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Meeting the climate literacy moment
A letter to our community on the third anniversary of Probable Futures

Three years ago, Probable Futures set out on an unconventional mission to build and share a climate literacy platform that the world might not know it needed. As founder Spencer Glendon and I, along with our early collaborators, devised a strategy for the initiative, we prepared to face resistance or ambivalence, expecting that we might spend some of our days persuading CEOs, city managers, and software developers that building climate literacy would be time well spent. Instead, today we’re seeing a new and expanding climate workforce actively seeking out climate education resources. 

Seeing climate action spread across industries and cultures represents real progress. However, given the urgency and trajectory of warming, that action must be as effective as possible, and be deployed as soon as possible. Thus, now is the moment to orient the new climate workforce, supplying them with the education, tools, and skills they need to help us limit emissions enough to stay below dangerous levels of warming, and to build resiliency for a changing world.   

Now is the moment to orient the new climate workforce, supplying them with the education, tools, and skills they need to help us limit emissions enough to stay below dangerous levels of warming, and to build resiliency for a changing world. 

Probable Futures’s suite of climate literacy tools and resources is ready to meet this moment. Our team’s task from here is to harness the momentum, find channels to disseminate our resources, engage audiences with it, and ultimately, turn that engagement into deep understanding and action. I write this letter today to share with you, our community, how we plan to do that, why it’s needed, and how you can help. 

From quitting to falling

Recently, a colleague sent me a Bloomberg article with an intriguing title: “Meet the Climate Quitters.” The piece, written by Oscar Boyd and Akshat Rathi, delved into the ways in which climate change is transforming the labor market, and chronicled the experiences of “climate quitters,” people making career changes to work in clean energy, sustainability, and “green jobs.” 

I, too, am seeing encouraging anecdotal evidence that backs this up. But what Boyd and Rathi didn’t mention is a trend that is likely to be much more substantial—people who are falling into climate work as tasks related to climate education, resiliency, or mitigation move under their job’s purview. 

I hear lots of these stories, both at work and at home. A television meteorologist presenting the now not-so-routine morning forecast is asked by producers to explain to viewers how climate change is affecting the weather. An investor at a large firm wants to impress her boss with cutting-edge climate tech investment pitches that make a meaningful impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Even my husband—a diver in the local harbors of southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island—is taking courses to learn about the offshore wind industry so that he can do business with the companies setting up shop here. I have no doubt that we will hear many more of these stories in the coming weeks, months, and years. 

The task of turning around the trajectory of emissions, and building a climate-change-ready world, is going to be done by many millions of people, across vastly different industries, performing day-to-day, incremental work.

The task of turning around the trajectory of emissions, and building a climate-change-ready world, is going to be done by many millions of people, across vastly different industries, performing day-to-day, incremental work. That work will be much more effective, and likely less incremental, if everyone has a foundation of basic climate literacy that they can build upon with their unique skills and talents.

Meteorologists, investors, and divers all possess specialized knowledge and training in their respective fields, but climate change brings a new context to their work, and few are likely to have received formal education in it. We won’t be able to put each one of these people through environmental science or sustainability programs, but we also can’t expect news articles and documentaries to provide a comprehensive education either. This is the gap that Probable Futures is here to fill—offering free, self-guided tools and resources, informing and aligning a new generation of climate workers.

From specialist to generalist

A less stable climate is going to require new skills, values, and sensibilities, and we aren’t the only ones to recognize this. Recently, Microsoft released an important report titled “Closing the Sustainability Skills Gap.” In it, the authors sound an alarm that sustainability roles are rapidly growing while a skilled talent pool isn’t keeping up. In response, it calls for a significant expansion of climate and sustainability literacy and training resources from companies, educational institutions, and nonprofits. But I found that one of the most fascinating aspects of  the report was that Microsoft, a company that is known for hyper-specialization in software engineering, noted the need for professionals who have experience, education, and awareness in not just one field or discipline but many: 

Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the sustainability transformation will need people who can combine specialized sustainability knowledge and skills with varying degrees of other multidisciplinary skill sets. These will need to combine knowledge from STEM and other fields in the liberal arts and encompass skills that span across business, the use of data, and digital technology. This combination currently is hard to find and often doesn’t exist naturally.

In other words, we have lots of specialists when we need generalists. 

We have lots of specialists when we need generalists. 

Interestingly enough, we can look to the history of climate stability to help us understand why specialization became so prevalent in the first place. Stability meant that we didn’t need to think much about the climate and could focus our attention on optimizing human systems. Over the years, our economies increasingly called for workers with deep but narrow skills and knowledge. Our academic institutions followed suit. But the issues we’re facing today require a generalist approach along with collaboration, creativity, and moral frameworks—alongside specialized trades and disciplines. 

This report outlines a good example of something that we didn’t expect to see when we first started Probable Futures, but we are glad Microsoft had the foresight to publish it. It is heartening to see leaders in our economy and our governments publicly recognize the critical role of education at this moment in time. 

From building to sharing

While this letter marks the third anniversary of Probable Futures, it also marks the very beginning of a different phase of our work focused on building new bridges between climate science and disciplines, industries, and cultures. 

While this letter marks the third anniversary of Probable Futures, it also marks the very beginning of a different phase of our work focused on building new bridges between climate science and disciplines, industries, and cultures. 

What makes this new phase possible are the foundational tools and resources that make up our suite of offerings: educational material, interactive maps, thought pieces, a customizable “Pro” tool, and an API making climate model data accessible and easy to use.  

Now we seek collaborations with organizations that want help educating and motivating their communities as they become part of the new climate workforce. Early collaborations are emerging in academia, professional development, enterprise software, K–12 school systems, and community resilience planning. We are excited to share more with you as these partnerships develop, and we invite you to reach out if you would like to explore a collaboration with Probable Futures for your industry, company, or community. 

In the meantime, and in this spirit, we are launching a new section of the Probable Futures platform: Perspectives. In it, we will publish new content, share collections of resources to support your ongoing learning journey, and feature people and organizations who are applying Probable Futures offerings and finding ways to help their communities live well under a changing climate. We are hopeful that these stories will ignite imagination and serve as examples for people and organizations finding their place in climate work all over the world. And we could use your help. If you or someone you know is using Probable Futures for education, storytelling, planning, or anything else, please reach out and let us know. 

As is the case with all of our work, we have both high ambitions and high expectations for this next phase in our mission. I suspect that much of the work will be experimental, challenging, and unconventional. That said, I am grateful to have the opportunity to lead a team whose members approach the challenge with thoughtfulness, humility, and humanity. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the work will be fulfilling. I sincerely hope that every person making the transition to working on climate will enjoy a similar mix of messy, challenging, and fulfilling experiences. Perhaps it could be the experience you didn’t know you needed. 

As always, we appreciate your feedback, advice, and encouragement as we transition from building to sharing. Hearing from you gives us ever more confidence that together, we will make a better future more probable. 

Sincerely,

Alison Smart

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