Global sustainability professionals are a diverse lot, with a wide variety of sub-groups. For example, did you know that there are literally thousands of “climate professionals” working directly or indirectly on climate mitigation and adaptation initiatives in the United States alone? These climate professionals are based in urban and rural areas throughout the country. They operate at local, national, and international scales within and across all sectors, including business, government, and civil society organizations. While these climate professionals are widely distributed and separated not just by geographic but also cultural and institutional boundaries, they are increasingly organized and have created numerous venues to connect and collaborate. And, their numbers are growing!

I recently had the good fortune to attend two national conferences for climate professionals: the Climate Leadership Conference in Baltimore, MD, and the National Adaptation Forum in Madison, WI. While there, I spoke with a number of climate professionals about their work and the leadership practices they employ to have influence in their workplaces and communities. I was impressed by their commitment and enthusiasm as sustainability leaders. Below are some of the key lessons I learned from these conferences and my ongoing conversations with this diverse and dedicated group of climate professionals.

Climate professionals are an increasingly organized community   “Professionalization” refers to the process by which a field of practice is increasingly formalized and eventually becomes a discrete accredited profession with established standards, certifications, etc. Climate professionals are currently engaged in this process, and professional societies have formed to support the development of the field. In particular, two professional societies stand out: Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO) and American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP). A third professional society serving a subset of climate professionals and playing an important role in the professionalization process is the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN). While there are similarities, these organizations have different histories, purposes, and serve slightly different audiences.

ACCO describes itself as “the premier professional development organization and cross-sector community of practice for individuals addressing climate change in their organizations’ operations and mission. ACCO membership fosters collaboration with leading-edge practitioners, policy-makers, climate scientists, and researchers to advance solutions and build capacity in addressing climate change.”

ASAP explicitly focuses on a subset of climate professionals known as “adaptation professionals” and helps its members “strengthen their professional network, exchange best practices and practical advice, and accelerate innovation—all leading to a more equitable and effective climate adaptation practice.” ASAP members include “planners working to make communities safer, policy-makers on both sides of the aisle, young professionals just starting out in a climate-related field, researchers testing and answering climate questions and many more!”

As its name implies, the USDN is an urban-focused “peer-to-peer network of local government professionals … dedicated to creating a healthier environment, economic prosperity, and increased social equity.” While USDN is not focused exclusively on climate, it is a major theme guiding much of their work. Among USDN’s many projects is the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, “a collaboration of leading global cities working on cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80-100% by 2050 or sooner.”

Climate Change Equity and Health  While attending the CLC and NAF conferences, I was pleased by the heavy emphasis on equity and health. Topics such as climate justice, frontline communities, and climate gentrification are prominent themes for climate professionals. Likewise, the active engagement of health service professionals from local, state, and national organizations, as well as philanthropic funders, is encouraging.

Good sources of information on the professional opportunities emerging at the interface of climate and health are the Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Climate Change and Human Healthprogram at the National Institute of Environmental Health Services. The NIEHS webpage states: “The major public health organizations of the world have said that climate change is a critical public health problem. … The most vulnerable people—children, the elderly, the poor, and those with underlying health conditions—are at increased risk for health effects from climate change.” As well phrased by Aaron Ferguson of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services at the NAF conference, “Everyone can be impacted; however, some will be impacted first and more severely….”

XMNR Students and Alumni Are Climate Leaders  Our students and alumni are well represented among climate professionals and playing leadership roles in multiple sectors. We have students and alums that work in the solar and wind energy industry, on negative emissions technologies, climate resilience planning, and more. For example, see a recent blog post about the leadership roles played by Ellen Graap Loth and Vestal Tutterow at Resilient Virginia and the post about Becky Long at the Solar Energy Industries Association.

At the NAF conference, I was pleasantly surprised to bump into Kelly Watkinson, an XMNR alum who serves as the new Land & Climate Program Manager at the Land Trust Alliance. In a blog post about her new job as a climate professional, Kelly said: “In this new role, I am working with land trusts across the country and helping them figure out how best to bring a climate change lens to their work.” Kelly reflects on her experience in graduate school as related to her new role as a climate professional: “In the XMNR program, we studied the big picture of climate change, the current challenges, solutions, and urgencies. XMNR gave me the knowledge and confidence needed to pursue a position that is bringing a critically important global sustainability issue to the forefront of a land trust community that I have been involved with for over a decade.”  

Also at the NAF conference was Phal Mantha, a current XMNR student and Director of Agriculture & Sustainability at Ridge to Reefs, a non-profit organization implementing climate projects in multiple countries. At the conference, Phal presented his work and shared lessons learned from experiences providing assistance and building community resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. According to Phal, the key takeaway was: “In order to build community-based resilience, we must closely listen to the needs of local organizations and the general public to be anticipatory instead of reactionary in meeting their needs. We already know what the weak links are in most communities, especially on islands—imported food, fuel, and inputs vital for critical infrastructures such as hospitals, power generation, water treatment, food production, cold storage, and communication. Therefore, by assisting and strengthening local community-based organizations, we can help them to serve as ‘hubs of resilience’ … it is essentially the guiding principle for our work in Puerto Rico which is ongoing to this day.”

If you’d like to become a climate professional or hone your skills as a climate leader, please consider participating in our Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program in Global Sustainability, which includes an increasing focus on climate leadership.


David Robertson

Dr. David Robertson directs Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources program, advises students, and teaches courses in sustainable development and urban ecology. Also, he conducts research on green infrastructure systems and sustainable development strategies and has published research in journals such as Society & Natural ResourcesConservation BiologyEcology & SocietyEnvironmental Management, and Environmental Science & Policy.