My children, 11-year-old twins, vaguely college-bound, will be entering the workforce right as the compost hits the turbine. I know I’m supposed to look at them and apologise for the sins of our fossil-fueled world and chain myself to the doors of a coal plant to hasten mitigation. But that would be an awful embarrassment to my daughters, and I’m shy. And I’m not that worried about history judging me. History is gonna be kinda busy.
But still. What’s a climate dad to do? I can’t just buy them tall boots (we live in New York City) and call it a day. So, in the interest of fatherhood, I’ve been looking at all the climate-tech startups coming online. Which climate jobs should they pursue? Should I steer them into hydrogen? Nuclear? Biotech? Something something something solar? Should I wake them up each morning and whisper, “Batteries”?
I do feel squirrelly about the term “climate unicorn.” To me, it has confused priorities. Why should I care if some company is worth a billion dollars at this stage in the Anthropocene? The goal should be practical, and the animal should be common and reproduce frequently. I would rather see a million Carbon Cats. Greenhouse Gas Geese. Radiative-Forcing Rabbits.
Take, for example, green hydrogen. We are to be excited about green hydrogen. Perhaps my children should go into that. The idea being: (1) Use renewable energy to make hydrogen. (2) Swap it for coal in high-heat industrial processes. (3) Byproduct? Water! Take that, coal. Invest away! Send in résumés! Hydrogen could supply 10 per cent of all our energy in a decarbonised world. Boot up some turbines!
But, oh no. Here come the climate quants (BloombergNEF researchers) to ruin everything. To produce that much hydrogen, they tell us, you need more than the amount of renewable energy that exists today. That’s more than every solar panel and wind turbine that took us more than a decade to build, just for making green hydrogen. Then we’d need at least 19 more things at that scale to lick this. Doesn’t mean stop trying—but also it takes us a half-century to dig one subway tunnel. So.
I keep working through the list, imagining job titles and companies of the future. Electric vehicle charging station repair specialist for Voltago. Satellite methane spotter for Methnone. Tree counter for Leafery. Heat-resistant grape engineer for Nose Winegeneering. Battery firmware engineer for Edisonian. Fake meat photographer for a chain of restaurants called State of Bean. Mold mitigator. Immigration aide. Dehydration response trainer. Relocator. (I stop around then.)
For the past 30 years, I mostly worked in software—coding and consulting; people called me when they had a technology problem and needed a solution. “Solutions” are magical things. Just apply one, and the problem is gone. Somehow it didn’t quite work that way. Despite what software promised, tech solutions always required other solutions to manage the first solutions. Today the new “solution” is a bunch of machine-learning tools, such as ChatGPT. There’s already a new industry emerging to try to mitigate how much damage that solution will do.
But that concept—the idea of the one grand fix—doesn’t work in a world dominated by One Giant Problem from whence spring many complex subproblems—each one yielding many tiny grandproblems and great-grandproblems. My kids’ world will be one unbelievably large Sankey diagram, one where even the biggest, most giant solution, using every possible resource, is a few percentage points toward where we need to be. Assuming one magical technology will fix (motions to the room) is like assuming you can fix a headache by taking two whole bottles of Tylenol.
Which leads me to a terrible conclusion, an almost unbearable one. No, I don’t think we’re all going to die. It’s worse than that. I think the one, true job—the job that will matter more than any—will be, essentially, carbon accountant. The greatest job security will be for people who know the tax rebates and every aspect of green law, then study PDFs—God, there will still be PDFs in 2050, won’t there?—then study every aspect of the large, open climate standards from places like Gold Standard, Verra, IFRS, and others, and get really, really good at using mitigation disclosure software to fill out report after report so their employers don’t get fined or shut down by the government.
We’re going to need hundreds of thousands of people like that. They’re going to take pictures, install sensors, write things down, look inside vats of chemicals, and create PowerPoints. And they’ll be able to bill a ton, because once we realise that no magical unicorn is going to show up in the garden dragging a cart full of large denominations—that’s the moment of profound and painful realisation when people will understand they need to give up and call a consultant. And that’s when the real money starts to flow. Trust me on that. I was a consultant.
But “certified carbon accountant” has a ring to it, right? I’m kind of excited. Because you’ll need lots of carbon-accounting software. Coding that is a job. You’ll need lawyers to defend the CEOs who go to jail and lawyers to fight the lawyers who defend the CEOs. You’ll need ever-more standards, standards galore. Maybe my children can be the people who prepare climate accounting frameworks. Maybe they’ll go off and make PDFs of their own. How proud I’ll be! And look, we’re in trouble. I don’t deny it. But sometimes I think we focus way too much on the death, and that does a huge disservice to the taxes.
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