Why climate change is a career issue

Last night was the leaders’ climate debate. I was out at Skills Builders tenth birthday and so I missed all of the fun. But I was amused to see that Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage (who had decided that the environment wasn’t their issue) were represented by slowly melting ice sculptures.

So, I’m afraid I can’t say anything very much about the debate. If you want commentary on this The Guardian are doing a good job. John Crace’s summary is particularly worth a read, although it won’t make you feel better about politics or the future of the planet.

Today, is of course another day. And for, what it is worth, today is a global climate strike organised by the Gen Zedders who will have to face the consequences of politicians doing very little about it. My children are both out on strike and so I dedicate this blog to them and thought that I’d write about why careers professionals should care about climate change.

Climate change / global warming is often described as an ‘existential threat’, by which most people mean that it threatens the future of humanity and possibly the future of all life on Earth. As someone who isn’t a climate scientist, I basically buy the perspective of those who are. While we don’t know exactly what is going to happen in the future, there is enough evidence to tell us that the future is likely to be different from the present (unless we take pretty radical action, which without a majority Labour government and a Sanders/Warren presidency looks unlikely).

In most of the scenarios that we can model the future looks a lot worse than the present. Extreme weather is likely to lead to economic insecurity, increased migration, heightened conflict and of course the loss of substantial amounts of land in close proximity to water (as Britons, we live on an island, and so this aspect of climate change doesn’t look good). These kinds of changes will clearly make a difference to almost everything about how our careers unfold over the next 20 to 50 years.

This raises two fundamental problems for careers work as it calls two key tenets of the field into question. Firstly, that the future will be roughly the same as the present. The assumption of stability allows us to develop strategies in the here and now that have a reasonably good chance of success. This assumption looks very problematic in the face of current climate change predictions. Secondly, that when you are talking about careers, in career education an guidance, you should be apolitical. The desire for careers work to be apolitical essentially means that you should focus on helping people to develop individual solutions to their problems that don’t rely on any political change e.g. you are better to help people who are looking to increase their standard of living to change their job and get a pay rise, rather than encouraging them to campaign against the policy of austerity than may be responsible for their current poverty. This kind of individualism becomes increasingly difficult to support in the face of a global existential threat.

So, if you buy the idea that climate change is indeed going to fundamentally change the kind of careers that people are going to experience, then what do you do about it?

There is small tradition of research and thinking that has wrestled with the question of how environmental change shapes our career and what we can do about this. Peter Plant argues that we need green guidance which encourages people to be reflective about the situation in which they find themselves, to help people to imagine different ways of living and to challenge assumptions about career advancement which are linked to environmentally destructive notions of rapid and unchecked economic growth.

In my work with Rie Thomsen and Ronald Sultana we talked about the need to resituate career guidance around the concept of social justice. We should have more explicitly drawn out the idea of environmental justice and generational justice as part of this concept, but some of the ideas that we put together might still be useful.

Career guidance needs to:

  • Build critical consciousness. Helping people to see the way in which environmental change is shifting the context for career and consider what options they have to address this.
  • Name oppression. Encouraging people to identify the ways that environmental change is negatively impacting on their lives and to consider who is benefitting from the current system and whose interest it is in to ignore the warnings of the scientific community.
  • Question what is normal. Supporting reflection on the assumptions about career that are driving climate change and thinking about alternative ways to live your life that may be counter-cultural, but are also less environmentally destructive.
  • Encourage people to work together. Considering the limitations of individualistic environmentalism (e.g. choosing a ‘green career’ or deciding not to buy a car) and encouraging people to view their career development as something that they do with others. This inevitably connects them to campaigning and politics. The existence of the school strikes movement offers a powerful example for those working with young people.
  • Work on a range of levels. Recognise that successful ‘green guidance’ will need to operate on a range of levels. Both helping people to make positive, individualistic, choices about where to work and how to pursue their career, and engaging in advocacy, campaigning, system change and politics.

The issue of climate change and the environment has never been more important to politics. As careers professionals we need to understand that it has also never been more important to people’s careers and recognise that we have an important role to play in helping people to deal with this crisis in their own lives.

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