What fields matter the most in our fight for 450PPM (climate change)?
January 25, 2015 12:59 AM   Subscribe

Mr. Miyagi me! I want to spend my career fighting climate change in the most meaningful way possible, but have no idea where to focus my energy. Help this idealist find the best convergence of need and opportunity for MBA types.

Hi! I recently quit my job as a tech program manager in order to pursue a career fighting climate change, but don't know where to start. There obviously is no one "silver-bullet" to stop climate change, but am hoping for some general guidance about what fields:

A) Have the most potential to slow down our sprint towards 450PPM in the near future.
B) Actually have some openings for "business generalists" (Tech/MBA skillset) in the US.

I am open to hearing about specific companies, but am mainly interested in finding general industries that I should read up on. Current impressions:

*If all 450PPM/500PPM hope is for naught unless we find utility level fossil fuel alternatives to sustain the developing world's growth, then it seems like trying to push wind, solar, next-gen nuclear, & hydro forward should be towards the top of our "to-do list". I get the impression that no other alternative (carbon capture, geo-thermal, tidal, decentralized energy) are ready to scale. Solar seems especially promising.

*The smart grid (and IOT) seem like it may have a huge impact on improving energy efficiency in the near future. I am beginning to research network analytics (C3 Energy, Silver Springs Networks), consumption analytics (OPower, WeGoWise), predictive demand, and demand response.

*Energy storage breakthroughs sounds they could be one of the biggest catalysts for renewables , short of placing a price on carbon and/or tax-credit renewal for wind in the US. I have no idea how "close" we are, or whether it is truly the holy-grail some make it out to be though.

*Other technologies I have read up on (large scale tidal, nuclear fusion) appear to be too "young" to realistically move the needle at scale prior to 450PPM.

*I respect that policy work (placing a price on GHGs), conservation (rainforest preservation, etc, reducing meat consumption) are all critical, but don't think I have as much to contribute on those fronts.

*It pains me to say, but I am starting to read up on geo-engineering and consider it as a career track, as it becomes increasingly clear that maxing out emissions at 450PPM seems like a pipe dream. I suspect that there are no real jobs in this sector at the moment though.

Please let me know if I'm wrong about any of the above. In general, what other fields and/or topics should rookies trying to learn the secret knock to the climate change war-room read up on?
posted by 11dawgs1 to Work & Money (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Get in touch with RMI.
posted by flabdablet at 1:51 AM on January 25, 2015

so when i was in high school i read a fun book by Edward Abbey called "the monkey wrench gang", which your question brings to mind. it sounds like working to dismantle industrial capitalism is an option you perhaps haven't considered.
posted by thug unicorn at 1:54 AM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The historic evidence in the UK suggests that RE companies here struggle to find skilled individuals for a range of roles and that this includes straight up business skills and not just engineers.

Over the last two decades we have seen a huge increase in the number of states and territories that have made commitments to subsidise renewable energy growth, this includes all EU Member States, more than half of US states, most other developed countries and an increasing number of developing countries, China particularly has a major commitment but do so India and others. Interest in RE has primarily been as regards renewable electricity sources but we are also now seeing more movement on renewable heat sources, so that might also be worth considering, i.e. biomass, solar thermal and heat pumps. solar thermal is already the world's second largest new renewable energy generation source, albeit with ~80% of capacity in China. I thin this will change, the UK, Germany and Spain and some sub-national regions have been introducing renewable heat policies in the last 5 years. Waste heat and the use of district heating is also something that may well expand and is worth considering though I am not sure what the situation will be like for that outside the EU.

Specific to renewable electricity technologies, wind (off and onshore), solar and biomass are leading but many states expect to see wave or tidal start to move to maturity after 2020 and begin to become significant by 2030. I think tidal is moving much more quickly due to the lesser engineering challenges it faces, don't write off a technology just because it isn't mature as yet, the companies that develop them still need people with business skills to secure finance to enable their innovation process - this is important work.

You tie energy efficiency and SGs together but this is not strictly accurate. SGs are in many ways a facilitating technology for intermittent renewable electricity generation, basically SG tech will largely be tools which will allow us to have lots of intermittent generators on a system and worry less about it falling over. There are a lot of potential SG techs including on transmission and distribution systems (often as a cheaper alternative to wires) and the lack of R&D funding in that area means there is a real need for companies to work out how to finance innovation in these new techs. SG development will also require a lot of need for innovation in demand side management & response (DSM/DSR), ie tech and management on the customer side of things. Utilising smart meters and the data they provide, tools to manage that data and enable its usage in both delayed and real time and quite probably a lot of things not yet thought of. SG tech is actually not desperately needed today but if we don't have more options for managing large volumes of intermittent tech by 2025-2030 then intermittent renewable electricity generation might need to be constrained (i.e. switched off) for significant periods, which will deter more RE investment.

Energy efficiency and energy management will form part of the customer side changes but is not the only thing to worry about - they are both fruitful areas for work however. They will tend to form a meaningful part of any national approach to emission reduction.

Reading back over my comments one of the key things that emerges is the need for innovation. RE is more expensive than the alternatives. Many smart solutions don't exist or are not trusted or applied as widely as they could be (network owners are notoriously conservative), there is a need to develop new technologies, improve existing working technologies, come up with new ways to finance them and bring them to market. Even items which are technologically mature are not commercially mature everywhere. So don't just focus on what is most mature at the moment, very little RE tech is commercially mature in the fullest sense, you could help deliver new technology with lots of future potential. RE, EE and SG are all expanding technology with lots of opportunity for using business skills for either selling more mature tech or advancing potential new tech and you should think about what might suit you best.
posted by biffa at 3:30 AM on January 25, 2015

Battery tech. Whatever RE techs which win out, none can replace fossil fuels without step change advances in size and cost per unit of energy storage.

Tax law. Whatever RE and battery tech win out, the tax system (broadly construed to include tarrifs) is going to be used to encourage / compel adaptation for the period (which could be indefinite) in which fossil fuels are still cheaper on a free market basis.
posted by MattD at 4:09 AM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're on the right track, including that 450 ppm as a goal is a pipe dream (in 2010, 350 was a goal activists rallied around). Related, you seem to understand that you're looking for the best job for *you*, not the best thing some theoretical human could do. Be sure you consider the sustainability of your work, burnout is very common in activist communities.

If natural diversity is important to you, consider looking into businesses structured to support conservation - ecotourism, controlled hunting, alternative agricultural methods that provide wildlife habitat, etc. Climate change and human development are affecting the natural world enormously, and I think there's promise in business-based solutions to conservation concerns. It's a huge problem, and non-profits and government programs simply can't do enough.

Also, I'd add incinerators to your list of promising energy-generation methods. As land becomes more limited around cities and rising standards of living turn into more garbage, incineration is going to become a better option.
posted by momus_window at 6:36 AM on January 25, 2015

Best answer: You asked about which fields matter the most for the issue of climate change. So far, no-one has mentioned the animal-agriculture industry, which produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry combined (this is according to a UN report called Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options). If I were you, I would consider focusing my energies on organizations that aim to reduce (and ultimately eliminate) our reliance on animal agriculture. See, for example, this excellent NPR article that was published a few days ago. It lists a number of innovative, young companies that are working on this area. You might also consider volunteering for activist organizations that advocate veganism as a way to eliminate the use of food animals. Such organizations can use leadership help from people who have MBA-type "business chops", such as your own.
posted by alex1965 at 6:47 AM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've heard a few stories over the years like this--environmentalists working at oil, gas, and energy companies. The basic idea is, if you want to make the most difference in reducing emissions, go work at the companies that are producing the most emissions. Even a small change or improvement at that scale can make a bigger difference than relatively huge changes elsewhere.
posted by flug at 7:24 AM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Vegetarian foods.
posted by grobstein at 8:34 AM on January 25, 2015

Response by poster: Great stuff, thanks! You all have raised many interesting points and industries to consider, and I will certainly do so. Cheers!
posted by 11dawgs1 at 2:07 PM on January 25, 2015

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