Every Career Can Be a Climate Career

Much of this site is aimed at people who want to work for a company, non-profit, government agency, or other institution trying to solve the climate crisis. But what if you already have a job that you love, and it’s not at an organization devoted to fighting climate change? 

Whatever kind of organization you work for, whether or not combating climate change is part of its core mission, the odds are good that it has greater scope for impactful climate action than you do as an individual – because it commands more human capacity and financial resources than you do on your own, and because it is part of a thicker network of relationships. The odds are also good that your role in your organization gives you leverage you can use to move the organization as a whole in a more climate positive direction, especially if you team up with others who work there. Organizations are composed of and led by people, and many of the people you work for and work with likely care about the climate as much as you do. Sometimes all it takes is one person, or a small group, to come up with constructive ideas and inspire others to reexamine the status quo.

What does this look like in practice?  Of course, it depends on where you work, how big your organization is and what it does.  Here are some examples of ways in which employees have moved or can move their employers.

Directly reducing emissions

In 2019, Vassar College (where this website is based) decided to build two, new buildings. The College investigated the possibility of building entirely electrified buildings with no fossil fuel combustion, but initially decided that the up-front costs would be too high. A few employees of the college worked together to change the minds of decision-makers. They worked from within institutional structures, like the college’s Climate Action and Sustainability Committee; but they also wrote columns in the student newspaper, which helped to mobilize students and alumnae to launch a petition demanding that the buildings be fully electric. This combination of argument and pressure from inside and outside persuaded the college to reverse course, and to establish the precedent that all new buildings, from here on out, will be fully electric.  

Since 2019, Vassar has also made investments in reducing emissions from its existing buildings.

Vassar still emits about 10,000 tons of CO2 each year in “Scope I” emissions – that is, emissions that are generated directly on campus, mostly from combusting fossil gas to heat and cool existing buildings. Retrofitting these old buildings, which are mostly heated by steam radiators, will be much more expensive than any decarbonization efforts the college has undertaken so far. But employees are pushing Vassar hard to do what it takes to decarbonize its campus completely, and they are working hard to suggest creative solutions. Even in preventing new, fossil-fuel powered buildings from being built, employees have kept more carbon out of the atmosphere than they could possibly have done in their lives as individuals. Insofar as they succeed (or even partly succeed) in speeding up Vassar’s push toward more complete decarbonization, they will have made a real impact on climate, without every changing their day-jobs.

Directly reducing emissions, as Vassar employees are pushing it to do, is the most obvious form of climate action. It is something that almost every business and organization, large or small, can do – for instance, by electrifying buildings that are heated with fossil fuels, and electrifying fleet vehicles.  While Vassar’s very old, steam-heated buildings make electrification unusually expensive, in many cases, this is something that businesses can save money while doing.  

Changing trade organization memberships and policy lobbying

Some large corporations, like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, have done genuinely terrific work addressing their own emissions – including not only emissions they directly generate themselves (scope I), but also the emissions generated off their premises to produce the electricity they use (scope II) and emissions from their suppliers and customers as a result of their business (scope III). However, when new climate policies are proposed (for instance, the landmark US Inflation Reduction Act, state-level laws like New York’s CLCPA, or laws in other countries and jurisdictions where they operate), many of these same companies do little or nothing to lobby for these policies. This is not because they do not get involved in politics. Large corporations employ armies of lobbyists and public relations professionals; and they spend tens of millions of dollars or more each year working to get laws that are in their interest passed and to oppose proposed laws (for instance, raising corporate taxes) that are not. And most of the same corporations pay hefty membership dues to trade organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, which then use their considerable money and influence to lobby against climate laws and policies.  In the last few years, workers at many of these companies have begun to pay attention to this discrepancy, and to lobby their employers to change course.  ClimateVoice has launched a campaign, Escape from the Chamber, seeking to use the power that workers have within companies to persuade them to leave the Chamber of Commerce, in particular.  You might think that that while employees at a college or small business might help to change its course, that is not true at multi-billion dollar corporations.  However, businesses large and small are keenly aware that action on climate makes it easier to attract and retain talented employees – and campaigns that publicize climate hypocrisy, especially among employees, can do the opposite.

Withdrawing business support and social license for fossil fuel companies

Clean Creatives is a campaign by professionals in advertising and public relations to make the agencies they work for stop working for fossil fuel companies.  At the time of writing in early 2024, 2000 creative professionals have pledged not to work at agencies that do work for fossil fuel companies, and as a result, 860 agencies have pledged that they will not make money supporting fossil fuel companies. 

Similarly, in 2019,  8701 Amazon employees signed onto a letter by Amazon Employees 4 Climate Justice demanding, among other things, that Amazon stop providing oil and gas companies the cloud computing services that they use to discover new fossil fuel deposits.  In the face of this pressure from employees and the publicity that it generated, Amazon did not agree to stop working with fossil fuel companies, but it did adapt a plan to cut its own greenhouse gas emissions for the first time; and Jeff Bezos pledged to donate $10 billion to climate causes through the Bezos Earth Fund.  In the year since, Amazon employees have continued to pressure Amazon to live up to its pledges and to take further action.

Campaigns like these are important, and can be impactful, in themselves.  But they are also important because together, they work to deprive fossil fuel companies of their social license – the general, societal understandings that what these companies do is ok.  In the 1980s when it became apparent to everyone that tobacco companies had been misleading the public for decades about the harms their business causes, those companies lost their social license.  Many other companies ceased doing business with them, because doing so was a risk to their own reputations. This made it harder and more expensive for them to operate, and it made it much easier, politically, for governments to regulate them aggressively. Fossil fuel companies are right to fear that this might happen to them –  and campaigns from workers inside other businesses are one of the best ways to bring this about.

Guides to climate action on the job

Project Drawdown has put together a great set of guides and resources for employees doing specific kinds of work:

Project Drawdown has also written a terrific more general guide:

Here are some other great resources: