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Want to help fight climate change? A career in climate science could help you do just that. By advancing our understanding of Earth’s climate and how human behavior affects it, we might be able to improve our chances of reducing climate change and mitigate its worst effects. For those who make a good fit for this path, it’s likely a promising way to improve the world.
This path profile is the result of an initial investigation.
What do we mean by climate science?
By climate science, we mean careers that focus on the physical, chemical, and biological processes that affect the Earth's climate, as well as understanding and working out how to mitigate the impacts of human activity on the oceans, land, atmosphere, ice sheets, and other parts of the environment.
In practice, this can mean a whole range of things. The climate is an incredibly complex topic that requires an array of different approaches, tools, and methodologies to understand. Because of this, climate science isn’t so much a distinct subject as a focus area across an array of disciplines such as natural science, physics, chemistry, geology, paleoclimatology, atmospheric science, statistics, computer science, and more. Take a look at this list of notable climate scientists – their diversity of academic backgrounds might surprise you!
In terms of the day-to-day, climate scientists might spend their time analyzing data, working with technical mathematical models, and writing papers and reports. Academic climate scientists often have teaching and supervision responsibilities. Though some climate scientists engage in field work – performing tasks like surveying weather or collecting samples, this isn’t representative of typical climate science work.
How promising is climate science?
Although climate scientists work on many aspects of the Earth’s climate, we’re particularly interested in how climate scientists can improve the world by helping to combat climate change.
We’ve written elsewhere that we think climate change could be a high-priority problem to tackle with your career – but just how pressing is it, and what can climate scientists do to help?
How pressing is climate change?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), one of the world’s foremost authorities on the effects of climate change, estimates that if we fail to limit global warming to within reasonable limits, then we’re set to endure unprecedented climate-induced catastrophes. If global warming reaches 3°C above current temperatures, we can expect to see a fivefold increase in the rate of natural disasters, and up to three-quarters of the world’s population will be exposed to potentially dangerous temperatures. On top of this, rising sea levels will result in large swathes of coastal land becoming uninhabitable, displacing millions.
Fortunately, we’ll likely avert some of these more severe projections. The IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report predicts that, even if we fail to undertake significant further action, it’s very unlikely that we’ll reach 3°C of warming – averting some of these more extreme ramifications of climate change (though still carrying dangerous consequences).
More importantly, there’s still a lot of uncertainty over the precise effects of global warming, even in more optimistic scenarios. Specifically, there remains a chance of catastrophic climate effects caused by “tipping points” in which abrupt changes to the climate may occur after some threshold is exceeded. An example is the thawing of the Arctic permafrost, which would release vast amounts of methane. And the possibility of dangerous feedback loops – where contributors to climate change mutually reinforce each other – could stand to cause sudden and potentially irreversible changes to the climate. These scenarios seem to be unlikely, but their potential severity makes them worth taking seriously.
Some have also suggested the effects of climate change may indirectly exacerbate other large-scale risks, too – such as increasing the chance of international conflict via pressures induced by increased migration and resource scarcity.
The headline is that climate change is, unsurprisingly, a very important problem. However, it is less neglected than some other cause areas, especially compared to other global catastrophic risks (though there’s still plenty more we need to do to combat it). For instance, over $600 billion was spent on combating climate change in 2020. Though it’s likely that much of this was not spent optimally, the large amount of resources already directed at climate change means that the marginal impact of contributing to this cause is likely lower than causes that receive less global attention. Because of this, if you pursue a career in climate science, it might be especially important to find and work on specific, particularly neglected problems within climate change. Our section on priorities within climate science careers gives a few ideas of what these could be.
How much can climate scientists help?
Clearly, climate change is a massive issue worth tackling, but how much difference can climate scientists make? By understanding how the climate works and how it might change, climate scientists can help by informing the implementation of policy, technical interventions, and new climate-focused technologies.
In these ways, some climate scientists have been able to have an impressive positive impact:
Syukoro Manabe pioneered the first-ever model of the Earth’s climate in 1967, forming the foundation for later work demonstrating CO2’s role in global warming, and likely bringing forward global awareness of climate change. Manabe was co-awarded a Nobel Prize in 2021.
Scientists Joseph Farman, Susan Solomon, and Stephen Andersen discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, inspiring the 1987 Montreal Protocol which banned the use of certain ozone-depleting chemicals, successfully protecting the ozone layer. It’s estimated this has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts in the US alone. This isn’t an example of tackling climate change specifically but shows how climate scientists can do impactful work through other means.
On a broader scale, the IPCC – a body of the UN focused on climate change – is viewed as one of the most trustworthy sources of information on climate change and has had a large influence in guiding global climate policy and driving major global climate commitments (such as those formed in COP conferences). The IPCC consults a huge number of climate scientists to produce its reports.
Overall, climate change is a high-priority issue, and there is a track record of climate scientists making meaningful contributions to tackling it. However, with the increased funding and attention placed on climate change in recent years, it might be more challenging to find opportunities within climate science for high marginal impact than in some other careers we’ve researched.
Reuters’ “Hot List” ranks the world's thousand most influential climate scientists. Take a look if you’re after some climate science inspiration!
Priorities within climate science
Though we haven’t conducted a detailed investigation into this, here are some of our initial thoughts on areas in which climate scientists could make the greatest impact. These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive – you might be able to mix and match these priorities and paths throughout your career. It’s also worth noting there are other promising (and potentially more promising) routes within climate change than those we describe here.
Research a particularly important or neglected area
It might be a promising strategy to look into topics where there’s still lots of uncertainty, but which might be very important. In general, we find it helpful to evaluate problems using the ITN framework, which lets us assess how important, tractable, and neglected they are – and therefore how promising they might be to work on. With this framework in mind, here are a few ideas that might help us solve particularly pressing problems within climate change:
Understanding and modeling tail risks that could lead to particularly catastrophic levels of global warming, such as “tipping cascades” and other dangerous feedback loops.
Research the effects of climate change in areas often underrepresented in current research, such as low-income countries, which are also likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change.
Improving our models of extreme weather events, such as how large changes in rainfall affect agricultural yields.
Understanding the effectiveness – or ineffectiveness – of different climate change mitigation strategies such as direct air capture or solar radiation management.
These are useful research ideas – but where is best for climate scientists to pursue them? The first option is to work on them within academia. In academia, experts have told us you’ll generally be granted a fair degree of autonomy to pursue your own projects, which could enable you to work on particularly impactful topics. Academics are also often consulted by governments and multinational organizations like the IPCC, meaning there’s some potential to interact directly with influential decision-makers. On the other hand, academic careers are notoriously competitive and offer little job stability in the early years.
Another option is working in research-focused positions in government, such as in the UK’s Met Office, Chile’s Ministry for Environment, or the Danish Meteorological Institute (and many others!). In these positions, your research is likely to be well connected to important decisions, and you may find you have particularly good access to policymakers, though the quality and type of research you’ll be able to pursue is likely highly dependent on the strength of your government’s commitment to climate research.
Climate scientists may also find themselves in more conventional policy-focused civil service roles within government, though it’s not clear whether a background in climate science confers an advantage in these roles to the same extent as roles with a more explicit technical research focus.
There may also be promising roles within private industry, such as in climate tech for-profits, as well as nonprofit organizations working to develop new technologies to combat climate change. We don’t have a strong sense of where the most promising opportunities are in these areas, but if you can find opportunities to work on a problem that’s a promising combination of important, tractable, and neglected within a for-profit company or nonprofit, it could well be worth exploring further.
Finally, climate scientists may also be able to have an impact through public education and advocacy work. Your qualifications and experience may help lend credibility to these organizations (see here for a promising list) they might otherwise lack and help gain both public and political support for impactful solutions to climate change. Some specific ideas here might include advocating for effective interventions that may be neglected in the current environmental movement, such as increasing the deployment of nuclear power and trying to push forward policies that could help reduce carbon emissions. For example, raising carbon taxes which receives significant support from economists, but often lacks sufficient political support.
Climatebase lists thousands of organizations including for-profits, nonprofits, and governmental institutions across the world working to fight climate change. Not all of them will provide high-impact career opportunities in climate science, but it’s a good place to start looking!
Strategies and next steps
Getting into the field
As we mentioned at the start of the profile, people enter climate science from a huge array of academic backgrounds. Because of this, there’s quite a bit of flexibility in the subjects you could take as an undergraduate that would serve you well in a climate science career. Many subjects in the natural sciences are suitable, as are other technical subjects like mathematics, computer science, engineering, and economics. However, it’s worth noting that some of these subjects might be particularly associated with specific topics within climate science and may constrain the kind of research you can pursue later on.
PhDs are strongly advantageous – particularly within academia – but they’re not necessary for all jobs. Governmental and consulting roles are generally less likely to require a PhD than academia, but a PhD still opens a lot of doors.
As in all careers, work experience and internships are a great way to both test personal fit and provide a route into climate science. You can start looking for climate-focused opportunities at GreenJobs or Climatebase - though we recommend carefully assessing these roles as some may be much more impactful than others.
80,000 Hours on climate change and high-impact research careers
Effective Environmentalism gives advice on important, tractable, and neglected areas within climate change, as well as career advice and a list of helpful resources
A series of vlogs from a climate science PhD student
Giving Green – an organization who recommends impactful climate change organizations
Introduction to Climate Science – an open access textbook
Climatebase and GreenJobs for climate-focused organizations and career opportunities
Hauke Hillebrandt – Founder and CEO of Let’s Fund.
Peter Watson – Senior research fellow at the University of Bristol.
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