The climate crisis is forcing a rethink among workers who feel their employers are part of the problem, and many are switching careers, at some personal cost, to fight for solutions. By Kurt Johnson.

Quitting the energy sector to fight climate change

Portrait image of a woman in a brown shirt and wide-brim hat standing in a forest.
Annica Schoo.
Credit: Stuart Cohen / Bottlebrush Media

James wasn’t long out of university when he started working as an engineer for energy giant Santos. He remembers feeling tremendous respect for the “high-stakes” work and technical prowess of his colleagues, but he also remembers his alarm over the climate crisis building, followed by the inescapable conviction that Santos’s core business was contributing to the problem.

“I saw it all with a growing sense of real, deep cynicism,” he says, asking not to use his real name.

James recalls becoming uneasy at a company-wide meeting where a senior executive was “seemingly bragging about influence over government and their success in getting CCS [carbon capture and storage] technology approved for carbon credits”.

The episode troubled James. He resolved to change the company from within, using online forums to raise concerns with fellow graduates about their employer’s contribution to emissions. As a junior, though, he says, “I was fighting against a brick wall.”

A week after the release of the International Energy Agency’s “Net Zero by 2050” road map report, James attended another company-wide meeting with a sense of optimism. As Santos had cited data from the IEA in its past climate reports, he was “really excited that this could drive actual change in the organisation”. But then, James remembers, senior management “effectively laughed at the report’s contents”, saying those who took it seriously were “a bunch of greenies”. He was horrified, as this “isolated anyone trying to make positive change”.

A week later, Santos stated in the media they would be key in delivering carbon capture and storage, and quoted the report that had been ridiculed. “You can’t pick and choose, mate,” James thought.

Soon after, he directly challenged another aspect of the company’s environmental performance. When there was no serious response, he resigned. (Santos declined to comment when approached regarding this article.)

In many ways James’s story is the climate quitter’s archetype – a sharpening awareness of the climate threat, mounting dissonance between this and their daily work, attempting change from within, until finally an epiphany that change is impossible and the ultimate decision: to quit.

All this can be part of a profound moral awakening, starting with a sense of personal culpability. “I was thinking, I am complicit in something here,” Annica Schoo recalls of her time working for the federal Department of the Environment and Energy. “I was not sleeping at night, and my heart was aching – there was just something about it that went against the core of who I am as a person.

“I believe in Australia’s democracy and all these things that made me the perfect little public servant,” she says. It was when she began working in the field that she witnessed firsthand the devastation of widespread land clearing. “We’d go out and see the beautiful bush, often see threatened species and then see the consequences of policy failure or political interference.”

Schoo was studying sociology and psychology at university. There, she learnt about the Milgram experiments conducted in the United States in the 1960s – a notorious study of obedience inspired by the revelations of the Holocaust, in which subjects were ordered to administer electric shocks to “patients”. The patients, who were actually actors, would scream as if in pain, and some feigned passing out. Subjects were told to continue shocking the patients and the vast majority obeyed. “I was in my 20s and pretty idealistic, and resolving to never be the person who continues to administer the electric shocks,” Schoo says. She quit and is now the lead environmental investigator at the Australian Conservation Foundation.

For Dimitri Lafleur, the catalyst was a screening of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth at his workplace, Shell. As a geologist, he was determined to push his employer to adopt a geothermal program. He worked hard, developed a proposal and pitched it to senior executives. After a hopeful start, a manager finally said the company was not going to invest in his project for the next 15 years, “although we fundamentally agree this is really important”. Lafleur responded that he wasn’t going to spend the next 15 years developing gas fields.

His exit strategy was to do a PhD. This was breaking out of his “golden cage”, but it meant a huge pay cut and losing his expat status, which left him with a sky-high tax bill. He’s philosophical about the shift: “Change is very difficult for humans in general.”

Lafleur became chief scientist at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, a shareholder advocacy and research organisation dedicated to holding companies such as his former employer to account.

ACCR has been energetic in its search for talent among fossil fuel’s defectors, with renowned climate quitter Alex Hillman – former Woodside employee, now carbon analyst – on its books. “Inside knowledge is a powerful tool when the stakes are so high,” says executive director Brynn O’Brien. “To have people within ACCR with deep knowledge of the fossil fuel industry – how they spin numbers and how they spin the public – has been critical in helping investors understand what actually goes on, on the inside.”

The pandemic was also a powerful catalyst for many people, says Clean Energy Council director of workforce development Dr Anita Talberg. “Covid has really made people reassess what their priorities are and how important their careers are in that,” she says.

There are signs that consciences are coming into play in the war for talent, particularly among graduates – a boon for green energy but a growing problem for fossil fuel companies. This year’s Global Energy Talent Index (GETI) report, which measures the temperament of energy workers around the world, found that, besides salary, there are two main reasons why energy workers change jobs: career progression and the industry or employer’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials.

In an address last year to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Western Australia, Minister for Resources Madeleine King observed, “There is a major problem in attracting and retaining skilled workers. A big barrier to attracting these workers is the attitude many young Australians hold towards the resources industry.” She suggested the game Minecraft could lure graduates into resources.

This isn’t a uniquely cynical suggestion. Image counts, explains Ryan Carroll, GETI publisher Airswift’s regional director for Australia and New Zealand. He says the US is already reportedly showing a five-to-one ratio of graduates gravitating to the renewables sector rather than heavy mining or oil and gas companies. “Everyone in renewables is a storyteller,” he says, urging his other customers in oil and gas to follow suit. “They are rebranding their position around their green credentials … what are the tack-ons they can do to greenify the business, change from them being the dark and dirty.”

Marketing by “fossil fuel enablers” seeks “to make them indispensable to our community”, says Polly Hemming, director of the climate and energy program at The Australia Institute. A core goal of greenwashing is to maintain a social licence, which allows companies to continue operations, including attracting and retaining talent. “Tack-ons” can also mean focusing on “cheaper” aspects of ESG that are no threat to the core business. “Origin heavily emphasises its work on reconciliation; Ampol celebrates Glampol,” she says. “These are really important issues but these companies are essentially exploiting vulnerable people and co-opting them into becoming their defenders to improve their own image.”

Hemming is herself a climate quitter, having worked for the federal government on a climate certification scheme. Her epiphany came during the 2019-2020 bushfires, when her family was evacuated from the New South Wales South Coast.

Change is hard and climate quitting can mean more than just finding a new job – it can mean leaving a whole career behind. “There are many layers of comfort zones you step outside of,” explains Nicole Wyche, who worked in Finland’s mining sector, then WA’s Department of Mines, before quitting to become the World Wildlife Fund’s industry decarbonisation manager for the steel sector. After decades building contacts and developing a specific skill set, it’s as if she is beginning again, only months into her new job.

“You feel like you’re running very fast but skidding on the mat,” she says. But while it’s taken time to find her footing in this new terrain, she says she brings a fresh perspective as a result.

It’s a common theme among climate quitters to say that, despite this challenge, it was a “privilege” to act according to one’s values. That big step requires a financial safety net and so it may not be available to many who depend on an uninterrupted pay packet.

Only after a long pause did Dimitri Lafleur answer what advice he would give to someone thinking of climate-quitting: “You have to look in the mirror and ask, ‘Why am I here? Why am I doing what I’m doing? Is it actually contributing to a solution?’ And a lot of people would answer with ‘I’m not really sure’ or ‘I don’t think so’ – and in that case I think change would be really good.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Climate quitters".

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