PKG Fellowships 2020: Matthew Kearney, Part II

Welcome to Part II from Matthew Kearney’s Summer Fellowship! Check out Part I of his work here!

Have you ever had a brilliant idea for a project or business only to find that it already exists? Honestly, that’s exactly what I thought was going to happen when we started creating this project. As an environmentalist, when I found out about the effective altruism movement (which is all about doing the most good possible), my first question was how this applies to climate change. I thought that since there exists a myriad of information on the best practices for helping people, then this information must also exist for helping the planet.

So, I did the first thing that every person looking for answers does: I Googled it. But after trying more search terms than you can imagine and evenafter going to page 2 of the Google results (I know, I must’ve been really desperate to go to page 2), I concluded that nothing existed for it. There was simply no tool to tell me as an individual how I could have the biggest impact on climate change. Sure, there were carbon footprint calculators, but I didn’t want to just know how I could tidy up the emissions in my little square piece of the world. I wanted to know how I could set the systemic dominoes in motion to make a real change. But that was nowhere to be found. So that’s when Einat and I got together to build it.

For months, I thought I must’ve just missed it, that the website must exist out there somewhere. I kept looking over my shoulder, waiting for the link to appear in my inbox, showing me the exact tool we were striving to create. But although I did receive emails from many friends and colleagues with such links, none of them turned out to be the same as what we were trying to do. My exuberance at working on something the world truly needed though was ever so slightly weighed down by a nagging whisper in the back of my mind, like a paperclip clinging to the underside of a kite. The whisper simply said, “Why? Why doesn’t this tool exist yet?”. It wouldn’t be until we dug into the research that I would truly find out.

After spending months pouring over the literature in multiple fields, gathering and assessing datasets, and speaking with experts, we could indeed confirm that our tool didn’t exist yet, and we now also knew why. Much of the research simply doesn’t exist. Even for simple actions like buying clothes second-hand or ditching plastic waste, the research that we thought would be straight forward and easy ended up being extremely complicated and full of pitfalls. Trying to quantify these things exactly proved tedious and, in some cases, impossible. 

As a student I am used to exploring the knowledge that exists in a field, and yes, that means pushing up against the frontiers of what is known every once in a while, but often there are well known methods that exist for arriving at those next answers, for pushing the horizons a little further. When it came to this project, however, we often found ourselves having to invent our own methodologies, combining numerous sources of research or data and drawing our own conclusions. Through the incredible help of many experts and community partners, we were able to develop ways of conducting the research into many of the trickier aspects of climate change such as politics or finance. Along the way, we have begun to learn how to stretch what is known into what we need to know to make progress as a society on climate change.

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Tags: Climate Change, Environment, PKG Fellowships, PKG Fellowships Summer 2020

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