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Three Levels of Climate Knowledge

Three Levels of Climate Knowledge

The Three Levels of Climate Knowledge

GOOD Institute and Net Impact are joining organizations and individuals around the world celebrating Earth Day and Earth Week this week around the 2023 theme Invest in Our Planet. “…the theme is focused on engaging governments, institutions, businesses, and the more than 1 billion citizens who participate annually in Earth Day to do their part – everyone accounted for, everyone accountable.”

All week long, on the Net Impact blog, we will be showcasing pieces written by our #ClimateContributors, who exemplify the work our community does all year long to drive climate action.

Three Levels of Climate Knowledge

The climate is one of the most complicated subjects known to humanity. As such, if you’re interested in a climate career, it can feel overwhelming to try and develop climate knowledge to the point where you can use it in a professional context.

It’s important to remember that even the most serious climate experts tend to focus only on a certain aspect of the climate, so the trick is really about finding your focus. However, your focus has to sit within a broader knowledge of the climate, and figuring out how to manage these different types of climate knowledge can be challenging. One way of handling this challenge is to divide climate knowledge into three levels, which we’ll imagine here as represented by an inverted pyramid.

Three Levels of Climate Knowledge by Joseph Gelfer

Level 1: The Climate Firehose

The climate firehose represents pretty much everything happening in the climate. Of course, having a detailed knowledge of the climate firehose is impossible. Still, it’s nevertheless a good idea to have some high-level awareness of what is happening in general. Level 1 is going to look the same for everyone.

Some examples of the climate firehose include key takeaways from the latest IPCC report, a new study commenting on the volatility of the Gulf Stream, new regulations being discussed about climate disclosures for businesses, or record-breaking weather events.

Importantly, you don’t need to read deeply on any of these issues. It’s probably enough to monitor the climate firehose via the news (assuming you’re reading news reports that do a decent job of covering climate, such as The Guardian). Indeed, it’s just not possible to go deeply into the firehose as there’s so much information there. People who try quickly feel overwhelmed, which can prevent them from progressing to the next two levels.

You should spend only a relatively small amount of your time building Level 1 knowledge.

Level 2: General Domain of Interest

Your general domain of interest represents the focus area you have chosen for your climate career. This is sometimes called a climate “vertical,” which is a relatively high-level way of dividing the climate space such as renewable energy, mobility, food and agriculture, carbon management, and so on. As such, Level 2 looks different for different people.

Level 2 requires a deeper knowledge than Level 1, so you’ll need to look beyond the news to access it. A good starting point are the GreenBiz newsletters that provide information about various climate verticals. There are also many free industry-specific newsletters available depending on your focus.

These newsletters act as a discovery layer, curating relevant news that is important to you – too specific for the average reader, but just right for someone looking to establish and maintain a climate career. If the newsletter author has done a good job, you might not need to read any deeper, or you may need to look further into the subjects that have been discussed.

You should spend the majority of your time building Level 2 knowledge.

Level 3: Specialist Domain of Interest

The specialist domain of interest represents the specific area you are targeting for your climate career. For example, if Level 2 (general domain) is renewable energy, Level 3 (specialist domain) might be battery storage.

Here we’re going to use those Level 2 newsletters as a jumping-off point and go directly to the source, whether it be an industry report or government regulation, and read it in full. This third level is your “expertise” that’s too specialized for a general audience but appropriate within your vertical.

You should spend only a relatively small amount of  time building Level 3 knowledge. But keep in mind there is a different weighting depending on your target job function. For example, if you’re aiming for a business development role with general public stakeholders, Level 2 may be even more significant than suggested here; if you’re aiming for research, Level 3 may be more prominent.

Academic Qualifications

If you’re currently studying, or are a recent graduate, be mindful of how your academic learning maps onto these three levels of climate knowledge. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not simple and will depend entirely on the nature of the qualification.

For example, let’s say you have taken an environmental science undergraduate degree. Even such a specific example might look different in different institutions, but it’s possible that this degree could give you an outsized Level 1—and possibly even Level 3—knowledge, while skipping over Level 2 (which we give  weight to here not because it is “better” knowledge, but because we’re orienting toward a career).

As a counter-example, if you’ve done a certificate in one of the sustainability reporting standards, it’s possible to have excellent Level 2 knowledge—assuming your general domain was sustainability reporting—while having very little Level 1 or 3 knowledge.

Don’t get too caught up with the specifics of this model for thinking about climate knowledge: it’s intended as a flexible thinking tool to arrange your time and effort. If it’s useful to you, great; if not, just be aware of developing the right type of climate knowledge for the right situation.


About the Author

Joseph Gelfer is the founder of Ecotopian Careers, which helps people in mid-career transition to green jobs. He is also the convener of the Work and Careers group at Climate Coaching Alliance and an En-ROADS Climate Ambassador. Sign up for his free Ecotopian Careers weekly newsletter and check out his online course, How to Make a Mid-Career Transition to a Green Job. Follow him on LinkedIn here.

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