How climate change will transform work

When we think of climate change, most of us think of environmental consequences like rising sea levels, elevated temperatures and melting glaciers.

In some parts of the world, like south Florida or the mountains of Switzerland, those shifts already are affecting daily life. In Miami, for example, wastewater treatment plants are being re-built higher, seawalls raised and car parks designed with flood gates – not only in response to flooding today, but with an eye to the sea levels of tomorrow.

But experts say that those effects may only be the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Climate change is shaking up everything from finance to health. As a result, it isn’t only urban planners in at-risk areas who will have to shift their framework for planning for the future. From financial planners to farmers, civil engineers to doctors, an increasingly wide range of other professionals are likely to find their industries affected.

That means there may be another consequence of climate change that often gets overlooked: what it means for your career.

“Everyone is going to need to understand [climate change] the same way you’d assume everyone in business needs to have some fluency in social media today, or that everyone would able to use a computer 20 years ago,” says Andrew Winston, author of the book The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World.

Everyone is going to need to understand [climate change] the same way you’d assume everyone in business needs to have some fluency in social media today

– Andrew Winston, author

Because it is difficult to know exactly how dramatic the effects of climate change will be, it is hard to know just how much it will affect various industries. But some of the changes already are being seen. Climate-related disasters like droughts and hurricanes, for example, are hitting pocketbooks and insurance premiums – even for people living on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, the complicated supply chains of a globalised retail industry mean that a disruption in one place can cause consequences elsewhere. That was shown recently when earthquakes hit Japan in April 2016, damaging plants that sold parts to Toyota and forcing the auto giant to suspend production.

Wind farm with the sun setting in the background

C490K0 Wind farm with the sun setting in the background

Even the health industry may be affected. As well as affecting the availability of clean water and food, warmer weather is increasing the vulnerability of areas already at risk of diseases like malaria and dengue. The recent Zika epidemic may have been exacerbated by warmer weather patterns. Between 2030 and 2050, the World Health Organisation predicts that climate change will cause roughly 250,000 additional deaths per year.

“One of the most interesting things that hasn’t been talked a lot about, but that there’s a lot of work on in WHO and NIH, is what’s coming at us in terms of disease, and how the weather is changing and spreading diseases and epidemics faster,” says Michelle DePass, dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School in New York. “We might listen to the BBC to hear all about Ebola and other things, and not quite grasp that we are very, very vulnerable to [these kinds of epidemics] here in the United States, as well, because of what’s happening with climate.”

In fact, this year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, which draws on assessments from 750 experts, found that one of the five biggest risks faced by the world in 2017, in terms of potential impact, is weapons of mass destruction. All of the four others are climate-related: extreme weather events, water crises, major natural disasters, and failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

We don’t have the right people with the right skills in the right places – Daniel Kreeger, executive director, Association of Climate Change Officers

Despite the size of the challenge, fewer employees are trained in incorporating climate patterns in their planning for the future than should be, says Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Climate Change Officers. (One of ACCO’s initiatives is to run training and credentialing programmes in climate-related skills). “We don’t have the right people with the right skills in the right places,” he says.

He points to one example: civil engineering. “We don’t expect to get monster inundations of rain, and then drought for six months. We expect to get periodic, smaller amounts of rain. So our systems aren’t equipped to deal with larger rainfalls,” Kreeger says. “When those parameters change, you need a workforce to deal with those changes.
“Well, our civil engineers haven’t been trained to deal with climate change in their training. Our urban planners, our city managers, our architects. Nobody’s been taught this stuff.”

Hiring climate

Right now, the top 10 most-desired skills for getting hired, according to LinkedIn’s data analysis, all have to do with tech: think cloud computing, SEO marketing and web architecture. In the same way tech has transformed today’s workforce, some say that climate change could transform tomorrow’s.

One industry that already shows some of that evolution is energy. According to data provided by job listings search engine Indeed, in the first quarter of 2014 in the UK, job postings in the renewable energy sector – made up of bioenergy, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar, and wind – accounted for a third (32.9%) of all energy-sector job postings in the first quarter of 2014. In 2017, that had risen to over half of all energy sector job postings, or 51.5%.

Our civil engineers haven’t been trained to deal with climate change in their training. Our urban planners, our city managers, our architects. Nobody’s been taught this stuff

– Daniel Kreeger

Although these numbers are UK-specific, the same pattern of a shift to renewables was seen worldwide, says Tara Sinclair, Indeed’s senior fellow and an economist at George Washington University.

Those changes have been the result of a variety of factors, including the fall in oil prices and competitiveness of natural gas: over the same three years, job postings for oil and coal in the UK fell from two-thirds (66.5%) of the energy sector to under half (47.7%).

But it’s also a result of how both employers and job-seekers are becoming interested in mitigating emissions and climate change, says Sinclair. After oil prices declined several years ago, she says, jobs in the oil industry dropped off, as did job-seekers’ interest in them.

“Part of it is there are fewer opportunities, and people respond to that they know what the landscape of the labour market is, broadly,” she says. “But also there does seem to be this increasing attractiveness of green economy jobs.”

In the same way that many people from the oil and gas industry have been able to transition into green energy, says Sinclair, many employees already should have skills which are transferable to climate change-specific issues. Take production and supply chains.

Many employees already should have skills which are transferable to climate change-specific issues

“Generally, planning production differently around potentially volatile weather phenomena, etc, is going to be a piece of the skill set you’d be required to have”, Sinclair says. “But I don’t see that that’s so much different than planning around other sorts of destructive phenomena, whether they be political or anything else. I don’t think that as new skill we haven’t seen before.”

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