I just spent months researching what jobs best fight climate change. Here’s my conclusion.

I used to choose jobs the way a vulture looks for snacks. I’d float around, spot some easy prey, and then dive in, even if I knew it wouldn’t taste very good. Well, I’m on the market again (here’s why), and it’s a new ballgame. I know what I want and I’m passionate about it, to put it lightly. I’m going to fight climate change. I’d sooner die than do anything else. This might not be hyperbole.

But what kind of work should I look for?

After some fervid research and thinking, I’ve got an answer. I won’t provide my whole argument since it calls for a comparison of my choice’s strengths and weaknesses with dozens of other options. I’d have to write a book to convey it. A boring book.

But I’ll offer some reasons for my choice. Please provide counter-arguments in the comments if you’ve got them. I’d rather find out I’m daft now than later.

Without further ado, here’s my choice:

Energy Efficiency, with a special emphasis on communications. tada.

Two questions here:

Question #1 – Why Energy Efficiency?

It’s one of the cheapest ways to cut emissions. For example, each dollar spent on Compact Fluorescent Bulbs saves 50 times more CO2 than each dollar spent on solar panels.  Other measures are similarly effective. This is an old point so I won’t dwell on it. See here for more analysis than you can shake a stick at.

It’s the fastest way to cut emissions. We’ve got the technology we need and many of us have already done it. I cut my energy use in half in a few months, almost painlessly. Side Note: this is why I’m for carbon taxes. Most of us don’t know how much slack there is in our energy habits. Obscene slack.

It’s like doing a hundred jobs at once. The more efficiently we use energy, the easier it makes everything else. If we halved our collective energy use, for example, imagine how much easier it would be to move to renewable energy. I know of no other field which has this quality. This is a critical point.

It’s change everyone can love. Many of us won’t cut emissions just to fight climate change, but will to save money. Efficiency measures generally pay for themselves and turn a profit faster than any other intervention. Compare that to renewable energy which often doesn’t turn a profit at all. Also, the financial incentive for efficiency is often strongest for the worst polluters, since they often waste the most energy.

It’s as important to climate adaptation as it is to mitigation. Though it’s not widely discussed, we may already be over a tipping point past which severe climate change is unavoidable. If so, adaptation (AKA Hanging On For Dear Life) will be our priority. I want work that will be useful in that case. Energy efficiency work fits the bill, again, because it’s like doing a hundred jobs at once.

The case for efficiency will grow, climate change or no. High energy prices are coming, which will put a premium on efficiency. Some who point out that we’re near peak oil worry that energy prices will rise too quickly for societies to adapt. I suspect not (remember the slack), but I want work which protects me against the possibility if I’m wrong (I’m often wrong). Energy efficiency work may do so.

It’s not too political. Or at least it’s less political than alternative energy. Energy efficiency saves money and addresses waste, so it has some easy selling points.

It will allow me to directly, measurably cut emissions. Because I (or my employer) will be dealing with measurable things like utility bills, I’ll go home at night knowing that I helped cut emissions. If I choose work with no measurable effect on emissions (like educator or public policy analyst or carnie), I won’t know if I’m doing any good. Think Al Gore: he has a huge footprint, partly because he flies everywhere to talk about climate change.  How does he know he’s effective? He doesn’t. If his pleas lead to change, then he can count himself as a success, but until then he’s just a guy going around emitting all over the place with no return. Too much uncertainty for me. I’m not saying Al Gore should quit giving talks– it’s critical, and in fact I’ll do Gorish things on the side (see below). But it’s not enough by itself.

Question #2 – Why Communications?

It’s the efficiency industry’s Achilles Heel. As mentioned, the industry provides great, profitable products, but few take advantage. That’s a communications problem. I want to help fix it.

Moonlighting (Not that Moonlighting). In my research, I asked myself: which jobs would allow me to have an effect beyond my core role? What work will allow me to moonlight in other roles? For example, I think that raising awareness is key, so maybe I should be Al Gore Junior. But is it easier to work in energy efficiency and moonlight as Al Gore than it is to be Al Gore and moonlight in energy efficiency?  It is. It’s hard to be an energy efficiency salesman on nights and weekends, but I can be an awareness-raiser any time. Also, if I’m in communications I can slip some awareness-raising into my day job as well. I see it as my duty to fellow citizens and future generations to use less energy, and I think I can inspire that feeling others.

It suits me. I love being with others, I love persuading, I love presenting, and I’m good at it. I’m awesome. Mostly.

So I have a general direction and now it’s time to get specific. Next I’ll research individual companies, markets, people and positions to figure out where I fit. I’ll share it here as it unfolds.

Disclaimer for future employers who happen by: I reserve the right to disregard all this and do something else if I decide it’s a better way to fight climate change

Also handsome readers: I’m happy to present my analysis via webinar or in person. If you need to get a group excited about energy efficiency, it might do the trick.

From the Sea

[Update]: Here’s a beautiful example of efficiency doing it’s thing. That’s what I’m talking about.

Posted February 17, 2011 in Climate Change Made Me Quit My Job | 6 Comments on I just spent months researching what jobs best fight climate change. Here’s my conclusion.

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  1. Judy says:

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.

  2. Nick B. says:

    Thanks a boodle :)

  3. Manu Sharma says:

    Hi Nick,

    I reached here after following your comments on Joe Romm’s post on the permafrost thawing, read your post about you quitting your job and found this one.

    I’m writing to say that I admire that you’ve successfully made lifestyle changes including the big decision to quit your job but I disagree that the best job to fight climate change is in energy efficiency communications.

    I think it’s a good way but not the best possible way if your aim is to mitigate climate change. I say this despite full knowledge of the gains that can be achieved through energy efficiency, I just think the best job would be one that would influence /lead to really large changes in the way we do things.

    I think the best job to fight climate change is in activism, specifically the kind that leads to changes in climate policy because that’s where the biggest bang for the buck lies. The only caveat is that it should be effective, i.e., your contributions should actually make an impact.

    Of couse, that’s easier said than done. The world is littered with grassroots activist organisations doing excellent work but largely inconsequential in the big picture or large organisations doing mediocre work that has little or no influence on policy. I have a theory why that is so, basically, it also boils down to a communications problem.

    I believe that we’ve failed to communicate to the masses the emergency state of climate and scale of the challenge we face. And that is the root of the problem. It’s not that the policy makers aren’t listening. They are representatives of the public and their collective knowledge and concern for the issue is nothing but a reflection of how the public perceives this issue collectively.

    So, I argue that if we’re able to effectively communicate to the public the facts and implications of these facts for their future while also highlighting the solutions, mobilise people on a large scale, then we can begin to effect an influence at the policy level.

    Thanks,
    Manu

  4. Nick B. says:

    Hi Manu,

    I’m glad you brought this up because this is one of the questions about which I am most unsure. I too believe that activism is critical. I wish to emphasize that, at all costs, I will be, and have already become, an activist. The question for me is whether activism is best done as my paid employment, or in addition to paid employment. Gandhi was resolutely against paid activism, as he thought that money interfered with purity of purpose. I pay special attention to what Gandhi had do say about these matters, but at the same time, it’s hard to deny that I’d have more time for activism if it were my day job. There is also the question about how to make it my day job. This is perhaps a bigger sticking point for me, since I don’t know quite how I could be paid to do things I wish to do, short of finding a benefactor. Perhaps more research will settle the question. In any case, my mind is still open on this point and will try to understand more clearly the factors at play.

  5. Nick B. says:

    Another issue with energy efficiency is that efficiency by itself doesn’t reduce emissions, because without constraints on emissions, people just use more energy (the “rebound effect”).

    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110217/full/news.2011.101.html

    So energy efficiency is not a direct action. It’s a preparatory action, and also a kind of toughening, or a kind insurance. This makes the case for activism *in conjunction with* energy efficiency all the more compelling.

  6. Robert says:

    If you could somehow reengineer the world to be 100% energy inefficient (i.e. to produce absolutely no useful work out of each ton of coal) then people would stop digging it up!

    Jevons worked that out back in 1865.

    Energy efficiency must be coupled with globally agreed hard limits on how much fossil fuel we extract and an agreement to leave most of it safely sequestered in the ground, otherwise it just makes the problem worse.

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