Building a Diverse, Strong Climate Workforce
Climate leaders from Boston University and around the country briefed Congressional staff on how they are working to train the next generation for careers solving the climate crisis
Climate change is throwing problems at society that are unlike any we’ve experienced before—from battling extreme heat to combating flooding from sea level rise. It’s forcing us to not only build adaptations for a changing world, but take on the monumental tasks of creating green infrastructure and transitioning from carbon-emitting fossil fuels to renewable energy. And every piece of solving the climate puzzle will require more and more involvement by people from all walks of life.
In the face of unfolding climate challenges, many universities, community organizations, and private companies are training people who want to build a career in the climate workforce, whether in science, management, policy, communication, or governance fields. On June 9, Boston University brought together leaders in climate change solutions and research for a Congressional briefing on how to build a workforce centered on meeting the global challenges from climate change, a panel called Building the Next Generation Climate Workforce: Innovative Solutions from Around the Country.
The briefing was hosted by BU Federal Relations and featured four different panelists with expertise in science-backed policymaking, expanding diversity in STEM, and preparing to meet energy demands from renewable sources like solar and wind.
“The media often latches on to the darkest and worst side of an issue and climate change is no different,” said panel moderator Melissa Varga, science network community and partnerships manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy, in her opening remarks. ”Don’t get me wrong, the situation is dire. Marginalized and communities of color are the worst and first hit, and immediate action is needed. But rarely do we hear about the innovative efforts that are actually working for communities.” Each speaker at the virtual panel shared how their work contributes to training a diverse climate workforce.
Varga introduced US Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), who spoke about how Congress has a role to play supporting that workforce, including through legislation that can expand job training opportunities to communities who have historically been left behind. “Here in the Pacific Northwest, we feel these effects [of climate change] acutely,” she said. “Our only option moving forward is to implement sweeping adaptation measures and decarbonize as rapidly as possible.”
The panelists included Shawn Jones, the head of energy storage development at BlueWave Solar, a solar energy developer based in Boston, Pamela Padilla, president of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science and University of North Texas vice president of research and innovation, BU PhD student Yasmin Romitti (Pardee’12, GRS’25), and Pamela Templer, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology and the director of BU’s URBAN Program.
“To me, a climate workforce means successfully preparing our graduates to tackle climate challenges,” Templer told The Brink prior to the event. “We know that temperatures are rising, weather events are becoming more extreme, and these are all impacting human health and well-being. Having graduates understand how we can both reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change and create solutions to help humans adapt to the ways that climate is already changing is essential.”
The URBAN Program (Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health), funded by a $3 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program grant, helps graduate students gain expertise in fields that include environmental health, biology, engineering, statistics, and more, as well as the skills needed to work across disciplines. The program offers professional development workshops, training students in science communication, the workings of municipal governments, and collaborating effectively with city leaders.
Having graduates understand how we can both reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change and create solutions to help humans adapt to the ways that climate is already changing is essential.
Creating solutions and jobs focused on adapting to climate change will be effective only if the workforce is diverse enough to reflect what the United States actually looks like, Padilla emphasized.
“I think about the droughts in the Southwest, and how the Navajo Nation is addressing this. It’s important that we communicate knowledge to families and our elders in the community so they understand and know how they can participate,” Padilla said. She also discussed how government agencies can bolster her organization’s work in increasing participation from Chicano, Hispanic, and Native American people in science and technology. “They can move the needle with dollars, as well as support.”
On the private industry side of the climate workforce, Jones is working to transform access to renewable energy with community solar projects and storage solutions, while volunteering in the community and offering students mentoring opportunities.
“You don’t need a science degree to tackle climate change,” Jones said. He also echoed the need to bring diverse talent and individuals from all backgrounds into climate-centered careers.
“Everyone understands what a doctor does, what lawyers and engineers do, but the climate work? I still don’t think people understand what we actually do, so we have to bring a little bit more transparency to our process, so [more people] understand what skills are needed,” he said.
Asked how Congress can further support efforts to train students working in climate, Templer said that “Congress can continue to support graduate training grants—like the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program—that enable universities like BU to create new interdisciplinary hands-on, solutions-oriented training programs. It would be helpful if Congress could allocate more funds to ensure that successful graduate programs like ours continue.”
Romitti, a climate, energy, and health student who’s researching how people adapt to heat in cities, said the URBAN Program has been invaluable, providing her with a community and experience creating policy-relevant research. “Looking ahead, I’m very excited to be part of this next-generation climate workforce,” Romitti said. “What’s next for me, I don’t exactly know, but I think that’s a good thing, because it just shows that because of the training and opportunities I’ve had with URBAN, I feel like I have the tools and the resources to be a competitive applicant across different sectors.”
All the panelists shared their hope for more investment at the federal level in training students interested in climate-focused careers that can elevate diversity and bring more opportunities for communities that are impacted the most by climate change.
Varga closed by saying: “There’s so much to be optimistic about, and yet still so much more work to do.”