of this, growing crops for animal feed also contributes to animal agriculture’s carbon footprint – both in the direct processes involved in producing feed, but also in the deforestation required to create arable land, which releases large amounts of sequestered CO2.

Reducing the size of the global animal agriculture industry, particularly for beef, dairy, lamb, and pork, could reduce large quantities of GHG emissions. Our World In Data estimates that if the world ceased eating beef and lamb, and used the land we saved to grow trees and other vegetation, we could reduce emissions by more than 7.1 billion tonnes CO2e per year – a huge impact. Even further, moving to a fully plant-based global diet would save 14.7 billion tonnes of CO2e per year, again assuming we revegetated the leftover land.

Additionally, reducing animal agriculture may be even more important if you care about the welfare of non-human animals.

In terms of potential solutions, one way we might reduce animal agriculture is to increase the demand for non-animal-derived products, creating financial incentives to move away from livestock. Currently, most alternative proteins on the market are made from re-textured plants. However, there has also been research into “cultivated meat” – real meat products that are grown from cells rather than live animals. 

Both of these products might be able to steal some of the demand for animal–derived equivalents. However, they’re becoming increasingly crowded markets (though probably not as crowded as many other mitigation efforts) with nearly $1 billion invested into cultivated meat in 2022, and with the US plant-based market alone worth an estimated $8 billion

There are also some concerns that cultivated meat faces potentially insurmountable barriers in becoming cost-competitive with animal-derived meats. And, despite increased awareness of environmental and welfare issues associated with animal agriculture, global meat production is steadily increasing, implying stubborn difficulties in changing consumption patterns globally. 

Despite these concerns, there are likely still opportunities for shots at significant marginal impact within these industries if you can find or create the right opportunity, or can find an especially neglected but still promising solution within them.

Another high-leverage option could involve pursuing impactful policy changes. For instance, a “meat tax” could reduce meat consumption – though a lack of public support could be a key barrier. 

In summary: Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change, and unlike some other contributors, it is not showing much sign of slowing down. This area may be especially promising for those who have an outsized advantage in tackling seemingly stubborn problems, such as enabling big policy wins or accelerating the adoption of alternative proteins.

Resource spotlight

The Good Food Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the development of non-animal-derived food products such as plant-based and cultivated meats. They offer many resources, including courses, seminars and networking events, research grants, and even a job board. If you’re interested in this space, it’s well worth a look!

Transportation

Importance: ≈8 billion tons CO2e per year

Tractability: Moderate

Neglectedness: Low

Transportation is a significant contributor of greenhouse gasses, making up just over 16% of emissions. Within transportation, the largest contributor by far is road transport, making up 11.9% of all global GHG emissions (and is also a significant driver of poor air quality). Aviation is a distant second place, contributing 1.9% of all emissions. 

Transportation emissions might be reduced by making transport more environmentally efficient, or by reducing the total amount of vehicles used and trips taken.

One prominent way we might make transport more environmentally friendly is to increase the share of electric vehicles on the roads, to replace those that rely on combusting fossil fuels. Automakers plan to spend a total of $1.2 trillion dollars on producing new electric vehicles through 2030 – so it’s already quite a crowded space. Consumer demand for electric vehicles is also rising, so we’d expect there to be strong financial incentives for new actors to enter the low-carbon transportation market, meaning individuals are less likely to have a true counterfactual impact in this space.

Other possibilities include optimizing road intersections within urban areas to minimize the time that road vehicles spend stationary, as well as increasing the use of public transportation to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. 

These solutions are likely to primarily lie within the remit of the government, which is likely to make change slow – though they could still form a promising route for well-placed individuals within government. There may still be a role for industry, too. For instance, Google has worked with cities to help optimize their traffic intersections. 

There are also ways to reduce the environmental impact of aviation by employing more efficient aircraft, though the upfront costs of doing so are likely to be high. 

In summary: Transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and though some solutions (such as electric vehicles) already receive lots of investment and attention, it could be a highly promising problem to work on if you strategize towards solutions where you have a unique edge.

Hydrofluorocarbons

Importance: ≈1 billion tons CO2e per year

Tractability: High

Neglectedness: Low

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are a group of human-made chemical composites used primarily for refrigeration. They were phased into use after the 1987 Montreal Protocol curtailed the use of chlorofluorocarbons – a type of chemical used for similar purposes that caused enormous damage to the ozone layer. HFCs are much better for the ozone layer, and switching to them led to the ozone layer being restored remarkably quickly

Unfortunately, though they don’t damage the ozone layer nearly as much, they pose a real threat to the climate. This is because they carry enormous warming potential, even compared to carbon dioxide – with some contributing hundreds or thousands of times more towards global warming than equivalent quantities of CO2. HFCs currently make up around 2.1% of the total amount of global warming caused by greenhouse gasses.

Thankfully, the 2019 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol has bound many countries to reduce their use of HFCs substantially over the next few decades, with some higher-income countries needing to reduce their use by 85% before 2036. If countries successfully comply, then the total amount of warming due to HFCs by 2100 could be as low as 0.04 degrees Celsius. Because of this, we’re on a promising trajectory – international action has been taken, and it seems we’re on the right track to significantly limit the total global warming caused by HFCs. 

However, the Kigali Amendment reveals a strong international consensus behind reducing HFCs, and viable environmentally-friendly alternatives already exist. Because of this, HFCs seem quite tractable relative to other sources of greenhouse gasses.

Accelerating the reduction of HFC emissions beyond existing targets, which are set to be met only over the next several decades, as well as ensuring that countries adhere to these targets, could prove a promising way to reduce the release of non-negligible quantities of greenhouse gasses. 

In summary: Hydrofluorocarbons are a smaller source of greenhouse gas emissions than others on this list, and international consensus has been reached to phase them out. Regardless, valuable work may be found in helping to accelerate their disuse and ensure targets are met in practice.

Climate change adaptation

As well as mitigation, another important strategy to tackle climate change is known as adaptation. Adaptation involves devising and implementing ways to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of climate change, such as developing resilient infrastructure that can cope with more extreme weather or increasing the security of agriculture and supply chains to help prevent food insecurity.

Adaptation is very important. Even if we manage to meet the optimistic target of limiting warming to 1.5°C, many harmful effects of climate change will still occur. Additionally, warming of more than 1.5°C looks likely – with current evidence indicating total warming will reach close to or over 2°C – implying more severe consequences. 

Below, we list some of the most pressing effects of climate change we need to adapt to, again ranked by importance, tractability, and neglectedness.

Heat stress

Importance: Up to 580,000 fatalities per year by 2050 (at slightly over 2°C of warming)

Tractability: Low

Neglectedness: Moderate

Temperature has been shown to have a surprisingly significant effect on mortality rates. Even mild deviations from optimal temperatures have been shown to increase mortality risk, primarily through increasing the prevalence of many different causes of death, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as strokes.

This is a cause for concern since global warming stands to increase ambient temperatures worldwide. Putting some numbers to this, recent research suggests that we could see as many as 580,000 additional deaths per year by 2050 due to increased temperatures, assuming a warming of slightly over 2°C above pre-industrial levels. 

Some colder regions may see decreased cold-induced mortality as they become milder, but these will be outweighed heavily by increases in already-hot regions, especially in Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia. In general, fatalities are projected to increase by hundreds of thousands annually for every degree of temperature increase. 

From our initial research, there seem to be several interventions that could help us reduce fatalities from heat stress and may be somewhat neglected – though it’s unclear the extent to which they’ll be able to help solve a significant proportion of the problem.

An important component of heat adaptation is increasing access to cooling, particularly in indoor areas where people spend the majority of their time. Air conditioning may have a particularly important role to play. This is particularly crucial in sub-Saharan Africa, which will be especially impacted by rising temperatures, but where nearly half the population lacks access to electricity. Because of this, some have suggested that increasing electrification investment in this region could be particularly crucial for alleviating heat-induced mortality. The World Bank has recently stepped up efforts in this area, but it seems there’s room for much more funding and investment. 

Another promising intervention may be warning systems that alert the public to heat waves. Such systems have demonstrated some success – for instance, they may have played an important role in preventing up to 4,400 deaths during a heat wave in France in 2006. Nonetheless, relatively few countries employ them or employ only rudimentary warning systems, potentially making this an unduly neglected approach to reducing mortality from rising temperatures. 

Other possible responses may include designing buildings that better maintain cooler temperatures, as well as increasing the amount of green space and vegetation in cities to reduce the “urban heat island” effect that makes cities hotter than rural areas. 

In summary: Heat stress is (perhaps surprisingly) plausibly the largest anticipated harmful effect of climate change in terms of mortality. Though it’s a difficult problem to make progress on, the scale of harm it causes means it could be a highly impactful area to work on, particularly for those who can increase the resources available to adapt to heat stress or develop and improve scalable solutions.

Sea level rise

Importance: Over 1 billion at risk of coastal hazards by 2050 

Tractability: Low

Neglectedness: Moderate

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, primarily due to two main factors: ice melt, whereby the melting of glaciers and ice sheets add more water to the oceans, and thermal expansion, whereby water expands as it warms up.

Rising sea levels can impair the habitability of low-lying coastal areas by increasing the frequency of floods, damaging infrastructure, submerging roads, contaminating drinking water supplies with salt water, increasing the prevalence of storm surges, and other negative effects. According to a 2022 IPCC report, over one billion people living in low-lying coastal areas will likely be placed at risk of experiencing sea-level-rise-related problems by 2050. 

Rising sea levels could have extremely high economic costs, with one recent paper estimating that even if we keep global warming below 1.5°C (a highly optimistic assumption), rising sea levels would cause nearly $9 trillion of damage in China alone – if no further adaptation measures are implemented.

There are at least several adaptation measures that could prove effective. For starters, one important approach to developing sea-level-rise resilience is through infrastructure projects, such as building flood barriers and seawalls or relocating infrastructure to elevated ground.

There also exist adaptation measures that harness the natural environment to develop resilience, as opposed to constructing or improving infrastructure. One prominent possibility here is “beach nourishment”, which involves increasing the quantity of sand in coastal areas to protect against flooding. Though generally seen as a short-term solution, some recent research indicates beach nourishment could provide protection over decades.

In terms of effectiveness, a 2014 report from the World Health Organization projects that adaptation measures could prevent an enormous number of deaths from the increased frequency of storm surges associated with sea level rise, saving tens of thousands of lives per year, and reducing mortality rates to ‘roughly baseline levels by 2080’. These estimates may be slightly dated, but they provide a rough sense of the importance of adaptation efforts in this space.

Despite the existence of adaptation options, none are simple to implement. Instituting new building regulations, for example, would only protect new buildings and add additional hurdles to building new houses (which is already a problem of its own). On top of this, many other adaptation options require expensive infrastructure. The good news is that many of these measures will likely save money over the long term, but key decision-makers may still be resistant to the upfront costs. 

In terms of neglectedness, as it stands, many countries have only made modest investments in adaptation measures to cope with rising sea levels. Adaptation funding, in general, is quite low, making up just 7% of total climate finance in 2019/2020, or $46 billion. There seems to be a significant gap between actual adaptation funding and the funding needed – a UN report estimates that developing countries alone need ‘around $70 billion per year for 2020-2030’ – so it’s likely that most adaptation efforts are quite neglected as it stands.

In summary: Sea level rise is a huge problem, particularly at higher levels of warming. Though many solutions involve large infrastructure projects, many may pay for themselves in damage prevention. As such, sea level rise may be a promising area for those well-positioned to direct political attention or funding into adaptation efforts.

Resource spotlight

This report by the OECD gives a detailed rundown of various measures we might take to adapt to sea level rise, assessing both their benefits and drawbacks.

Food insecurity

Importance: Up to 73 million additional people undernourished in 2050

Tractability: Low

Neglectedness: Moderate

Food insecurity – a lack of access to adequate food and nutrition – is a huge problem worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, over 900 million people faced severe food insecurity in 2021, meaning they experienced entire days without food. Estimates vary, but hunger is reportedly responsible for thousands of deaths every day.

Food insecurity also causes other harms. For instance, in 2022 more than one in five children under the age of five were stunted, due in significant part to malnutrition. Stunting has been shown to lower cognitive performance and future earnings

Climate change will very likely exacerbate food insecurity. Through increased frequency and severity of droughts, damage caused by heat stress, prevalence of pests and insects, an increase in extreme weather events like floods and storms, as well as a general decrease in water availability, warmer temperatures have already and will continue to negatively affect crop yields in many parts of the world. One recent paper predicts that climate change could cause as many as 73 million extra people to become undernourished by 2050 relative to a world without climate change, assuming no major adaptations are introduced.

Additionally, climate change may also increase the risk of conflict, which Action Against Hunger claims to be the leading cause of food insecurity worldwide.

The world has already done quite a lot to reduce food insecurity. For instance, several decades during the 20th century saw famine fatalities total well over 10 million – much higher than today, with famine deaths currently averaging around 75,000 per year.

Thanks to improved global health, food production processes, and other important positive trends, these reductions are likely to continue. This means that despite the influence of climate change, we won’t necessarily see an overall rise in food insecurity. Nonetheless, we can be confident that climate change will lead to significantly more food insecurity than there would otherwise be, making it an important problem. 

It also bears noting that the relationship between climate change mitigation and food insecurity is slightly complicated. Recent research counterintuitively predicts that stringent mitigation measures could increase food security more than the direct effects of climate change. This makes it important to find specific solutions that actually accelerate the reduction of food insecurity, and not assume that any climate mitigation measure automatically helps solve the problem.

Fortunately, there are some concrete steps we can take. The IPCC’s 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land lists several possible promising adaptation interventions. These include both supply-side measures, such as better grazing land management and making genetic improvements to crops to better cope with warmer temperatures, as well as demand-side measures, such as widespread dietary changes to more sustainable and less land-intensive food sources.

Improving international trade could also be significant. The previously mentioned paper that predicted 73 million additional undernourished people also posits that facilitating better international trade (for example, through removing trade tariffs) could reduce global hunger risk by between 11% and 64%. 

In terms of neglectedness, food insecurity has thankfully received a fair amount of attention and resources. For instance, the World Bank invested over $30 billion into food security projects in 2023. However, much more funding and political coordination are likely to be needed.

In summary: Food insecurity is already a source of great harm, which is likely to be deepened by climate change. Despite some challenges, there are likely to be many impactful opportunities for people well placed to advance beneficial policies or other interventions.

Changes in disease patterns

Importance: Billions more exposed to tropical diseases by 2100 (but total increase in infections is unclear)

Tractability: Moderate

Neglectedness: Moderate

Due to rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, larger parts of the world will be hospitable to common “vectors” of disease, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and bacteria. On top of this, climate change can also increase the risk of disease contracted through contaminated water and food. This threatens to increase the global prevalence of diseases such as malaria, zika, cholera, and dengue – which already take the lives of hundreds of thousands of people each year, with malaria alone estimated to have taken the lives of as many as 627,000 people in 2020. 

We’re already seeing some climate-change-caused effects on disease patterns. For instance, the IPCC reports that some regions of Central and South America have seen dengue transmission increase by as much as 80% since the 1950s due to climate change.

Though there’s lots of uncertainty about just how much further these diseases will spread in the future, we’ll likely see an increase in the number of people affected by various diseases across the world, and in regions that have previously not been affected by them, such as Europe

The news isn’t all bad; according to a 2019 paper, some warmer regions may become too hot for certain mosquito species, at least partially offsetting increased numbers in other areas. This dynamic will likely play out across different disease vectors, such as ticks, where global warming increases populations in certain regions and decreases them in others. 

The crucial question, then, is whether climate change will net increase or decrease the total number of people infected with these diseases, rather than merely changing where these diseases are prevalent. There’s a lot of uncertainty over this question – in part because it will be highly dependent on the amount of warming we experience.

In 2014, the World Health Organization predicted that total numbers will rise, with as many as 60,000 additional malaria deaths annually resulting from climate change between 2030 and 2050. More recently the IPCC projected that ‘climate-sensitive food-borne, water-borne, and vector-borne disease risks are projected to increase under all levels of warming without additional adaptation’, and that billions more people could be at risk from tropical diseases (particularly dengue) by the end of the century.

How tractable are changing disease patterns? From our preliminary research, it seems several solutions can help to reduce the impacts of changing disease patterns at scale.

For one, producing cheap scalable diagnostic equipment may allow better diagnosis of these diseases at earlier stages. Early diagnosis plays an important part in reducing mortality rates for various diseases. For instance, medical interventions that include earlier diagnosis and treatment (alongside other practices) have helped reduce malaria fatalities by as much as 97% in South Africa. 

Improved climate-change-responsive disease surveillance and forecasting, as well as the implementation of early warning systems, are also promising measures. 

To adapt to food- and water-borne diseases, the IPCC recommends increasing access to clean water and protecting water and sanitation systems against extreme weather. Further research and modeling on how climate change affects disease patterns may help make better public health decisions

The world has already had some success combatting other tropical diseases like malaria – deaths have fallen consistently over the last two decades (though with a slight increase in 2020 due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic).

The neglectedness of these adaptation efforts, as with others, is not fully clear. In general, many of the diseases that stand to spread further due to climate change are currently highly neglected. Dengue, for instance, receives very little pharmaceutical attention despite its prevalence. The primary reason for the neglectedness of these diseases is that they disproportionately affect low-income countries that have fewer resources to combat them. 

As we start to see them spread into higher-income regions with larger healthcare spending, we may plausibly see more resources invested into effective surveillance and pharmaceuticals. The recent development of effective malaria vaccines gives some cause for optimism. Nonetheless, there are likely to continue to be neglected and highly promising projects and interventions that focus on changing disease patterns.

Finally, it bears noting that these diseases currently cause large amounts of harm and will continue to do so in the future, even without factoring in climate change. If you’re excited about helping reduce the global disease burden more generally, we’d recommend exploring our global health and development cause area overview.

In summary: Changing disease patterns pose a big problem for areas not currently equipped to handle the spread of tropical diseases. Though lots of resources are already spent on health globally, targeted interventions to anticipate and detect changing disease patterns beyond existing practices could prove highly impactful endeavors.

Final notes

Naturally, this article has only covered a few of the largest drivers and trends within climate change, as well as some of its biggest associated effects. However, you may be able to find promising concrete opportunities that haven’t been discussed here, either because they’re too small for us to have reviewed or because you’re particularly well-placed to find them. 

Furthermore, by definition, we’ve only been able to review ideas that have already been put forward by others, but important progress is often driven by people bringing new and revolutionary ideas to the table. So, the best way for you to make a meaningful difference to climate change could be to carve your own, original path!

What next?

If you’re looking to take another step towards an impactful career helping in the fight against climate change, you can take a look at our article on the most impactful climate change jobs, which draws from this article to work out where you can have the most impact on the highest-priority problems within climate change.

Also, if you’ve read this article in full, there’s a good chance you’re someone we’d love to help increase the impact of their career. We’d encourage you to consider applying for our free one-on-one advising service!

Additional resources

We’ve linked to many of the resources that have informed our views on climate change throughout the article, but here we want to highlight a few specific resources that offer other perspectives on climate change and its possible solutions.

General resources

Academic articles

Want to take a step toward a more impactful career? Visit our Take Action page for some concrete actions you can take today to move forward.