Does COP-26 have an Achilles heel? It could be a lack of the needed workforce.

Head of Thetis from an Attic red-figure pelike, c. 510-500 BC, Louvre
According to Greek mythology, Thetis (the first helicopter parent?) tried to confer immortality on her son Achilles by immersing him in the River Styx that ran through Hades. But she held onto him by a heel, which was therefore left unprotected. In the end, that vulnerability would prove his undoing.

This past week and over the next, those worldwide who are alarmed (and many of the merely concerned) by climate change are riveted on the daily news from COP-26, the latest in a multi-year series of global summits on that existential challenge.

Thousands of people have assembled in Glasgow for the event. They span the gamut – from world political leaders to Greta Thunberg to corporate executives to representatives from civil society. Let’s start with the important minority there to conduct United Nations business. They are negotiating and solemnizing the particulars necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to evolving climate threats, and stand up mechanisms and instrumentalities for financing the whole. Last week their presidency programme focused in turn on the world leaders’ summit; finance; energy; youth and public empowerment; and then nature itself. In the second week they shift attention to adaptation, loss, and damage; gender; science and innovation; transport; cities, regions, and the built environment.

This first group is vastly outnumbered by others running a so-called  Green Zone Programme of Events, offering an eclectic range of contributions from artists, corporations, civil society, universities, government agencies, and other constituencies. All are hoping to garner wider attention to their views, their skills, their needs, and their proposed solutions. An accompanying media frenzy is pushing out video, op-eds, and backstory to the rest of us.

That media coverage is quite diverse in emphasis and focus. Every point of view is finding some outlet. But in one crucial respect the messages are essentially unanimous. They all anticipate that the likely COP-26 – fuel reductions, caps on methane emissions, afforestation and the rest – remain well short of the fixes needed to bound global warming at 1.50C. Faced with tough choices, nations and their leaders find themselves hesitant to step up.

But an even more worrisome challenge remains unaddressed – indeed (also unanimously) unmentioned. A quick and admittedly subjective assessment of all various agendas, schedules and sessions for the week finds one topic MIA:

The needed workforce.

Of paramount concern is the lack of the skilled workforce needed to decarbonize the economy. One estimate: to meet a US goal of clean energy by 2035 will require 900,000 workers (a fourfold increase over today?s levels; current growth trends are projected to provide less than half that number). Wind energy companies are also vigorously competing for scarce talent. Engineering skills ranging from energy assessment to project management/design are needed. Offshore projects require additional skill sets and face similar labor shortages. And the challenge doesn’t end there; the need for workforce to operate and maintain the systems coming online poses additional requirements. Consider this single example, from the October 23rd issue of The Economist): the coming shortage of mechanics trained to repair electric vehicles. The UK alone is expected to require 90,000 newly-trained electric-vehicle mechanics by 2030. This is just one of myriad niche needs facing a global society attempting to innovate itself out anthropogenic climate change.  

The glib answer often given in response to this concern is that the needed workforce will come from the nearest-neighbors. Oil workers, including off-shore oil workers, can be retrained for the wind energy work. Automobile mechanics can be similarly retrained. And so on. But a closer look shows that such redeployment is not trivial. For example, while rotating the tires on an EV should be little different from the task for any other car, work on the electric motor or a 900-volt battery is substantially different from tinkering with a combustion engine.

What might be called climate-change workforce gaps would be problem enough if they were occurring in isolation. But that’s not what’s happening in today’s real world. In 2020, economists predicted a 90% economy after the global lockdowns. The recovery of restaurants, hotels, bars and other businesses in the entertainment sectors would be slow. Travel and tourism would also struggle to bounce back. The recovery has in fact been slow, but not because of reduced demand. Instead it has proved to be labor shortages that are forcing these businesses to reduce hours of operation, occupancy, and delay and stretch service provision. Crew shortages are forcing airlines to cancel hundreds of flights. A post-pandemic shortage of housing stems in part from shortages of construction labor. Supply chains of every description, from computer chips for automobiles to this year’s Christmas presents, have all been disrupted, again aggravated by corresponding dislocations in labor supply. In many retail outlets, the product advertising that used to greet customers has been replaced by prominent “we’re hiring!” signs.

(In fact, there is historic precedent for this. Prior to the Black Death, the bubonic plague which killed a third of the European population over the time span of a year or between 1346-1353, feudalism held sway. Nobility enjoyed wealth while laborers were held in poverty. But in the years following, the labor shortage gave the serfs the upper hand. The middle class was born.)

The world will successfully decarbonize, build resilience to natural hazards, and protect habitats and the environment only by growing the needed workforce. This in turn requires that governments and peoples develop and implement policy toward this end.

What policies would be beneficial?

A recent AMS Policy Program Study, Who Will Make Sense of All the Data? Assessing the Impacts of Technology on the Weather, Water, and Climate Workforce, provides some preliminary insights. The authors synthesized expert perspectives with published views. All see a future marked by rapid, continual, and sustained innovation and social change. In particular:

  • Proliferating sensors, platforms, and networks are making data more available
  • Advances in chip technology and cloud resources are spurring the uptake of artificial intelligence and machine learning (as well as a shift in the dominant programming language)

These trends hold corresponding implications for the weather-, water-, and climate workforce:

  • Data management and systems-thinking skills are needed
  • Continual innovation favors workers who are adaptable, who can quickly adopt and master new tools
  • The ability to problem-solve and think at a systems level need to be broadly brought to bear across WWC science.
  • Continual development of new technologies will likely also favor workers committed to and comfortable with lifelong learning.
  • Workers with these qualifications will be highly sought after not just within the WWC enterprise, but beyond it, posing challenges for employers
  • The challenges go beyond those individual employers can address.

Community-wide, even nationwide policies will be needed:

  • These extend both to renewed approaches to K-12 and higher education; as well as continuing training and education for mid- and late-career workforce.
  • Here as elsewhere in society, improvement in diversity, equity, and justice is paramount.

Two closing comments. First, policies must necessarily favor the carrot rather than the stick. As the post-covid shortage of service workers daily demonstrates, peoples can’t be forced to work at specific tasks. They need incentives, not regulations. And while straight economic incentives are necessary, they will not be sufficient. Work needs to be meaningful, satisfying, productive.

Second, it might seem that the weather, water, and climate workforce is the merest sliver of a much larger workforce that is the one that truly matters. True enough. But consider this: the environmental intelligence that is mined from weather, water, and climate data is the fundamental starting point for guiding some $100T of food, water, and energy infrastructure investments that must be made worldwide over the next twenty years. Otherwise, much of that colossal sum will be directed in wasteful ways. And the world will fail to meet COP-26 targets.

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2 Responses to Does COP-26 have an Achilles heel? It could be a lack of the needed workforce.

  1. Bill:-

    I was intending to rake you over the coals about the so-called “existential threat” of climate change, but Judith Curry does her usual great job of putting this into perspective ( so I won’t.

  2. 🙂 Thanks, John! Good to hear from you. As usual, well and crisply said.

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