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Why I Quit My Job to Study Climate Change at King’s

Burning trees

Guest writer Maddy Evans explains her decision to re-enter higher education as a mature student.

They say Jim Hanson ‘gave up his career’ to become a climate activist, but that isn’t quite right. He was and is a physicist, but he decided that the best use of his skills and knowledge was to help people understand and plan for the approaching climate emergency. More and more people have now realised that this is a rational way to build a career.

For me, it suddenly became obvious that there was a huge and growing gap between the reality of transformational change due to global warming and a work-life that was ‘business as usual’. The company thought ‘sustainability’ was an activity for a few earnest members of staff in a little meeting room once a fortnight.

Coming back to King’s College London (KCL) to take the Climate Change, Environmental Science and Policy MSc was my response to this realisation. Having worked for 20-plus years and reached my fifties, I really wanted to know why, despite all the evidence, the reports, the conferences and the weather statistics, our everyday life was hardly affected. What I have learned is that it really is hard to rapidly change the ‘normal’ in any society, although it can and does slowly change all the time.

I also learned that although there are many concerned and energetic people, the majority of people have other priorities and interests: they don’t find their ‘tribe’ with the climate activists and they will never be on the streets protesting or even writing to their MP to ask for change. Nonetheless, and much more positively, they will not oppose change that is seen as rational and fair – just look at the acceptance of the charge on plastic carrier bags in supermarkets.

Helpfully the current level of understanding that there is a problem with carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuels is also high, although it can and does cause anxiety if there is no obvious way to fix it. The actions of the climate activists are already supported passively by hundreds of thousands of people across the country who cheer on Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion, just as there are large numbers who find them annoying, scary or childish.

What a big proportion of the population wants is leadership from government on sustainability. They need policy decisions and legislation that are sensible and applied fairly to make the changes we need; they need regulations on single use items; they need support for renewable energy and energy-saving; they need programs that train tradespeople to fit and repair electric heat pumps and to service electric vehicles, and certification that guarantees good service levels. These are all examples of policy areas that we all need to deliver sustainable industries and a sustainable way of life.

The good news is that the government has said it is taking this seriously. They have run consultations on most of the big issues, covering everything from farm subsidies to wholesale electricity markets and home energy certificates. Most of these consultations are complete, the recommendations are listed and the reports are published, often on gov.uk. The report on ending sales of fossil fuel vehicles came out in 2021, with a target date of 2030, but there is no legislation for this yet. The original large-scale trials of direct carbon capture were cancelled by David Cameron’s government in 2015, shortly before the results were due to be announced, and now a new consultation has just been announced in 2023.  Finally, and frustratingly, five years after Michael Gove’s  promised a bottle deposit plan, the report on a bottle deposit scheme consultation came out in 2023. But many types of containers are excluded and the legislation has yet to be introduced. So, what next?

Change depends on these recommendations being put into effect – so far this government (as well as earlier ones) have been asleep at the wheel on this. Perhaps they think that writing the report can replace taking action? They are treating consultation like buying a gym membership or a Peloton bike, owning a shelf of unread self-help books or living with an abandoned piece of DIY. Just look at the latest proposal for a new ‘competition to find the best small nuclear reactor’, eight years after George Osborne’s original competition to develop the technology. If we are really in haste to deliver energy security, why don’t they support Rolls Royce (who already have a design based on submarine technology) by placing an initial order so that they can build the real manufacturing facilities. The technology can be perfected with the new design competition running in parallel – why keep waiting?

In these circumstances, we will only see action after a change in government. We need representatives who see the urgency of change; who value the careful, detailed and scientifically supported advice that exists in their own consultation reports. Voting for a better government may be the biggest action that we can take – that we have to take – to get the response to the climate crisis that we desperately need. We need to persuade people to vote, to vote for candidates and parties who are prepared to take this seriously and act with some urgency.

Going back to Jim Hanson, or even myself, it is quite possible to do any job in a sustainable way. If your skills do not include painting a boat pink, gluing yourself to an oil terminal, planting trees or standing as a Green Party candidate, it’s not a problem. In fact, you are going to be most effective doing what you are good at and interested in being good at, rather than trying to be something you are not. A revolution doesn’t need everyone at the vanguard.

We can all bring our own ethics and principles into our work. We need good diversity policies and fair opportunities, a safe and legal working environment. I hope that most people would now call out cases of sexism, racism or working condition violations. It’s possible to stand up for sustainable working practices too.

On a bigger scale, look for places to use your skills in a way that really chimes with your own values. There are forward-facing industries such as renewable energy and backward-facing ones like oil exploration. In any transitional period, the worst jobs will attract the highest pay-outs – but be careful what they are buying. They may be asking you to throw your own professional future into the bargain.

When I first graduated as an engineer, I had a good job offer from the UK nuclear industry, which I didn’t accept – over the next 20 years the industry stagnated, until they slowly started to build up again when I was closer to retirement. It would have been a rather dull career.

Interesting, forward-looking jobs promise more opportunities, more interesting and sympathetic colleagues and a real sense that you are part of the solution, not the problem. But remember that not every job advertisement that includes all these wonderful words is really going to deliver on them. It’s sensible to be a bit sceptical of marketing and to watch out for greenwashing.

I am lucky that I had the resources and support to follow my heart this late in life and to study a subject that I find endlessly fascinating – if endlessly scary too. I am looking for every opportunity to combine my skills and interests; to live and work according to the principles of sustainability; to help make changes that really matter. If it won’t let me to do that, then I’m simply not interested.

Maddy Evans

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