CNBC’s “College Voices 2020” is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about coming of age, getting their college education and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Amanda Mier is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in English. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.
Gen Z grew up with climate change as a known factor in life — one that takes on an increasing sense of urgency every day. As fires rage through the west and hurricanes strike the southeast, the drumbeat is getting louder — and it’s starting to have an impact on their career choices.
Even prior to the pandemic and the devastating wildfires of 2020, 4 out of 10 young people identified climate change as one of the most significant issues facing the planet. Gen Z is uniquely positioned in part because, for many, they cannot recall a time when climate change was not a topic of discussion.
Fionnuala Fisk, who graduated from George Mason University in 2019, remembers starting a petition to “stop global warming” at age six (signed by her mother and two dogs). “I think it’s something that I have always been kind of aware of,” she said.
Although the term “global warming” may have been established in the household lexicon, the sense of urgency for many is new.
“I understood it, but it wasn’t talked about as being something that I was personally affected by and could make change about,” Emma Bilski, a 2020 graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), explained. Now, she actively tries to counter this in her conversations with friends and family: “We need to have that switch happen where it goes from being … not really related to us, to being something that obviously is going to affect us and future generations.”
The effect of climate change on career choices
Growing up, Jane Wiesenberg, a 2020 graduate of Union College from Larchmont, N.Y., did not know what she wanted to do professionally. Today, as she enters the world of business (she’s currently pursuing a career in consulting), she knows one thing: She wants to make money. The reason? The wealthy feel the effects of climate change less, a phenomenon which has become especially evident during the pandemic. “It’s a lot easier if you have money,” she said, “And so that really became more of a priority for me.”
Although she was fully aware of climate change by college, she did not wholly understand the severity of the crisis until she took a course on global warming as a requirement in her junior year. “That was a really hard class, not in terms of the academic rigor, but I had anxiety every time I left that class just because it was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re never getting out of this.’”
A college student who is battling wildfires
Joe Lerdal, originally from San Francisco, is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley. He is in his second season working for the National Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. Having grown up in a family and a region in which climate change was broadly recognized, and with a passion for nature, he wanted to make a difference in any way he could, specifically with land management. For Lerdal, climate change has directly affected his career: “Last year, for my first ever role [firefighting tour], I was sent to Alaska, which is fairly uncommon in firefighting. It was burning so horribly. And, you know, part of that can be that it is an irregular weather pattern. You can infer what you will. But the fact of the matter is, when the boreal forest is burning in July, when it’s usually not, that’s a scary thing.”
Lerdal, a history major at Berkeley, serves as part of an army of seasonal employees hired by federal land management agencies. He works throughout the summer and fall, at the height of fire season, and currently only attends college during the spring semesters. He plans to continue the job post-grad, at least for a little while.
One issue he has identified is the distance, for many, between the great outdoors and urban living. “I personally believe that one of the great causes of environmental neglect in our society is that people have kind of distanced themselves from their actual relationship with nature. Living in a city, you can live comfortably like that,” he explained. “And really think that man has control over nature. And for me, in college, I felt that it’s been pretty important to get out here, working in the woods fighting fires, because it’s painfully obvious once you’re out here that we don’t control nature. Everybody swims when the water rises.”
‘I’m never moving to California’
Climate change isn’t just affecting career choices — it’s affecting decisions young people are making about where and how they want to live.
“Growing up, I thought California would be such a cool place to live,” said Wiesenberg. “Now, it’s like, I’m never moving to California, because I see what [Californians] are going through and it’s so scary to me.”
For Bilski, although she personally does all she can to minimize her carbon footprint, hopelessness still sometimes seeps in. “Every once in a while, I’ll get really nihilistic and be like, ‘Hey, is it responsible to have children?’ and have that conversation with my partner. Like is it responsible for us to be bringing children into this world that is literally crumbling? I’m not sure that it is, but I do want to have a family, and so that’s kind of a conversation that I’ve reconciled in my mind. I don’t know that I’ve come up with a really good answer.”
“I don’t know if [global warming] changed my goals, but it definitely has made me think more critically about what the typical goal or structure or future would look like,” Bilski said.
And sometimes, she thinks about what a stark difference it is from generation to generation.
“I think my mom knew what her future was gonna look like. I don’t know that I feel that way,” Bilski said.
It’s tricky to gauge just how much climate change has limited or changed the options for young adults, in part because of how catastrophic it has been within the past 20 years.
“Much like how we talked about how our generation has lived in a country that’s been constantly at war, and how that’s impacted our psyche, I think that this definitely has an impact on mental health, and the way that we think,” said Bilski. “There’s not even any way for our generation as individuals to fully articulate [how climate change has impacted our lives] because we don’t know the difference.”
Career opportunities because of climate change
A lot of young people think that you have to make a choice — make money or make a difference in the world.
Dr. Renee McPherson, Professor of Geography and Environmental Sustainability at the University of Oklahoma, does not concur with that binary view. She does, however, acknowledge the role humans play in deciding whether or not climate change will be detrimental to the economy.
“Climate change can hurt or help the economy, depending on our collective response,” McPherson said in an email to CNBC. “In the former case, we can ignore climate change and continue to be reactive. In the latter case, we can use this opportunity to create the future economy and society that we want — one that is respectful of others, resilient, and forward-looking.”
McPherson posits that the climate crisis could actually lead to significant job creation — an idea which also forms the backbone of the proposed Green New Deal advocated for by progressive politicians and activists alike. “Using the challenge of climate change to energize our workforce will lead to a jobs boon,” she said. “Blue collar and white collar jobs to decarbonize our economy, update our nation’s infrastructure, and increase community resilience.”
McPherson also encourages students to learn as much about climate change as they can, even if it’s not their area of expertise. “For students interested in climate change, there are many opportunities across physical and social sciences, public health, business management, finance, engineering, and other fields,” she explained. “Understanding how climate change may unfold, the stresses on systems, and opportunities for new innovations will be key knowledge over the next few decades.”
In fact, even without a Green New Deal, there are already numerous opportunities for young people seeking both to make an impact on the climate crisis and find financial stability.
There are jobs available for climate-conscious people of all backgrounds and educations — some of which pay six figures, according to The Balance Careers. Environmental lawyers, for instance, earn a median salary of $122,960 and play a crucial role in the protection of our planet. Other high-paying and environmentally-sound jobs include environmental engineering and, in the business world, the relatively new but increasingly more common position of chief sustainability officer. And even for those without a bachelor’s degree, urban farmers can support their communities in eradicating food deserts and improving the environment while earning a median salary of $71,160.
Although sometimes the future can feel hopeless, there are many ways to battle climate change while earning a living. Or, as Lerdal put it, “There are types of jobs where you can feel good about yourself and also provide enough for the people you love.”
Cam Rosen is a 2020 graduate of Duke University from London, England. She currently resides in New York and recently began teaching fourth grade. But as she works to instruct the next generation, climate anxiety seeps into every aspect of her work. Rosen has focused her career on combating systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality, but recently has been struck by the urgency of the climate crisis.
“I keep forgetting that climate change is the problem,” Rosen said. “We’re not going to have a future where we can fix the injustices if our world is literally falling apart … I’m not going to have a future if the world is destroyed, and we keep destroying it.”