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Careers Insights: Leading the international charge for climate action

Signing of the Paris Agreement: Source - UNFCCC

In this latest edition of Careers Insights, YAIA Careers Officer Kelsey Gray delves into the dynamic field of climate diplomacy and politics, and explores the various options available for young people looking to have an international career with a positive impact for future generations.

Climate change is a global problem with contemporaneous global impacts. As a truly ‘wicked problem’, its impacts are not constrained to just climate or environmental consequences. It contributes to elevating the risk of conflict, geopolitical and security risks, poverty, food insecurity and famine, social inequity, humanitarian disasters, increasing volatility in the value and exchange of natural resources, and acts as a threat multiplier for intelligence agencies. Given the global scale of these challenges, it is not surprising that traditional international relations roles are pivoting to the challenges, and an altogether new field of international relations has emerged to tackle climate change and its effects.

This is a disruptive field that is changing the fundamentals of the diplomatic profession. Students and professionals alike need to be aware of and adapt to these changes. As international affairs evolves, so too does the range of opportunities to work at the interface between climate and global affairs. This article covers the opportunities available, and desirable skills to have as you enter this space.

The intersection of climate change and international relations

Intergovernmental bodies focusing on climate change first emerged in the early 1990s with the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since then, the climate and international relations fields have continued to collide, leading to the creation of several prominent multilateral institutions such as the Green Climate Fund, the Global Environment Facility, and the annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COPs).

The broadened skills base of climate diplomacy professionals

Climate diplomacy is a diverse field with various types of roles on offer. You could have a technical science-based role, a diplomatic role (such as a COP negotiator), or a policy-based role (such as working in a think-tank or a government agency).

As with all careers in international relations, there is no set pathway or study background that you must have to enter the field. People currently in the field have backgrounds ranging from humanitarian work and international development, to economics, science, technology, environmental engineering and mathematics, urban design and planning, banking and risk, environmental and international law, and international relations.

By way of example, Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment, Jamie Isbister, holds a BA and MA. He previously worked at a senior level in the humanitarian sector. Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, holds qualifications in international law and held several Ambassadorial positions before being appointed to the Executive of the UNFCCC.

Career pathways towards climate action

Feeling inspired to work in the field? Career pathways exist in the public and private sectors. Formal diplomatic roles sit within the Australian Government. The Climate Change and Sustainability Division of DFAT sends negotiators to COP and other multilateral environmental conferences. As of April 2022, other Government departments such as Prime Minister and Cabinet, Department of Agriculture, Water, and Environment, and Department of Industry, Science, Energy, and Resources, also work on international environmental policy.

Outside of the public sector, think tanks such as The Australia Institute, the Lowy Institute, the Grattan Institute, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have dedicated streams of work focusing on the international climate space. Some send representatives to COP who can interact with the process as official members of the Australian Stakeholder Group. Not-for-profits such as the Climate Council provide expert advice and research to drive climate solutions.

Non-government organisation and social impact not-for-profits may also engage with this field of work, often through an intersectional lens focusing on broader social justice or human rights issues. Aid and international development practitioners are also now expected to have a broadening geographical and environmental management focus. Aid work now often contributes not only to income generation and standards of living, but takes a systemic approach to ‘future proof’ these improvements through climate change adaptation and mitigation portfolios. This is seen especially in developing countries most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing and more extreme climate.

This captures some of the larger-scale international organisations with climate programmes, namely the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, Global Climate and Health Alliance, UN SDSN to name only a few. Operating from Australia at a regional level include the Australian Council for International Development, WaterAid, ActionAid, Asia Pacific Adaptation Network, as well as the many climate-focused projects being led out of Global Shapers Hubs (of which there are 5 across Eastern Australia). These not-for-profits use both sustainable development principals and human rights-centered approaches to climate justice.

Also, keep an eye on the rapidly growing social enterprises helping achieve climate justice such as Project Everest Ventures and Kua Coffee. Or, have a genuine area of passion related to tackling climate change? Start your own social enterprise, movement, dialogue or advocacy!

The private sector offers many opportunities too, whether that be in a boutique consultancy (see for example Climate Strategy Advisers, The Palladium Group and Abt Associates), or a larger corporate advisory and impact investor such as the Pollination Group. Large consulting firms and banks and financial institutions often have dedicated climate strategy and policy roles.

Where can I start my climate diplomacy career as a student?

If you are still studying, take advantage of the opportunities available to learn about this field of work. Your university likely has subjects available on climate politics or international environmental policy. Check to see what is on offer and enrol if you can! All major universities offer Masters programmes and opportunities to specialise in climate change. Given the diverse backgrounds of people working in this field, it is worth thinking outside the box as well for study options - economics, business, public policy, and environmental management are all relevant.

Global Voices is one example of a program which gets people from different academic backgrounds engaging with climate diplomacy. Global Voices is a not-for-profit which supports undergraduate students to attend international summits. Every year they facilitate an Australian Youth Delegate program to attend COP. Youth delegates get access to the conference as an observer and typically participate in Australian stakeholder discussions. Check if your university partners with Global Voices and keep your eye out for this opportunity!

You can also follow Australian Youth for International Climate Engagement (AYFICE), which is a new network formed in partnership between young people and DFAT. AYFICE aims to engage young people with international climate negotiations and is a good first step for anyone interested in knowing more about climate diplomacy!

Responding to the threats of climate change requires concerted and globally coordinated action. Whether you are a policymaker, international relations generalist, scientist, or foreign affairs practitioner, you can have a tangible and positive impact on the global efforts to address climate change.


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