The Rise of the Climate Professional
By David Robertson
With coronavirus continuing to take its toll on the world’s populations and economies, it can be hard to take solace in some of its positive side effects: namely, the significant decrease in global levels of carbon emissions caused by a sudden halt in industrial output and transportation. In fact, some climate analysts warn that this drop will do little to reign in the impacts of climate change, and that any gains achieved during the worst months of the pandemic will be lost as soon as countries resume production to jumpstart their economies. But to those of us who study and work in sustainability, this development presents an unprecedented opportunity to step up to the challenge of addressing climate change systematically and intentionally. Enter the climate professional.
Climate professionals—individuals working explicitly on climate change issues, either directly or indirectly—are increasingly common in business, government, and civil society organizations. The Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO) describes these climate professionals as “working in all contexts within an organization, including:
- professionals whose roles and responsibilities are focused exclusively upon addressing climate change impacts upon an organization’s operations
- professionals charged with addressing sustainability and/or environmental issues related to an organization’s operations
- professionals whose primary functions are in areas that are not necessarily considered environmental roles (e.g., supply chain and procurement, facilities management, risk management, investor relations, etc.)”
“Climate” may not appear in their job titles and may not comprise 100 percent of their day-to-day work, but climate professionals are numerous, varied, and on the rise. While there are more climate professionals every year (see some of the job opportunities here and here), they still remain relatively few and far between. Too often, climate professionals are divided by geography, discipline, sector, and other cultural and institutional boundaries, such that they have limited opportunities to meet, work, and learn together. Fortunately, there are organizations and networks dedicated to helping these diverse and dispersed climate professionals to connect, collaborate, and adapt. In this blog post, I will describe and reference a number of specific organizations that help these climate professionals connect and coordinate their activities, collaborate and work together across differences, and adapt by learning collectively how to be more effective amidst the vagaries of climate change.
During the past year, I have been fortunate to participate in a series of events for climate professionals that give me great hope for the future of the profession and the planet.
Climate Leadership Conference (CLC)
The annual Climate Leadership Conference convened for the 9th year on March 4–6, 2020, in Detroit, Michigan. The conference was co-hosted by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) and The Climate Registry (TCR) with support from sponsors such as America’s Pledge. The vision for this year’s conference was to “inspire, motivate, and celebrate climate action… mitigation and adaptation solutions, as well as the latest trends and innovations.” Conference participants and panelists seemed to agree that what is most new and exciting for 2020 is the vibrant bottom-up, subnational leadership from business, local communities, and youth movements in response to the stark immediacy of climate change. Looking forward to next year, panelists in a session facilitated by Kathy Baughman McLeod from Atlantic Council suggested they hope to see more effort to quantify the value of climate resiliency practices, so that businesses and communities will be empowered to make informed investments in climate action, including mitigation and adaptation. The benefits of action, the costs of inaction, and the tangible return on investment of time and money need to be made exceedingly clear to all stakeholders.
Global Congress for Climate Change and Sustainability Professionals
The Global Congress was a conference organized by the Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO) and the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), December 9–12, 2019 in Chicago, around the following premise: “Driving climate action and achieving sustainable development goals is a daunting challenge for any organization. No climate change or sustainability professional can effectively serve as a change leader in their organizations without recognition of the value these functions provide to employers and consensus on best practices.” In response, the conference took the form of a series of interactive workshops and training sessions to help build and develop a set of specific goals and desired outcomes:
- enhancing your own professional stature
- establishing practice standards
- streamlining climate change and sustainability into planning, design, and decision-making
- advancing credentialing
- improving your ability to communicate with leadership and relevant stakeholders
- elevating leadership positions for yourself and your peers
- increasing recognition of the value of your field
- informing improvements to decision-support and technical resources
At the conference, I co-hosted a working session titled “Advancing Our Professions” that was part of a track on Elevating the Occupations. Other sessions in this track included titles such as “Who Do We Think We Are?” and “The Evolving Role of Climate Change and Sustainability Professionals.” The Global Congress is expected to produce one or more reports based on the multi-day working sessions.
American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP)
The American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP) is a professional network founded in 2011 with “the vision of building a home for people working on climate change adaptation where they could connect with each other, share information, and build on successes while moving away from approaches that aren't working. ASAP was formed as a professional society that could help bridge the geographic and sectoral gaps that naturally develop in any field—and especially in the diverse, dynamic, and emerging field of climate adaptation. No longer would individuals be isolated, working on their own to make a difference. No longer would the sectors be so fragmented in their approaches to building resilience. No longer would communities, regions, or states need to start from scratch to build and prioritize their strategies to increase climate resilience.”
This ASAP vision has been operationalized, in large part, through groups where members work together to advance specific topics and areas of common interest. For example, for the past year, I’ve been serving on the Professional Education Member Advisory Group, where we have developed a powerful Knowledge and Competencies Framework to help inform and guide professional development of the field. I’ve been impressed by the dedication and commitment of the ASAP members and what we have accomplished to date. I’m currently serving on ASAP’s Strategic Planning Committee to develop a 20-year vision and plan for the network. Membership in ASAP is open to current and aspiring climate professionals, and I encourage you to consider joining and engaging in the life-changing work of climate adaptation.
The organizations and initiatives described above are just the tip of the iceberg for the emerging climate profession. There is a growing number of jobs and important work to be done in this field. Leadership is needed to help climate professionals continue to connect, collaborate, and adapt in the years ahead.
David P. Robertson is the Founding Director of the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program and Senior Fellow and Associate Director at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech. Dr. Robertson has two decades of experience as a professional educator and sustainability leader, focusing on environmental design, green infrastructure, urban innovation, and climate change. David received an undergraduate degree in Art & Architecture from Montana State University prior to completing a Master of Landscape Architecture and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. David’s international experience includes educational program development and teaching in numerous countries in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe, including Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, England, France, India, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania, and Turkey. Dr. Robertson’s publications appear in the popular, academic, and professional press, including journals such as Environmental Science & Policy, Environmental Management, Conservation Biology, and Society & Natural Resources, and books by Island Press.