Why climate and sustainability professionals need to take the next step in our evolution

Companies, cities, counties, states and universities are setting "moonshot" goals in response to unprecedented global attention to the urgent wake-up call for climate and sustainability. We have seen an exceptional change in the magnitude of aspirational targets, but the climate change and sustainability professionals have not evolved at the same rate.

In the past few years, thousands of business leaders, government officials and university presidents have committed their organizations to substantial greenhouse gas emissions reductions, climate action planning and sustainability initiatives. Increasingly, we’re seeing substantial, multi-year goals informed by calls to action from the world’s leading science bodies. Big, long-term goals are no longer the exception — but we don’t really know how we’ll get there.

Yes, we need to aggressively pursue substantial advances in technology, but also substantial advances in the professions that support achieving these aspirations. We need informed, competent — and agile — climate and sustainability professionals that can drive positive forward traction and lead the "unprecedented transformation" that is critically important in the next 10 years.

The scope of our needs and ambition is disproportionate to the workforce’s ability and the authority of the change agents tasked with leading these efforts. If the IPCC report is calling for unprecedented transformation in order to slow climate change, how can we possibly make that happen in the current state of our field of practice?

Elevating our stature

While climate change and sustainability professionals have increased in number and compensation over the past 10 years, isn’t it time that our field took the next evolutionary step into the executive suite? Valutus recently conducted research that found virtually no chief sustainability officers in Fortune 500 companies that actually were designated officers in their companies. ACCO’s examination of CDP responses in 2013 also found no such instances.

In the public sector, the city of Miami Beach is one of only a handful of cities whose resilience officer is actually an assistant city manager. Among the 600-plus signatories of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, the university with an executive leading sustainability or climate change action in both operations and academics is the exception, not the rule. These professions are not where they need to be if we are to achieve these aspirational goals in business, government and academia.

The journey to the executive suite will not come easily. Historically, environmental professionals have been seen as cost centers in their organization. Early climate and sustainability efforts were perceived similar to compliance regimes, frequently resulting from stakeholder pressures or prospective regulation.

In order to take that step in the executive suite, our field will need to demonstrate the value it can bring to the highest levels of the organization, and the members of the field will need to exemplify that capacity. Simply put, we’re not there yet. But there’s no reason we couldn’t be.

Workforce capacity

Earlier this year, ACCO concluded a three-year research project contracted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to assess workforce capacity in critical infrastructure sectors to engage in climate preparedness. While past research projects had examined governance and practice in higher education institutions, government or corporate entities, this one created the opportunity to look at practices and barriers across all sectors.

Surprisingly, despite the substantial increase in initiatives addressing climate change, sustainability and resilience across sectors, we found the same barriers in 2019 that existed in 2009. There are no best practices or consistent organizational structures with respect to where the climate change, sustainability and/or resilience leadership role(s) reside in an organization — even within the same sector.

Perhaps even more interesting was the revelation that there were virtually no distinctions between performance expectations, job qualifications and continuing education requirements for individuals serving in leadership roles compared to individuals supporting leadership. Overwhelmingly, those we interviewed indicated that competing priorities, lack of technical and behavioral skills and lack of best practices were major problems that needed to be overcome.

Understanding critical requirements

Over all, this indicates a glaring capability gap required to meet the demands of large-scale climate change and sustainability commitments in the public and private sectors. For years, organizations have assigned responsibility to their sustainability teams without having a clear understanding of what would be required to successfully undertake this role. This is no longer an acceptable position.

For example, in 2009, President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13514, which called for the assignment of the "senior sustainability officer" role within federal agencies. That individual  ultimately was responsible for overseeing the sustainability requirements of his or her agency. It took five more years for a subsequent executive order directing the Federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to consider establishing the occupation of sustainability and climate change leadership.

Six months later, OPM leaders were leaning toward defining the senior sustainability officer as a technical expert. It was not considering the obvious management and leadership skills or stature needed.

Earlier this summer, a senior executive at the Society for Human Resource Management indicated that their members were similarly under the impression that climate change and sustainability were merely disclosure issues. That the HR profession would fail to recognize the substantial systems thinking, life-cycle assessment, risk management and economic impact skills that are key to the success of our field is a clear indicator of what we need to overcome. There is a clear lack of understanding of what is required.

Closing the gap

Clearly, the status quo has to change; leaders in the climate change and sustainability profession must be seen as critical and influential executives in their organizations. Can we imagine and create a state of the profession where our senior-most leaders have substantial authority in their organizations, are well-compensated and appropriately resourced?

The challenge at hand is that aspects of climate change and sustainability competencies need to be formally written into job descriptions and performance expectations for crucially important occupations in finance, risk management, energy, facilities, planning and civil engineering. Without that understanding, we can’t expect significant progress in developing better data, decision-support resources and standardized practices and methodologies. These are crucial evolutionary steps needed to take to ensure we can deliver on the moonshot goals that many of us believe are critical to maintaining life on this planet.

It is time for the professionals to come together and define what we need out of ourselves and the next generation. The skills of sustainability and climate change professionals cut across the silos of traditional organizational functions and must be clarified and defined. The critical "soft skills" of business management and coalition building they will need cannot be ignored, nor can areas such as risk management and economic impact assessment.

ACCO and ISSP are working together to tackle these challenges. Our two organizations have overlapping interests recognize the importance of bringing professionals together to invest in the future of their fields. We have developed industry gold standards for the professional body of knowledge in these fields and the first consensus-driven credentials that allow professionals to clearly demonstrate their qualifications.

As has been the case in other occupations that have gone through rapid evolutions, we can achieve our grand goals only by coming together as professionals and as people. We have to unite as a community of practice. We have to develop a cohesive voice advocating for members of our professions, and for integrating skills into other professions. We need to establish clear signals on professionalism, as well as practice standards.

Next month, ACCO and ISSP, in collaboration with Practice Greenhealth, Second Nature, Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, The Sustainability Consortium, Wildlife Habitat Council and the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, will host the first Global Congress for Climate Change & Sustainability Professionals, in Chicago. GreenBiz’s Joel Makower (an ISSP Hall of Fame inductee), John Davies and Bob Langert will have visible roles at this event, where seasoned practitioners from industry, government and academia will come together to participate in facilitated discussions aimed at elevating the stature of our professions, integrating our practices into other professions, advancing data and tools, and securing our collective role in leading and supporting social good.