“Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. Without drastic action today, adapting to these impacts in the future will be more difficult and costly,” insists the United Nations.
Specifically, the scientific consensus is that the planet’s temperature will continue to rise, with grave consequences for the earth and its inhabitants. More frequent and severe weather; higher death rates; dirtier air; higher wildlife extinction rates; more acidic oceans; and higher sea levels are part of the “frightening future” promised by global warming, according to the US’s National Resources Defense Council (‘NRDC’).
The good news? If you are up for the challenge of tackling climate change, there are many routes -- expected and otherwise -- to doing so. Read on for a roundup of seven potential career paths with the potential to make a difference.
1. Environmental Science
"We must understand the processes of the natural world in which we live and use its resources wisely in order to sustain life on Earth. [Environmental science is] an interdisciplinary field that integrates areas of life, physical and earth science to study and address problems facing the environment and to implement science-based solutions” argues university associate dean of science Jill Nugent.
Environmental science draws from many fields, including biology, atmospheric sciences, ecology, environmental chemistry, geosciences, and the social sciences. Fieldwork and lab work are also core components of studying environmental science.
Due to the challenges of climate change, environmental scientists are in increasing demand. Mendeley explains, “Environmental science is a degree with excellent career prospects, as well as opportunities for further study – around a fifth of students go on to postgraduate study or research.” And while the job market is competitive, the sector is growing and expected to continue to grow in order to help meet sustainability targets.
2. Renewable Energy
Reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and replacing them with cleaner, sustainable, and renewable energy sources is a global priority for the 21st century. According to The Renewable Electricity Futures Study, the world is on the right track: by the year 2050, renewable energy has the potential to provide 80 percent of the US’ electricity. Combining foundational courses like math, chemistry, and physics with specialized engineering and business coursework as they relate to the generation, delivery and consumption of renewable energy, renewable energy studies can help lead the way.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) asserts of the benefits of ramping up on renewable energy, “Renewable energy provides substantial benefits for our climate, our health, and our economy. It dramatically reduces global warming emissions, improves public health, and provides jobs and other economic benefits. And since most renewables don’t require water for cooling, they dramatically reduce the water requirements for power production compared to fossil-fueled power plants.”
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustain the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” It includes the following principles, according to TIES:
Minimizing physical, social, behavioral and psychological impacts
Building environmental and cultural awareness and respect
Providing positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
Providing direct financial benefits for conservation
Generating financial benefits for both locals and private industry
Delivering memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates
Designing, constructing and operating low-impact facilities
Recognizing the rights and spiritual belief of Indigenous People and partnering with them toward empowerment
Given the growing importance of sustainability to today’s consumers, it’s not surprising that ecotourism is one of the travel and tourism industry’s fastest growing sectors. Transparency Market Research explains, “The global market for ecotourism, a small scale alternative to mass scale tourism, has exhibited double-digit growth since the early 1990s due to the rising ranks of discerning tourists and market players acutely conscious about the fallout on the environment from reckless development of tourist spots. In the next couple of years, the market is forecasted to expand further to account for almost a quarter of the global travel market by taking forward good practices and applying them to various facets of the market, including hotel chains, ski resorts, urban tourist attractions, golf courses, and beach resorts.”
An exciting perk pertaining to working in this field is that it offers plenty of opportunities for travel.
4. Environmental Law
Environmental law refers to “the body of law that regulates human impacts on the environment. Environmental law includes, but is not limited to, traditional categories such as environmental protection, conservation, pollution, mining, fisheries, cultural heritage, environmental impact assessment, and planning and development laws,” says Environmental Law Australia.
If combining your interest in law with your passion for the environment sounds like an appealing prospect, environmental law might be the perfect fit.
Harvard Law School's A Trail Guide to Careers in Environmental Law explains, “Environmental attorneys also grapple with serious ethical questions. They must manage the tension between environmental protection and economic development. They protect not only the environment but also human interests by distributing environmental risks fairly, preventing job loss, and ensuring access to natural resources. Since the scientific understanding of environmental issues evolves rapidly, attorneys must make sure that the law keeps up – and must build legal regimes from scratch to handle new environmental problems.”
Worried that your science credentials aren’t strong enough? This isn’t necessarily a concern. While you can expect to work alongside scientists in your environmental law practice, scientific expertise is not a requirement for this field.
In an opinion piece published earlier this month in STAT, first-year medical student Anna Goshua proposes climate change will drastically impact the practice of medicine, and as such medical curricula should take responsibility for preparing medical students for change.
“My generation of physicians must envision a new sustainable health system to reduce its substantial carbon footprint. Possibilities include expanding telemedicine, integrating environmental impacts into cost-benefit analyses of health services, and committing to carbon neutrality. Future physicians must also advocate for changes to health infrastructure that make health care facilities more resilient to climate damage. Without physicians lobbying for the greening of the health system, the good we accomplish could be outpaced by the damage we inflict,” she writes.
The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health is an organization already enlisting medical professionals to become advocates for the cause. “Medical society members have an important opportunity to weigh in to help ensure that the health risks of climate change and the health benefits of climate solutions, especially clean energy, are clearly understood,” insists its website.
Research published in the European Medical Journal, meanwhile, suggests six things doctors can already be doing to support to help mitigate climate change, including encouraging patients to walk and bike whenever possible; advising reduced meat consumption; helping to raise community awareness; “social prescribing” by directing patients to volunteer with environmental organizations; advocating for climate change on committees and at meetings; and setting an example with their own actions and behaviors.
6. Political Science
Climate change scientists and researchers are constantly advancing our understanding of climate change. However, their efforts would be in vain without policies aimed at enacting change.
Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies Patrick Regan, who is also associate director of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative (ECI), says, “Climate science can tell us how and why the earth is changing but not why we allow it to do so. While global warming is a function of chemical processes by which atoms combine to form an imbalance of molecules, policy and markets directly affect how many of those molecules are in our atmosphere. In the perfect world, science would inform policy and policymakers would act in ways to forestall or prevent the future doom. In many political environments today, that is simply not happening. The reasons humans ignore the science points toward a potentially catastrophic outcome.”
In fact, Regan goes so far as to suggest that “climate change is now more about the politics than the science.” This perspective is backed by Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a Senior scientist at France’s Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement and Jiang Kejun, a researcher at China’s Energy Research Institute. “The scientific, economic and social arguments for aggressive action on climate change are powerful. It is now incumbent on our political leaders to turn the advice we in the scientific community have been providing them into the concrete action the public is demanding,” they argue in a column for EUROPACTIV.
Sure, it’s possible to work against climate change from an office or laboratory, but if getting your hands dirty is more your thing, farming studies may be for you.
Says the American Farmland Trust, “Farmers and ranchers are critical in the fight against climate change. Conserving farmland by the acre and soil by the inch is a powerful strategy for reducing greenhouse gases and improving productivity. Farmers and ranchers can help reverse climate change by drawing down carbon from the air through practices that sequester carbon in the soil.”
Environmental science, policy and management professor Whendee Silver has worked on carbon sequestration and suggests that farmers can slow global warming by improving the soil quality on their farms. Her claim? That while agriculture is often portrayed as the ‘villain’ in climate change, farmers have an exciting opportunity to contribute to solving the problem by improving agricultural soils.
Which brings us back to politics. Because while analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that farmers may be uniquely positioned to make change by producing livestock more efficiently, they can’t do it alone. As ecosystem ecologist Rich Conant told NPR , policies are needed to promote more efficient production of farming products so that demand can be continue to be met despite cuts to emissions.
Speaking on the critical need to address global warming, International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde urged, “It’s a collective endeavor, it’s collective accountability and it may not be too late.” Pursuing studies in one of these seven climate change-related areas can arm you with the knowledge, skills and experience you need to join the fight.