How to build your expertise: Climate change

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A variety of institutions work on climate change issues: think tanks, government ministries, the private sector, and advocacy groups. These groups all require professionals with different knowledge and backgrounds: economists to engineers, foresters to lawyers, and even doctors, said Niklas Hagelberg, coordinator of UN Environment's Climate Change subprogram.

“There’s going to be a need for professionals across the board,” Hagelberg said.

Climate change work is mainly done under two key areas: mitigation — the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions — and adaptation — helping populations cope with the impacts of climate change. To work in this field, you need knowledge and experience in both, said Denis Valliere, national climate finance adviser for the Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub.

Devex spoke to professionals in the field to find out how to build expertise in climate change.

Education is important

Gain experience and a deep understanding of a certain topic or sector, then bring climate change knowledge to it, recommended Shelagh Whitley, head of program at the Overseas Development Institute Climate and Energy program. Don’t just study climate change alone.

At the Global Environment Facility, many of the professionals working there have a scientific or engineering background, said Chizuru Aoki, lead environmental specialist at GEF. However, “there are a lot of different entry points and different roles and contributions that one could play,” she said.

Across the board, experts emphasized the importance of being able to write well. Both Hagelberg and Valliere said that English is a must, and fluency in French is also very valuable. Whitley also emphasized the benefits of additional languages to enable further international reach.

Climate finance

A large subsector of climate change work, particularly within international development, is climate finance — donor-directed money to adapt or mitigate projects, primarily in middle- and low-income countries.

As opposed to scientific research roles, climate finance roles include applying for and distributing climate funds, which involves creating proposals and follow-up reports.

While an understanding and grounding of climate change is important, climate finance is another equally important route into the climate change sector — for those without such a scientific educational background.

Valliere, an experienced climate finance professional, pursued an MBA in climate change and climate finance. He highly recommends it for those pursuing a similar career. An MBA offers the strategic, budgeting, logistics, and evaluation skills required for a role in climate finance, he said.

Before pursuing an MBA, Valliere strongly recommended gaining professional experience in the climate change field. “I had lots of experience on the ground and it made a whole world of difference,” he said. An MBA or master’s degree in climate change will significantly increase your credibility, Valliere said.

Webinar: How to learn soft skills

While degree courses can help you gain specific technical knowledge and skills, it can be a lot trickier to learn, and then to illustrate, your soft skills. Join us on Nov. 6 at 12:00 PM EST for a webinar all about soft skills. And read more on how to talk about your soft skills.

Soft skills

Communication, diplomatic skills, and the ability to multitask are all important for a career in climate change, GEF’s Aoki said.

Hagelberg agreed: “First and foremost is people skills.”

Research roles often mean working alone at a computer for days, to move up in that type of role, Whitley explained, you have to have good networks, build partnerships with people, and be comfortable with media, communications, and public speaking — contradictory to what many researchers expect.

Once you reach a coordinator position, you need to know everyone else’s roles — while being approachable — so teams will openly communicate their work with you, Hagelberg said. Management and leadership skills are also important as you move up the career ladder, Whitley said. “You need to be a jack of all trades.”

Don’t be afraid to take on roles and try different things that you may not have intended or considered earlier in your career. “I always thought I would hate managing people and I thought I would be terrible at it, [but] I actually really like it,” said Whitley.

Gain international experience

University is a great time to gain international perspectives through coursework, thesis research, or internships, Aoki said. She added that early- or mid-career are also crucial times to acquire professional experience in-country — through the United Nations, civil society, or country governments.

“Having that experience is actually quite critical because you need to have an appreciation as well as an understanding of the context within which we’re operating,” she said.

You can apply for funding from your university or even organizations that will benefit from the research, Whitley recommended.

When applying for internships or other opportunities, “don’t be afraid to be persistent,” Whitley said. Cold-calling and cold-writing to people can be really effective. Hone-in on specifics and make your messages directed, personal, and targeted to the individual, such as mentioning a paper of theirs that you have read.

“Make a real connection to that individual’s work,” Whitley said.

Wherever you’re located and whichever level you’re working at, get familiar with climate policy and legislation involving your field — whether that’s local, national, or international. Climate change is very political, said Janie Rioux, agriculture and food security senior specialist at the Green Climate Fund.

Overall, there are many different ways into a career in climate change. Follow a path that suits your interests, whether it’s very technical or with a broader perspective — and make sure to foster soft skills and in-country experience wherever possible.

For more coverage on professional development, visit the Skills for Tomorrow site here.

About the author

  • Lottie Watters

    Lottie Watters formerly covered career and hiring trends, tips, and insights. Lottie has a background in geography and journalism, taking a particular interest in grassroots international development projects. She has worked with organizations delivering clean water and sanitation projects globally.