'Climate quitters': The generation leaving their jobs to fight climate change

accreditation
0:00
play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Photo: Gallo Images/ Getty Images
Photo: Gallo Images/ Getty Images
  • Many job-seekers are looking for employment in green companies. 
  • Numerous stories come from those quitting the oil and gas industry. 
  • The ILO estimates that policy reform could see a sharp rise in green job creation in a few years. 
  • For climate change news and analysis, go to News24 Climate Future.


Tackling climate change will transform the labour market. With the right policies in place, more than 24 million green jobs could be created globally by 2030, according to the International Labor Organization. But finding people to fill those roles quickly won’t be easy. One 2022 LinkedIn survey found that listings for green jobs have grown at an annual pace of 8% since 2015, while green talent grew only 6% each year over the same period. 

One bright spot: Many job seekers are now looking to work in companies aligned with climate goals. A 2021 Yale School of Management survey of 2,000 students across 29 business schools globally found that 51% would accept lower salaries to work for an environmentally responsible company. That’s a good sign, because filling the labor gap will require both new skills and people leaving their existing jobs for new and rapidly evolving industries. A reckoning is needed across the workforce, and there are some signs it’s already underway.

This year, more people were employed by clean energy companies than by fossil fuels, according to a report by the International Energy Agency. There is also a growing roster of people who are quitting their jobs to tackle climate change. To understand the difficulties they face and what lessons they’re learning, Bloomberg Green put out a call out for the stories of “climate quitters.” 

Take the story of Laura Brown, whose neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee, was wiped out by a tornado on 3 March, 2020. The overall damage totaled $1.5 billion. “We were basically climate refugees during the first part of the pandemic,” she says. “And honestly, the tornado really put a fire under my butt, that climate change is sort of no longer an issue that I can ignore.”

Brown's job contract was expiring, so instead of trying to renew, she went to business school, took extra classes on sustainability and then searched for a new job. It took her more than six months to land one, which she says was unexpected given how much she’d heard about the growing green economy. Many of the jobs Brown applied for required prior experience working on climate issues.

Eventually, she did get one; her advice to others seeking climate-related jobs is: “You just have to make the decision and then stick with it. We’re in this for the long haul. There's a lot of really great, profoundly empowering work to be done.”

Many of the stories we heard were from people quitting the oil and gas industry. Jan Bohnerth said he left the public and government affairs department of ExxonMobil in Germany, moved to Sweden, studied sustainable development, and now works for a communications firm that champions cleantech. Dimitri Lafleur quit his role as a geoscientist for Shell in Australia, got a PhD and now works for the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, where he assesses whether companies are aligned with climate goals.

A 2022 survey of 10,000 energy professionals by the Global Energy Talent Index found that 21% of the renewables workforce joined from another sector in the last 18 months. Nearly a third of those came from the oil and gas industry. It also found that 82% of respondents would consider switching to another energy sector in the next three years, and half of those favor a move into renewables.

Lots of climate quitters did so in reaction to dire scientific reports. Catherine Cleary, a restaurant reviewer, left her job after reading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report on what will happen if the world hits 1.5C of warming.

“I burst into tears at my desk,” she says. “My youngest son at the time was eight years old. So that 12 years would bring him to literally becoming an adult, coming of age in a world that was rapidly becoming uninhabitable.” In 2020, she founded Pocket Forests, which helps people connect with nature in urban areas, helping them to regenerate soil and plant native trees.

Justin Kennedy quit his 22-year career as an oil and gas lawyer in Australia after reading the International Energy Agency’s 2021 report, which  said meeting climate goals will mean building no new fossil-fuel projects. He now works for SunCable, which is aiming to build a 4,200-kilometer undersea transmission line to take Australian solar power to Singapore.

“The skill that I refined over many years, particularly in commercializing gas and LNG projects, it's directly applicable,” he says. “I do have some sympathy for people who stay in oil and gas. But I think we're past the tipping point. The transition is happening, the roles will be there.”

Going off grid

Some people go to great lengths to act on climate change. Rebecca Cooke quit her job in communications in London and moved to an off-grid island in New Zealand. There she lives completely powered by solar, gets her water from a nearby stream and much of her food from a vegetable garden. She now works as an energy and climate content writer. “I felt a real sense of renewed purpose from living in closer alignment with what I feel is right,” she says.

Then there are choices that seem puzzling at first. Ben Batros quit his job as a lawyer working on accountability for international crimes like war crimes, genocide and human trafficking. Why? “With climate change, if we get that wrong, it basically doesn't matter what else we get right when you’re looking at it on a generational timescale,” he says. “There are other issues that we can come back and fix later. We can’t do that with climate change.”

Those who do change jobs will need to be prepared for rapid developments in the green industries they join. Sandy Anuras left her senior vice president job at travel company Expedia to join solar-deployment firm Sunrun as its chief technology officer. “When I first joined someone said to me: ‘Welcome to the solar coaster,’” she says. In just her first few months on the job, there were dramatic changes in how solar power gets paid for, including the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act that extended US tax credits for solar.

In the end, it won’t be possible for everyone who cares about climate change to work on it full-time. But climate quitting is far from the only way to contribute. Lucy Piper, who left her role at a travel company and is now director of Work for Climate, says those in jobs they can’t quit should instead use their influence to change how the company they work for operates.

“The corporate sector is responsible for over 70% of global emissions, controls enormous capital that flows into the fossil fuel industry, and more importantly has the power to lobby governments for progressive climate policy,” she says. “So employees have so much influence over how corporations behave.”

Some companies will change, but many others will resist. That’s what happened to Joe Daniel, who used to work for oilfield services company Baker Hughes. “I pitched an idea that would help cut our refinery’s wastewater pollution in half and best of all, it would actually save the company money in the long run,” he says. But the company rejected the idea because, he says, it risked making their wastewater permits more stringent in the future.

“It opened my eyes to just how much policy had to be the driver for change,” he says. “And that most policymakers didn't have engineering backgrounds.” Daniel eventually  joined the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, where he now works to influence policy. His advice to others: “If something isn't working, it's always a good idea to try something new.”

--With assistance from Christine Driscoll.


We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Rand - Dollar
17.48
-2.3%
Rand - Pound
21.07
-0.8%
Rand - Euro
18.88
-1.2%
Rand - Aus dollar
12.10
-0.1%
Rand - Yen
0.13
-0.4%
Platinum
973.57
-5.0%
Palladium
1,621.00
-2.9%
Gold
1,865.26
-2.5%
Silver
22.34
-4.8%
Brent Crude
82.17
-0.8%
Top 40
74,082
+0.6%
All Share
80,241
+0.6%
Resource 10
75,186
+0.7%
Industrial 25
103,461
+0.8%
Financial 15
16,550
0.0%
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Company Snapshot
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.

LEARN MORE
Government tenders

Find public sector tender opportunities in South Africa here.

Government tenders
This portal provides access to information on all tenders made by all public sector organisations in all spheres of government.
Browse tenders