Rush to climate science
Climate change awareness has brought a boom in jobs for scientists and related specialists, writes
EN years ago, scientists specialising in climate change counted themselves lucky to find a job. Now employers are beating paths to their doors. From the federal Government down, Australia’s corporations and institutions, public and private, are falling over themselves to appoint people with the knowledge and skills to advise on what is becoming a central public policy debate.
Indeed, one of Kevin Rudd’s first decisions on becoming prime minister was to appoint a Minister for Climate Change. Matthew England, joint head of the University of NSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, views that as an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the issue.
‘‘ When climate change was taken out of the federal environment portfolio and given to Penny Wong as a separate ministry, people saw it as a demotion for (environment minister) Peter Garrett, that he couldn’t handle it,’’ professor England said. ‘‘ But I saw it as a recognition that climate change is not just limited to the environment — it cuts across into economics, infrastructure and a whole range of things. It was a true recognition of its importance.’’
The Climate Change Research Centre is a perfect example of the resources being poured into understanding climate change Australiawide. It opened last year and now has a staff of 35 involved in examining the biophysical side of climate change — such as how climate systems are changing and temperatures rising, and how the climate responds to greenhouse gases.
Staff numbers at the centre could double over the next couple of years — and there are at least another 60 people from a broad range of disciplines across the university also involved in climate change research.
Yet even this is not enough according to centre co-director Andy Pitman.
‘‘ I think the scale of the challenge has mushroomed and I think that’s why university research groups are forming at an unprecedented rate to address it,’’ professor Pitman said. ‘‘ To put it in perspective, even a centre the size of ours at UNSW can’t cover all of the areas in which we need expertise.’’
Demand for climate change courses is strong among undergraduates, and England believes universities have been struggling to keep pace.
‘‘ We’re under-resourced in the sense that we’re not graduating enough people with the right skills to fill all these growing areas,’’ he says. ‘‘ To be fair, the demand has sprung up relatively quickly and I think the education system has got a couple of years of hard work ahead to get the courses up and running to deliver the right graduates.’’
Those graduating are finding their skills in high demand. England says graduates with PhDs specialising in climate change science are earning around $65,000 to $70,000. And those with more than five years’ experience can earn significantly more.
The Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia chief executive John Vines says, ‘‘ In the late 90s there was a reasonable level of unemployment among environmental scientists, and that means that there are fewer people from that age cohort in industry, because they just went into other occupations.
‘‘ It means that for companies looking for experienced environmental scientists and envir- onmental engineers, particularly those with a good knowledge of climate change, they can be hard to find, and that’s really pushing up salaries.
‘‘ Demand is the other factor, as organisations become more conscious of their carbon footprint and as the infrastructure and mining areas become much more aware of the need to have an environmentally appropriate outcome for their projects. In the last five years demand in the private sector has been accelerating considerably.
‘‘ I think in the future graduates, when they make a decision about whether to join that company or not, will be looking at what sort of a carbon footprint an organisation has ’’ he said.
‘‘ That will factor into an employer-of-choice component, and so companies will increasingly see the need to minimise their carbon footprint and use that in promotional material to emphasise that they are a good company to work for.’’
It’s already happening at companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers. PwC environment law director Sean Lucy says there is a tangible ‘‘ buzz’’ around climate change issues for graduates. ‘‘ All our graduates want to know about PwC’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral, they want to understand how they can respond to the issue professionally. It’s an important part of how they rate us, and whether they want to work for us.’’
PwC’s climate change services division has grown from 10 people two years ago to 40 today, and further growth is projected. The division advises businesses on a range of climate change considerations, including strategy developments, regulatory changes and emissions management.
‘‘ In the last 18 months there’s been an incredible growth in the depth of our capability and the range of businesses who want to talk about this issue, from NGOs to federal and state governments and from ASX200 companies to start-up businesses,’’ Lucy says. ‘‘ There wouldn’t be one level of the Australian economy where we haven’t got some level of interest (in our climate change services).’’
PwC environment law partner Andrew Petersen forecasts ongoing growth. ‘‘ Over time we’re going to see new specialisations needed,’’ he says. ‘‘ They’re not climate change experts as such, but they’re experts in the field of the economics of embedding a carbon price into the value of your business, experts on developing carbon reduction strategies, or monetising carbon reduction projects.
‘‘ You’re going to see both an expansion in terms of numbers and types of service offerings out there that are related to climate change.’’
Climate change has been on the agenda for many years at the CSIRO.
Chris Mitchell, research leader of climate, weather and ocean prediction, leads 250 people working on climate change-related research including drought, severe weather forecasting and greenhouses gases in the atmosphere.
‘‘ I don’t think it (climate change) is flavour of the month — I see it as a strategic shift towards sustainability,’’ he says. ‘‘ Ten to 15 years ago there were not many people who worked on environmental matters — outside a very few people working on the regulatory environment.
‘‘ Now we have people working on corporate sustainability, on greenhouse gas management plans, on a whole range of things.’’
Mitchell says climate change scientists are now finding their skills in demand in the private sector. ‘‘ Companies are going to need to understand what their carbon risk is, what their greenhouse emissions footprint is. We have carbon trading on the horizon. In the corporate world these aspects of climate change are becoming increasingly important and unless you’ve got the analytical capability, you’re just guessing.’’
Time lag: Andy Pitman says universities are struggling to catch up with demand for environmental courses