Looking for the optimal career for climate change (or, what to do when you don’t know what to do)

by AdamB 5 min read29th Aug 20191 comment

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Recently I read a Facebook post where someone asked what work they should do to mitigate climate change. This particular soul was advised to read about 20 different articles, advocate for around 10 different policy options and apply for a nice range of jobs. I felt for them, and it nudged me into trying to express why it is that choosing the optimal career for climate change is so darn difficult!

When writing this I realised there are a few ideas and strategies which could help. Though I see them as thought provokers rather than answers, I include them too - it seems rude to articulate the problem then leave readers hanging!

I will cover:

  • The concept explore vs exploit
  • Ideas for navigating complexity
  • Learning
  • Luck
  • Thoughts on job options

This article expresses my beliefs right now, which are developing and should be taken with a huge grain of salt! Challenges are welcome.


Terms used:

Complex system = system made of lots of interacting parts. The more parts are interacting the more complex the system (eg: a pencil isn’t complex, a car is and the economy is very complex!)

Zero sum = When there’s a set amount of benefit or booty to be had, and however many people try to get it the amount being shared out stays the same

Expected value = the average expected payoff from an action (eg: if I flip 10 coins, and earn £1 for each head, my expected value is £5)


Explore vs exploit

The concept explore vs exploit captures the tradeoff between resources spent learning the environment and getting the most out of it. Applied to your career this means finding the balance

between effort spent searching for and doing good work, for maximum total impact.

How much time you should put into exploring will depend on your total time available. The longer you’re in the game, the more it’s worth exploring.

For global poverty, which is less complex an issue than climate change (see notes), 80,000 Hours gives good unambiguous advice on which jobs are high impact. They’ve done a lot of your exploring for you, so you can put more effort into exploiting (ending poverty). They're able to do this because poverty is more straightforward than climate change.

The greenhouse effect itself is simple. The decision systems used when deciding what to do or not do about it, and the effects of what is done on other aspects of society and nature, are complex.


Navigating complexity

With climate change, for now at least, it’s not immediately obvious what the best job many of us should go into is. So to maximise impact, you’re going to need to spend more time exploring. This means that you shouldn’t expect to the first result from your favourite search engine to be the answer. It will give you an answer, but it probably won’t be the best job for you.

Ways to explore complex systems:

  • Read around the topic - books, podcasts, websites, academic papers
  • Shadow others, do work experience or work with folks who know a lot about the topic, ask academics (there are some working on most facets of climate change)
  • Use networks*: study groups*, common interest groups*, conferences*
  • Share what you learn with others* (doesn’t help you so much, but helpful for the development of other high impact climate wannabes)
    * increasingly effective as the system’s complexity increases

In complex systems there’s so much going on that you can’t expect to know it all yourself. As a rule of thumb, the more complex the system the more useful networks and connections with others are.

Expected value calculations for your options can be useful here. Deliberately defining your aim - optimising for tonnes of CO2 not being in the atmosphere (or your favourite greenhouse gas). - can be helpful. In complex systems the figures generated are best treated as a ballpark figure (eg: if one option comes out as x1.5 better than another then that doesn’t tell us much, but if it comes out as x150 better that’s more interesting!)


Learning

I think this deserves its own section: keep learning!

Why is learning so important? In my experience knowledge compounds, so it can become exponentially more useful over time so long as you keep adding to it (similar to compound interest).


Luck

Also deserving of its own section!

Luck seems to be an underrated contributor to success. In complex systems this seems to be doubly true: there’s so much happening that just being conventionally brainy can only take you so far.

Can luck be created? Yes!

What’s the no. 1 thing which creates luck? Talking to lots of people.


Thoughts on jobs

Because this is a system with lots of potential levers to pull, as you learn and improve, at some point you might spot an opportunity to pull a lever you that nobody else sees, or that you’re particularly well suited to operating. This requires an awareness of such levers, which could involve watching 80,000 hours, government, climate change organisations, and other jobs boards, or asking other people to keep their eyes open for you.

As climate change work is complex and harder to plan for, starting by taking a role where you’ll develop broadly applicable skills may be the best strategy. For example, in management roles the skill widely deemed most critical to success is rational decision making which is likely to be useful whatever your job turns out to be.

Coordination

Because there are already lots of people and resources mobilised for climate change, coordination strikes me as very important (and underrated). It seems it could be done far better and doing it well could be a high impact role (though you might have to create the job yourself!) So a talent for bringing about effective coordination of groups could be unusually useful for climate change, and worth cultivating.

Consulting
For skills development. As you develop you can keep your eyes on the areas of interest, which should become more apparent as you learn more about climate change, and when the opportunity comes you can make your move.

Government

Understanding government can be useful, though there may be a slower accumulation of career capital in government work. Being in government puts you closer to where big decisions are made, making more room for luck.

There are government positions with a lot of impact, however when you read job descriptions it can be hard to tell which. This is where networks are useful - someone on a Facebook group or similar might be able to help. You can also phone up, ask questions in the interview or even treat the job as part of your explore phase if it doesn’t work out (making sure others learn from this would make the experience more valuable, though it’s still a situation I think is better avoided!)

Technical jobs
There are organisations working on climate change in need of technical skills. However the counterfactual impact of you working there rather than someone else may be lower than the equivalent gap in policy, coordination or advocacy roles.

There is a large pool of technical folks working on climate change already, so I expect all other things being equal your marginal contribution would be less. In some cases your marginal contribution may be high though, especially if you have some niche technical brilliance - the system is complex and you know yourself better than the author!

Advocacy

I think that advocacy can be a good option, though you’d have to be sure you’re advocating for the right thing!.Due to the system’s complexity this might be harder than it looks.

A variety of climate change options are already being advocated for. Because of this, to have a positive impact you may need to be better at advocacy than most groups and advocate better strategies than most groups. Or join one of the better existing groups.

Advocacy strikes me as being like a zero sum game, as there are only so many people with decision making power and they have limited time to listen. With that in mind supporting an existing campaign may be preferable to starting your own.

Historically advocacy’s impact has varied. It can be effective, however I think a lot of it isn’t, due to bad tactics or promoting something comparatively minor (eg: plastic straws in the UK). It’s potential is high.

As with technical skills, advocacy could be a good fit for you - you know yourself better than the author!


What to do?

I’ve avoided prescribing specific things here because I don’t know you, my reader, so well. I can only see a tiny smidgen of all the things which could affect climate change and I suspect that any more opinions I have will only be true in too-specific cases. So, perhaps frustratingly, I’m going to leave this without a firm wrap-up. Let’s keep the conversation going!



Notes

1) Why do I think climate change is more complex than global poverty?

  1. Less certainty in outcomes: feedback for poverty reduction can be obtained relatively quickly (years vs decades), in multiple areas at once (vs a single planet at a time) and with control populations (there is no Planet B)
  2. Climate change is a longer timescale thing (likely be having an effect 200+ years from now)
  3. There are more variables to consider. Examples: climate change mitigation will probably require people to give up things they are used to (driving, flying), which is less true for poverty elimination. Developing countries can gain economically by being less stringent about emissions, whereas keeping people in poverty isn’t good for the economy

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