Higher ed’s building a workforce with the savvy and skills to confront climate change

The alarm bells are ringing on climate change—and higher education is responding.

The United Nations warned in a 2018 landmark report that a comprehensive global effort is needed to avoid “catastrophic, irreversible climate change.” And as nations step up their commitment to address the crisis, American colleges and universities are leading the effort to develop skilled workers who can solve these complex environmental challenges.

In recent years, more and more colleges and universities have introduced degree and short-term credentialing programs related to the environment and sustainability. Many have invested heavily in research and formed collaborations to innovate climate change solutions.

They also have forged partnerships with private businesses and government entities to immerse students in research and work in earth-friendly fields.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, sustainability studies was the fastest-growing green program during the last five years.

The result is an unprecedented number of opportunities for students to earn a “green” degree or certification. These credentials prepare students for occupations that focus on emissions reduction, sustainable industry practices, environmental policy, or food production.

And students are responding. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES),
9 percent more Americans graduated from green programs in 2021 than in 2016.

In addition to degree programs in subjects such as environmental science and sustainable agriculture, students can pursue degrees in disciplines such as communications, economics, engineering, law, and policy—all of which touch on aspects of sustainability and climate change.

According to NCES, sustainability studies was the fastest-growing green program during the last five years. In fact, the number of graduates more than doubled between 2016 and 2021—from 832 to 1,837. Other burgeoning green programs include environmental tourism (which grew by 89 percent), plant protection (85 percent), environmental law (48 percent), environmental economics (36 percent), marine science (35 percent), and sustainable agriculture (33 percent).

Certifications and licensing are also considered critical pathways to green jobs. This is particularly true of occupations that involve the design, construction, and maintenance of power stations
that use geothermal, solar, or wind energy.

These certification programs represent some of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the growth rate for wind turbine service technicians at 44 percent between 2021 and 2031. This makes it the nation’s second-fastest-growing occupation. Solar photovoltaic installers are also in the top 20 list of fastest-growing jobs, with a projected growth rate of 27 percent. The overall growth rate of all jobs during the decade is projected at just 5 percent.

The demand for skilled workers in a greener economy is expected to continue, especially with
the 2022 passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $391 billion for green initiatives. This commitment, recognized as the largest climate change investment in the nation’s history, will fuel further interest in careers related to sustainability and renewable energy.

Another reason for increased interest in green degrees appears to be a shift in public perceptions about climate change.

Environmentalism has been on the radar for millions of Americans since the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. However, until recent years, commitment to the cause rarely extended beyond recycling and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s changing.

A 2023 Gallup poll revealed that 61 percent of Americans say they worry at least a fair amount about global warming—up from 43 percent in 2021 and 36 percent in 2016. A study by the Pew Research Center revealed similar findings. In that survey, 54 percent of Americans described climate change as a “major threat to the country’s well-being” in 2022— up from 48 percent in 2014.

Concerns are most acute among people ages 18 to 34. Of those surveyed, 70 percent in that age group said they were “worried a great deal or a fair amount” about the climate and global warming.

As colleges and universities emerge as central players in addressing climate change, they’re also focusing on inclusivity.

In 2011, for example, Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, partnered with Robert D. Bullard, a leader of the environmental justice movement and a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, to launch the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Climate Change Consortium. They invited HBCU leaders to help raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities. They also urged
the HBCU officials to encourage their students to pursue studies and advocacy in environmental
and climate justice.

As a representative of the University of Washington, Maya Tolstoy, dean of the university’s College of the Environment, has participated in many collaborations related to climate change.

She recently was asked to join the New York Climate Exchange, a new international center for developing and deploying global climate solutions. Besides the University of Washington, core partners of the consortium include the Georgia Institute of Technology, Pace University, Duke University, the University of Oxford, the Pratt Institute, the Good Old Lower East Side community group, Boston Consulting Group, and IBM Corp.

The exchange will encourage collaboration among climate experts and global leaders, host green job training events, and develop partnerships with local institutions to address the social and practical challenges created by climate change.

Tolstoy also has met with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which recently invited leaders from various colleges, universities, HBCUs, and community colleges to collaborate on solutions.

A 2023 Gallup poll revealed that 61 percent of Americans say they worry at least a fair amount about global warming—up from 43 percent in 2021 and 36 percent in 2016.

“They want to talk about forming a stronger network across the country around climate resiliency,”
Tolstoy said. “This initiative recognizes that, in the past, universities have collaborated around emergencies. COVID is the most recent example where there were institutional barriers. We’re hoping this will be the start of something that could help strengthen networks across the full range of universities and colleges.”

The institutional diversity that Tolstoy references is clearly reflected in higher education’s response to the climate crisis—and in the stories that follow. Those stories, while just a fraction of the environmentally focused programs on today’s campuses, represent a range of approaches.

The programs featured here are offered by a large research university in the Pacific Northwest,
a community college in the Upper Midwest, and an HBCU in the Deep South. They’re three very different campuses working toward one vital goal: preparing students to fight the most important battle in our planet’s history.


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