Best college major for addressing climate change?
June 18, 2014 7:40 PM   Subscribe

What kind of skill sets does one need to be of best help to addressing climate change? It would seem like the most obvious choice is to major in environmental science. Otherwise, maybe political science to deal with legislators and capital hill? Or "who cares what you study undergrad" and go to law school?
posted by defmute to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Figure out what you're good at. You can work on solving climate change as an engineer, advocate, politician, writer, businessperson, lawyer...
posted by salvia at 7:42 PM on June 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I should've also added: "or don't go to college -- just get out and do activist things". Also, I guess I should have rephrased the question "What kinds of people/professionals does the climate change movement most need?"
posted by defmute at 7:55 PM on June 18, 2014

Atmospheric Sciences and Oceanography
posted by surfgator at 8:02 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are lots of ways to contribute, but I'd go for a PhD in economics. There's this impression, fostered by the fossil fuels industry and their representatives, that reducing carbon emissions will make us all poorer. But there's a strong economic case that rebuilding our infrastructure to increase efficiency and reduce emissions would increase employment and add to our wealth. We need more people making the economic case for change.
posted by alms at 8:12 PM on June 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

Seconding salvia - what are you good at?

I'm about to be starting grad school in a discipline that brushes up against climate change, but on the science/engineering side. I hate politics, and am definitely burying my head in the sand with an attitude of "I'm doing my part to get you the facts, it's up to y'all to decide to use them responsibly."

If you want to have an impact, I think the place to be is in making/influencing policy. Scientists are in almost complete agreement that climate change exists, and that its exacerbated by human activity. However, until the general public and politicians accept that it is a real thing and something we desperately need to deal with, not so much will be done to combat it. That said, I'm not convinced that starting out as a political science major would be the best choice even if you want to end up there. You'll be more unique if you get a science education (and maybe work/volunteer as an activist or in government) and then pivot to take a policy job. I have a friend who did this, and it seems to be working very well for her.
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:14 PM on June 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

What kind of skill sets does one need to be of best help to addressing climate change? It would seem like the most obvious choice is to major in...

I think this question is skipping over a few steps. You've decided that you want to help address climate change. Now I think you need to identify what jobs are needed to do that and which of those you have the ability, opportunity, and desire to fill. Once you have that figured out, then it's time to talk about skill sets.

Or "who cares what you study undergrad" and go to law school?

You probably don't want to go to law school unless you really want to practice law and be a lawyer.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 8:17 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Engineering. You'll have a job and you'll be saving the planet. Win-win.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:21 PM on June 18, 2014

Go into finance, get rich, and follow in Tom Steyer's footsteps.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:26 PM on June 18, 2014

Not that I would say I was entirely flippant with the above comment, but the barriers to effective action on climate change are entirely political, not technical. So short of removing some of the key blockers directly (hellooo Koch brothers), lobbying and marketing and persuasion and psychology are the sorts of areas where rational argument has not gotten far enough.
posted by wilful at 8:32 PM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Current technology, if fully and aggressively implemented, could probably largely stop climate change being a problem in the long term. This is not to say that technology should not keep advancing or that improvements are unwelcome, but it is not the main impediment to progress on the issue.

Certainly here in Australia, and much of the world I think, we are in huge need of effective public advocacy, education and culture change, so that technological change becomes politically palatable.

I don't really have any skills or ability in education, advocacy or any of those things and if you are like me in that then it's probably a bad choice to head in that direction. If you could be good at it and enjoy it then that's another matter...
posted by deadwax at 8:33 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Or, not on preview, what wilful said.
posted by deadwax at 8:33 PM on June 18, 2014

There are all these job titles and degree titles with known skill sets, which people ardently pursue, and the purposes and roles of which we can understand. However, there seem to be two big gaps in the work of getting things actually done: 1) somehow persuading and motivating billions of individual humans to act against their short-term individual interests, sacrifice not just convenience but what they may really think they want, and focus on long term interests outside of their immediate experiences, and 2) somehow coordinating all the knowledge and skills that already exist (including those that apply to my point #1) into something that will not only accomplish miracles, but be a convincing enough plan that people will _believe_ it will work.

There is no college major that does either of these, although communications, economics, psychology, meteorology, biology, journalism, law, health, international affairs, engineering, and a bunch of other specializations will all be important.

So, my advice is, whatever you choose to do, keep your eyes, ears, and electives open so that you can be a link between domains, and learn the humility and precision that will help you be an excellent communicator.
posted by amtho at 8:39 PM on June 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Some of this depends on which country you plan to effect change in.

If you were in Australia, I would say economics is the most useful, because that's the framing we use for public policy and it's where the debates happen.

If you're in the US, law may be more useful because (it seems to an outsider) your public policy debates are framed in law and legality.

If you're in a small country, I would say international relations, because your debates would be framed around getting other countries to act.

Whichever you are in, good communication and relationship skills are essential.

All of that said, I spent 12 years of my career in climate change and I have an engineering degree.

Edited to add: whichever degree you do, personal resilience is one of the best skills you can have if you want to work on climate change, because it is hard, dispiriting, you don't win a lot, you probably care too much, and there can be a lot of toxic public hatred. None of that is a reason not to try though.
posted by girlgenius at 8:56 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just finished a PhD in environmental studies motivated by a similar question. I have a lot of friends and peers who are doing their best to find meaningful work that will help them work towards climate change. Unfortunately it's very challenging. There is so much I could say about this, where to begin...

It is important to recognize that in order for you to have an effective career which meets your goals of working towards meaningful change, you yourself need to be resourced. You can't fight if you're hungry, or overworked, or doing work that's painful. You need to secure your own oxygen mask first before you can help others. I would strongly encourage you to think about yourself and what kind of work makes you sing, and try to angle your career in that direction.

Climate change is a big messy cross-disciplinary problem. It will not be solved by people who know a lot about climate change. It will be solved (as much as it can) by disciplinary experts who know a lot about climate change. The best thing you can do is figure out a discipline that sits well with you and will let you grow into a highly effective expert. The path for taking that might be roundabout; you might end up working on problems unrelated to climate change while you get better at your craft. Bill McKibben followed this path, growing in stature as a writer at The New Yorker before eventually becoming a public activist. The movement needs Bill McKibben the writer. It doesn't need Bill McKibben the engineer nearly as much, so it's a good thing he didn't decide to go into engineering. As a writer he is a finely sharpened sword, a force multiplier. What would make you grow into the strongest, most capable adult you can be? What makes you feel alive? What makes you happy?

Engineers look to political science, because the technical solutions are known but can't be implemented due to politics; political scientists look to sociologists and anthropologists because the policy instruments are known, but consensus is never there; sociologists look to behavioral science and psychology to understand how to change people's minds; and these people look to artists, understanding that mindset has a lot to do with narrative and story; but artists throw up their hands, saying you can't co-opt art for a movement like this without disenchanting it. Two of my most respected professor colleagues, one an economist and one a political scientist, both among the most prominent climate hawks in my region, now choose to act by marching in protests in the streets. One was arrested last year. All this to say there's no easy answer here, no obvious discipline which has the most leverage. But climate change is felt and discussed across the board in all of these domains.

My recommendations, though, would be one of: engineering of all kinds; economics; political science; psychology; anthropology; business; ... I guess pretty much anything; it's possible to find a way into this problem from many different angles. But focus on skills, rather than broad domain knowledge, because skills sharpen you and make you more effective. And focus on what feels alive to you above all else.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:02 PM on June 18, 2014 [17 favorites]

Alternate, possibly excessively cynical view:

The science of climate change is reasonably well understood. The policies that are needed, I think most economists are pretty sure about.

The issue is one of political will. In America today, there's a lot of political capital available to politicians who thumb their noses at all things intellectual and highbrow. Because of course, once you're university educated, you're out of touch and stop caring about working people's employment options.

The only thing that's going to make a difference towards implementing the policies that we know should be implemented is a popular sense of urgency.

Edward Abbey was unfortunately too far ahead of his time. He drove the biggest, gas-guzzling-est pickup truck he could find, because the sooner we use up all the oil and have to make the hard decisions, the better, to paraphrase.

Unless you have some brilliant idea about how to foster a sense of urgency among those who currently don't have one, going into a field that pays the bills and gives you opportunity to use up vast amounts of fossil fuels while also emitting large amounts of carbon (say airline administration or marketing), might just be the only thing pushes our society to a point where we're able to start getting things done.
posted by colin_l at 9:29 PM on June 18, 2014

Engineering, economics/ finance or project management/ business. The activist field is saturated as is the kind of scientist doing basic research on the causes of climate change. You can still do applied research but the solution is in the hands of the technologists and the funders now.

I'm a scientist who has moved into applied science. We build things and see if they work. If they work the implementation scales up incredibly quickly: finding qualified project engineers and installers/ project managers to do all the installs is the bottle neck. And money, of course, but that's getting easier.
posted by fshgrl at 9:41 PM on June 18, 2014

Geography, with an emphasis on remote sensing and/or hydrography, 'cause it ain't just about melting ice (though of course, obviously, it is about that too). If I could somehow swing £29k/yr, I'd apply to Uni Cambridge's PhD program offered with the Scott Polar Research Institute, or CU Boulder's program.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:01 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As many have noted above, the problems are political and social, not technical. I'm not sure there is a college major that is particularly focused on solving political and social problems. I'd suggest that many degrees are probably equally useful for something that is rather nebulous. So, study what interests you and find a way to use the skills you gain in a way that is useful for the cause.

The climate change movement needs people in general. People who are willing to work hard, to organize, and people who can convince others to join them. I think communications and design are very important, but they aren't typically things that you learn effectively in college by studying them directly. Likewise for political and social organizing, fundraising, and so on.

You can definitely get involved in a lot of activism quite easily while in college, so do that.
posted by ssg at 10:20 PM on June 18, 2014

Also, environmental science is a broad field, but it seems that many of the people with background in environmental science that I know tend to work, directly or indirectly, for resource companies and the like. Often the field, in terms of actual work, is about monitoring and reducing the environmental impacts of damaging activities that make a lot of money. More bluntly, not so much saving the world, more cleaning up after someone who is constantly making a mess.
posted by ssg at 10:27 PM on June 18, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses, everyone. I agree with what ssg said -- that "the problems are political and social, not technical". You've all given me a lot of great insight and it's gonna take me some time to process it all and figure out which road I'm going to take. In the meantime, I'm going to spend my time volunteering as much as I can for Citizens Climate Lobby. If anyone knows of another more effective group which deals with climate change and peak oil and the like, I'd definitely appreciate it if you let me know. Thanks, yall!
posted by defmute at 11:30 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not that I would say I was entirely flippant with the above comment, but the barriers to effective action on climate change are entirely political, not technical.

This is simply not true. To focus on renewable energy as an example there are many political barriers to their development and deployment but there are also a large range of technical hurdles to be overcome, as well as social barriers (acceptability, Nimbyism), institutional barriers (such as experience with the technology and skill shortages), environmental barriers (eg how wave or tidal might interact with cetaceans/seals/sharks/benthic life, how impacts can be minimised, development of best practice), financial and market barriers such as high capital costs, access to finance, etc.

Technical issues include the fact that many of the technologies are immature. Wave energy requires substantial work on both design and on operational issues such as moorings and reliability. PV technologies have the potential to become more cost effective and acceptable through research in efficiency. Floating wind technology has the potential to open up large areas of high resource but needs to be got off the drawing board and into practice. Electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles need breakthroughs in engineering to become competitive with ICEs.

Some of these problems overlap with policy issues but many require innovation in engineering, ecology, applied finance, political science and activism. Devising, critiquing and amending effective policy requires economists and regulatory experts. Providing policy instruments to finance wave energy or floating wind isn't magically going to make the technology work, it will require highly trained postgraduate and post-doctoral scientists and engineers. Rolling out huge volumes of RE will require people with business skills. Connecting and managing large volumes of intermittent generation will require electrical engineers.
posted by biffa at 2:25 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Climate change does not fit in any one scientific discipline. It is an enormous problem that will shake up everything we know. And no, if you pick Economics or Political Science you will not learn anything about it. You might hear it in passing, but it is not a core focus at all. Can you gain knowledge, skills and understanding from those disciplines that could be applied to major global problems? Sure. But it really helps to be an expert and have the lingo on specific issues to have your voice heard. Environmental science seems like the best bet.

There are programs (undergrad, graduate or professional programs) tailored to address climate change, and almost all of them are multidisciplinary in nature. Have a look at a few to get an idea how to approach the issue. I just pulled some random programs up:

B.A. in sustainability

Climate Change Studies Minor (can be combined with any undergrad major)

Master's in Sustainable Solutions

Climate Change & Society PSM

Responsible Global Change Management

Leadership in Sustainability and Environmental Management

Some of this universities and programs are better than others, some are not that great at all. This is just to give you an idea. There are hundreds of programs like that, I am sure you can do the research yourself.

Now, regarding employment and the general awareness for green jobs: We are still in the beginning stages. It is a growing market though. Have a look at the Green Goods and Services Survey. In 2010 there were 3.1 million such jobs in the US, in 2011 the number climbed up to 3.4 million. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cut all "measuring green jobs" products. So even though we don't have the newest numbers you can see a trend and identify possible career trajectories while looking at the survey data.
posted by travelwithcats at 3:33 AM on June 19, 2014

going into a field that pays the bills and gives you opportunity to use up vast amounts of fossil fuels while also emitting large amounts of carbon (say airline administration or marketing), might just be the only thing pushes our society to a point where we're able to start getting things done

Um, please don't do this. The lack of political will is not because there's any lack of carbon emissions. On the other hand, if you're interested in business, going into a field that's responsible for a large percentage of carbon emissions and working as a sustainability director could be useful. If you have a leadership position at a corporation, you may be able to get things done more quickly than as an activist or someone working in policy.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:15 AM on June 19, 2014

Here's another idea. PercussivePaul mentioned artists. Popular culture is probably the most effective way to inform or engage large amounts of people.

Michael Moore is too abrasive to do anything but yell into the echo chamber. But a brilliant, engaging film about how climate change affects working people *right* *now* (eg Bangladeshi laborers, etc) around the world might have the chance of actually pushing the national discourse forward.
posted by colin_l at 6:51 AM on June 19, 2014

I agree with Biffa -- the actual, realistic means to reduce carbon emissions are entirely technical: enabling renewable-generated power to be as cheap and reliable as that produced from burning coal and gas.

The idea that carbon emissions have a political solution is a silly fantasy. People want the quality of life that cheap reliable power provides. Investors and workers want the income that gas and coal provide. The political will to overcome that is zero.

We didn't stop lighting our lamps with whale oil because people loves whales, nor heating our houses with firewood because people loved trees.
posted by MattD at 6:55 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with Biffa -- the actual, realistic means to reduce carbon emissions are entirely technical: enabling renewable-generated power to be as cheap and reliable as that produced from burning coal and gas.

I totally did not say this, nor do I believe it to be the case. This is in fact antithetical to my entire working life where I am an academic specialising in renewable energy policy.

My point was that we would need technological expertise in the form of multiple different kinds of engineer, physicist, chemist and ecologist and in other technical areas, but that we would also need people with skills in areas as varied as:

Policy & regulation: to devise and amend policy to ensure sufficient stimulus for different technologies at different stages of maturity. To communicate applied policy to stakeholders. To devise and amend regulation for renewable electricity within the wider electrical regulation framework. To devise new methods to regulate renewable heating and cooling.

Finance: since RE tends to require new methods for finding finance for its capital intensive nature but also the volume we are now moving to just require people who can leverage large amounts of finance for billion dollar projects.

Communicators: we need to get the message out that there is a problem with climate change, that there are possible solutions, that we need to do more to support their development, their deployment and to get the message out to developers from the domestic to the industrial that these are potential energy solutions.

Behaviour: we need to understand what energy consumers will respond to as substitutes for fossil fuels, what costs they will tolerate, whether they will accept inconvenience and how they play off various benefits and disbenefits.

Design experts to make the interfaces and usability as helpful as possible.

Statistical experts to model the changes to the grid and to understand and apply big data manipulation in the face of more intermittent and more distributed generation.

Business experts who can grow competitive advantage for low impact technologies.

Interdisciplinarians and systems experts who can tie together different areas of science and social science.

Basically there are lots of different areas that can contribute to the normalisation of environmental technologies across society, pick one that grabs your attention then work hard at it. This includes lots of science disciplines and social science disciplines and probably even some humanities if you look hard enough.

A leading UK academic has recently finished a training needs assessment at this page that you might find helpful, its made up of 9 reports down the right hand side.
posted by biffa at 10:13 AM on June 19, 2014

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