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Careers Working on Climate Change

February 10, 2022
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

Students Are Interested, the World Needs Them

Iconic image from the World War I military recruiting poster — a previous successful effort to mobilize Americans in response to an existential threat.
Iconic image from the World War I military recruiting poster — a previous successful effort to mobilize Americans in response to an existential threat.

For the generation of those under 25, GenZ, climate change is not an abstraction but rather among their greatest fears. Many have already experienced some form of climate disaster, a reality in counties resident to more than 40 percent of Americans in 2021. Pretty much wherever they grow up, their lives will be increasingly influenced by heat extremes, coastal flooding, severe storms, and weather patterns with no recent precedent.

As someone who has worked on climate change for decades and taught at multiple universities, I know that young people increasingly want to know not only how climate change will influence their lives but what they can do about it — ideally something that could be the basis for a career. A frequent after class conversation begins with a question about some topic just discussed but quickly veers off in a more personal nature. In response to some reading about climate analysis or policy a student will tell me “that is so interesting,” followed by “I would love to do something like that when I graduate.”

This has happened often enough that I’ve begun to compile some notes to help students think about career possibilities. There are many obvious possibilities like being a climate scientist or diplomat, established careers that typically require long periods of graduate study and working in junior roles in less interesting positions. There are also websites like Climatebase.org that offer help identifying climate job opportunities. But the starting point for most of the students I’ve spoken with is earlier in the thought process. They want simply to hear about the range of opportunities, the skill sets they require, and most of all, what impact they might offer for addressing climate change. What follows are a subset of just a few of the less known but potentially exciting and rewarding climate careers.

For students with analytical minds and interest, many complex and uncertain issues must be evaluated and regularly updated to make critical decisions about climate investments and policy.

Climate risk assessment. For companies from airlines to owners of coastal real estate, there is a growing need to quantify the expected impact of extreme weather events and their financial consequences. Investor pressure for greater climate risk disclosure is accelerating. Multiple companies have been created to offer such analytical services have been started in the past five years with some already absorbed by much larger firms catering to investors, e.g., The Climate Service recently acquired by S&P.

Climate risk management. Those living in areas at risk from wildfires, flooding, and other disasters made more frequent due to climate change are a growing market for risk reducing protective measures, such as fire-resistant roofing and flood barriers. Such measures may be a requirement for insurance, or the basis for lower premiums.

For students who want to be more hands on, the impacts of climate change are creating new fields anticipating and preparing for extreme weather events.

Urban resilience managers. Cities are often on the front line of climate change due to the urban heat island effect, temperatures higher than surrounding areas due to the density of paved surfaces and dark rooftops. Large populations in coastal areas also can be difficult to evacuate in the time available when storms and high winds approach. Last year Miami-Dade County, Florida created the country’s first chief heat officer with a mandate to come up with ways to protect the area’s population from extreme heat events. Disaster preparedness is becoming a high priority for cities across the country, while Central Park in New York City now has a Climate Lab to study the impact of climate change on urban parks.

For students with an affinity for numbers and an interest in accounting, the accurate measurement of greenhouse gas emissions is becoming increasingly critical and sometimes contentious.

Carbon accounting. The science of measuring greenhouse gas emissions at all levels, nations, corporations, and individuals is the basis for the still evolving field of carbon accounting. Such methods are critical for multiple purposes including confirming progress toward GHG reduction targets and verifying reductions claimed as the basis for tradeable carbon offsets. If done improperly — as many warn is the case today — a serious issue for meeting climate goals

For students with an interest in nature and farming, climate change is creating the need for new fields of knowledge.

Climate smart agriculture. Globally, agriculture is responsible for more GHG emissions than transportation, while extreme temperatures and areas with intense droughts threaten food production. This field encompasses diverse issues including advising farmers on crop varieties more heat and drought tolerant, , reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers which emit GHGs, feeding cows seaweed to reduce their methane emissions, and planting crops and reducing tilling to promote retention of carbon in soil.

For students thinking about legal careers, climate change is creating new specialized fields of practice and expertise:

Climate lawyers. Climate change has generated over 1,000 lawsuits worldwide based on diverse theories, e.g., cities seeking compensation for damage from extreme weather events and a group of children suing the government for failing to protect their future welfare. Such suits are increasingly able to associate specific weather events to human induced climate change thanks to improving scientific understanding known as climate attribution, an illustration of the linkages between evolving science and many other fields.

These are just a few of the climate specialties likely to become major professions as climate change worsens and the global economy responds, creating career opportunities but also the satisfaction of helping to do something about climate change. The coming decade may have much in common with the rapid emergence of environmental careers in the 1970s following the first Earth Day, creation of EPA, and enactment of a suite of environmental laws still powerful to this day. Specialized fields of science evolved to study pollution, environmental advocacy groups were formed with new roles for lawyers, universities created environmental departments and then colleges, and every major corporation created senior positions for environmental compliance and strategy.

Governments, universities and research institutes, advocacy organizations, international organizations, and every industry will be looking for skilled practitioners as we adapt to a new normal of extreme weather events, changing seas, new challenges in agriculture and response to a growing number of national disasters. I urge every interested student to explore these career opportunities; their intellect, passion, and creativity will be critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the consequences of climate change.

Alan Miller has worked on climate change for over forty years, taught at nine universities, and last year co-authored “Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)

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