This question was first posed to me not by a student at our online climate change school Terra.do, but by my tech entrepreneur co-founder, Anshuman Bapna, in our first meeting. It was this very question that led us to create, along with our other co-founder Mayank Jain, an online climate change “bootcamp” program to help skilled professionals transition into climate work.
So how can people in tech best leverage their skills to mitigate climate change and build climate resilience? Let’s start by acknowledging the immensely diverse world of professionals skills and job types that loosely come under this umbrella of “tech.” This careers site found 85 different job types in tech based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, and these are chiefly jobs for those who code. It doesn’t even include jobs that are inherently part of the tech world, like product manager, or job positions in other professions that need tech skills, like marketing technologist.
Keeping this fantastic diversity in the world of tech in mind, let me lay out what we at terra.do see as four key insights about the role of tech and tech skills in advancing climate action.
Tech has never been more important to the climate fight
First, take heart. Your skills are essential to advance climate action. In the world of clean energy alone, everything is getting “smart:” buildings, grids, electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, EVs themselves, entire cities. A heavy reliance on intermittent renewable resources like wind and solar energy necessitates a revolution in how we design and manage our energy systems. In the “utility of the future,” according to a study by MIT, information and communications technologies will be absolutely central to energy systems operations.
But are there jobs out there? Let’s be honest. A pandemic is not exactly boom time for jobs (except perhaps in tech). That said, I did a quick search today on Indeed.com, a major employment site in the U.S., for “solar and IT” jobs, and I discovered 147 jobs across the U.S. that fit this description. Climatebase also has a long list of climate jobs for software engineers. This demand is only expected to grow as climate-saving sectors expand. The World Economic Forum sees COVID-19 as a game-changer for renewable energy as clean energy’s share of total electricity generation increases dramatically in many countries.
If your skills are in data science and AI, you’re also in luck. Climatechange.ai have come up with a fantastic resource on all the ways you can use your data science skills towards advancing climate knowledge and action. (They also have a 111-page paper on this topic, for those of you who’d really like to get into the weeds.)
All in all, the sun is shining on tech jobs that advance climate action, bad pun intended.
The “content” is not as hard as you think
I got my graduate degrees in energy and resources at a program that, above all, emphasized the value of “back-of-the-envelope” calculations, which are simple arithmetic calculations that you can literally scribble out on the back of an envelope. Now as you deal with more complicated problems, you may need larger envelopes, databases, and, of course, some code, but the analysis itself is frequently based on simple arithmetic calculations, some foundational knowledge of how, for example, the energy system works (a lot of which is covered in our three free energy classes at Terra.do), and a hefty dose of creative thinking. For example, in my previous job at a clean energy advocacy group, Blue Planet Foundation, I did all the analysis for this energy report card that tracks the state of Hawaii’s progress toward 100% clean energy using only “back-of-the-envelope” calculations in Excel.
Of course, I do not want to discount the nuanced understanding that comes with more training and experience. If you intend to advance the science of atmospheric modelling, for example, it’s going to take a lot more than a few classes. But for a large set of applications, especially in the clean energy field, a short course or two and a helpful, more experienced colleague who is willing to teach you some of the nuances are enough to get you on the road to building your experience and confidence.
There’s plenty you can do without quitting your current job
When we launched our first cohort for our climate “bootcamp” program at Terra.do, we were deeply impressed with what our learning fellows were already doing to advance climate action. Take the example of Ha Vu, who worked in fintech, where she was actively organizing tech workers to pressure their management to embrace ambitious carbon mitigation goals.
Of course, if you deepen your knowledge, you can go even further. After completing our course, Ha got a new job at Sidewalks Lab, where she will combine her software engineering skills with her climate knowledge to build a tool that helps planners generate urban planning designs that factor in climate and sustainability goals.
And then there’s Cody Simms, Partner and Senior Vice President at Techstars, a global technology investment and innovation firm. After completing our course, Cody launched a slew of climate actions while remaining in his current role. Along with his colleagues, he organizes a series of sustainability roundtables that bring corporate leaders and sustainability experts together around topics like carbon accounting. Cody is also taking a slew of personal steps to reduce his carbon footprint, and he’s deeply involved in climate-focused political organizing in the lead up to the November 2020 elections in the U.S.
And I have to give a shout-out to Liam Hardy, a data analyst (and former astrophysicist) from the U.K. who’s now a part-time instructor with Terra.do while continuing in his regular job.
All in all, do not discount what you can do right now, in your workplace, community, country or home.
Local government needs your help
Even while national governments drag their feet on climate policy, city governments around the world, from Amsterdam to Ahmedabad to Adelaide are leading the way on mitigation and resilience action. And they need tools and smart technologies to do this work. If a city is working towards a goal of net-zero carbon buildings, for instance, as 28 cities around the world have pledged to do, they need ways to track, measure and optimize building energy use at scale. And access to reliable, timely data and sound analysis is critical for mitigating wildfire, flooding, heat and other climate risks.
Although the pandemic has been devastating to local government finances, many cities are recognizing that the path to economic recovery lies through climate action. And if you have data science or software engineering skills, chances are you can be of use to your local government, either by working for them directly, or finding a job in the growing world of research, consulting and non-profit organizations that support city-level climate work.
In our modern world, your tech skills can drive climate action in many ways. The important thing is to take the first step in your climate tech journey.
About the author
Dr. Kamal Kapadia is the co-founder of the online climate school Terra.do. She was a Research and Teaching Fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford and also holds a PhD in Energy and Resources from the University of California Berkeley.