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Ask HN: IT jobs fighting against climate catastrophe?
63 points by axelZ 45 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 92 comments
I'm very passionate to fight the climate catastrophe. Unfortunately my current e-commerce job has nothing to do with it. The best I can do outside my personal behavior is to donate money to some organizations. Are there any IT jobs at companies that are more aligned with my passion? Any idea on how to find them? Most of the companies I found don't seem to need Software Engineers / SysAdmins. I'm living in Germany and would happily do full-remote work.

This question pops up quite regularly on HN. I am always giving the same answer. We, HN crowd, presented with a problem tend to reach for a technical solution. Unfortunately, climate change is not an engineering problem, it's a political problem. IT will not solve it. The best we, as engineers, can do is the same as for anyone else - step out of our comport zone and join a climate movement. Extinction Rebellion is my favorite. You can choose your own poison.

I would argue the opposite, that its mainly a technical problem that has been coopted by a political movement.

The technical problem should be (roughly), how can we continue to enjoy our lives and the standard of living we have achieved, and continue to bring more of the world to that level, in a way that is sustainable long term. There are lots of promising routes to making this happen, and we have already seen lots of progress towards reducing environmental impact.

But there are people that want to move backwards, to reduce our standard of living, to reduce our freedom to make our own choices, and to enforce some kind of forced mediocrity that will help ration our natural resources. I reject this (and weaker versions of it) and believe there is more to be gained by focusing on progress than on telling people what to do.

This is the best summary of why we're so well headed to a catastrophe. It seems that be definition, you won't accept any reduction of your standard of living. What if there's no way around it?

Your standard of living relies on exploiting amounts of energy equivalent to several hundred slaves per person. That amount of energy can't be found in renewable sources only.

How much of a slave master am I? https://jancovici.com/en/energy-transition/energy-and-us/how...

> That amount of energy can't be found in renewable sources only.

1.) overall humanity is still very inefficient at extracting productivity & comfort from energy. e.g. there is no inherent reason why buildings should need any energy flow to stay at a comfortable temperature. GP did not argue against reducing energy needs but against trying to make people reduce their quality of life.

2.) even at the current consumption I'm not so sure that 10Bn people could not be sustained. there's a hell of a lot of energy incident by the sun, it's just a matter of storing it where we have scaling issues. a whole bunch of battery tech ideas could help with that.

Overall I don't think we're that far from mass producing net energy positive houses (solar roof + industrial battery + near perfect isolation through e.g. low pressure zone in a double wall system). Inhabitants could either sell their energy on the market or use it for their transport needs.

The arrogance of software engineers to believe that a few joules saved would make a difference. Humanity can spread to the stars and we still won't make a significant dent in the overall entropy changes in the universe even after billions of years. Energy consumption is a false herring for moral superiority and control. Replace the traditional Church with environmental activists and you have your modern climate change politics. Climate change is primarily due to increased heat capture caused by emissions. We have plenty of ways to generate clean energy without harmful emissions, nor excuses for social control.

Energy consumption as it relates to the generation of latent heat at the planet surface is not a red herring though.

> I would argue the opposite, that its mainly a technical problem that has been coopted by a political movement.

I don't see it. You just deploy some existing technology that is slightly more expensive upfront but cheaper in the long run. You turn off old technology that is not compatible with the goal. You can make the technology cheaper by simply putting more money into it and deploying it more. There is literally nothing left to do other than doing it. Power generation technology like nuclear, solar, wind will get cheaper the more you deploy. You cannot just wait it out and hope that it gets cheaper on its own. It gets cheaper precisely because you keep deploying more and more and more.

The same applies to electric cars. As you keep deploying them newer cars will be cheaper or have greater capabilities.

One day people will wonder why we even insisted on the old way of doing things. It's purely about cooperation and thus politics.

>But there are people that want to move backwards, to reduce our standard of living, to reduce our freedom to make our own choices, and to enforce some kind of forced mediocrity that will help ration our natural resources. I reject this (and weaker versions of it) and believe there is more to be gained by focusing on progress than on telling people what to do.

Obviously, progress is the only answer if we want a solution for everyone. There are lots of people who simply are indifferent. If you give them a good enough compromise they are going to switch over to your side. If you tell them that they are bad people and should change their behavior they are going to do nothing, find reasons to tell you that you are wrong or just join the opposite side because they hate being criticized for something that they do not have influence over and now get to criticize you in return.

It’s like if your home is flooding and you ask your family/roommate to help but you decide against it because instead of just doing it for their own sake of survival, they charge you an hourly rate and it’s just too expensive, so you both die.

We always talk about money but money won’t mean anything without the people to use it.

I am personally willing to devote part of my time to work for free towards building a solution that is being ignored just because someone said it’s too expensive.

You know what will drastically reduce your standard of living?

Climate change.

Sure, it would be lovely to find a solution that would require no sacrifice from anyone. That is what everyone wants.

It doesn't exist.

If it did, do you think people have just been ignoring it? When it is exactly what everyone wants?

No. Sacrifice is required, to avoid an even greater sacrifice in the future. And it is time for you to step up and take responsibility, and act towards that end goal.

> It doesn't exist. ... No. Sacrifice is required ...

That is a very myopic view.

No, what is myopic is demanding that a problem be solved without you having to put any effort into it yourself. To demand that things carry on as normal in the face of oncoming catastrophy.

That is myopic in the extreme.

Not sure who you're responding to that advocated for that. But the closest I can see is the original post suggesting the that people join a protest group. Lobbying the government to force others to behave as you want, and not proposing an actual solution, is pretty close to demanding that a problem be solved without putting any effort in yourself.

> But there are people that want to move backwards, to reduce our standard of living

> It doesn't exist.

This has been decided? By who? When? Can you prove this?

It's more the case that as Carl Sagan said "If you're making an extraordinary claim you should have extraordinary evidence".

So where is the extraordinary evidence for Climate Crisis? People have been claiming this or similar for the last 30 years giving us deadlines that have been repeatedly passed. So what's different now? nothing as far as I can see.

I agree that we could be more creative in approaching the quality-of-life/resource-use balance (including in favour of improving quality of life). However, we could have started that conversation and research back in the 1970s when the science started to tell us we needed to. But we didn’t. This is absolutely a problem of politics and power above a technical problem.

I think that you're leaving out economic factors - when better and cleaner technology becomes cheaper than the alternatives, politics becomes largely irrelevant. And to get to that point economically, you need technological innovation.

Not gonna happen.

This is a popular idea, I think people are a bit deluded by the fact that Wind+Solar got so cheap. Don't get me wrong: This is great. We'll likely be able to get rid of fossil-based electricity simply due to costs (even though it's too slow).

But it's simply not plausible that you will find a cheaper technology in every area.

Finding a way to fly a plane without carbon emissions is a challenge to begin with. Doing it cheaper than with kerosene - there isn't even a faint of an idea how to do that.

In some areas like cement the only option seems to be carbon capture and storage. There's no way whatsoever that a cement plant + a ccs plant is cheaper than a cement plant alone.

Thats why there is a need for a global Carbon Tax/Pricing System. This would internalise the cost of pollution and make engineering solution more important from a market perspective.

Why not simply make it illegal to exploit fossil fuels? The result is the same, except that making it illegal has a certain result, as opposed to a tax that is less direct. Of course it's very hard to make it illegal, but I don't think it's easier to enforce a carbon tax that actually works.

Making things illegal is prone to micromanagement. If there are ten thousand industries dependent on CO2 emissions how are you going to pick the non essential ones and only ban the ones that are truly bad for the environment? What's the likely hood that officials will simply misjudge a specific industry? (maybe even on purpose?)

The reasoning behind the carbon tax is simply that every participant can make a decision for themselves. "Do I need CO2 emissions to run my business?" "Does a different business have a greater need to emit CO2 emissions?" This is the type of thinking one is trying to encourage with the introduction of a CO2 tax.

Making things illegal is roughly equivalent to putting a very high price on them. A steadily increasing carbon tax is the economically feasible way of stopping extraction.

It doesn't need to happen in every area. It just needs to happen in enough areas that the carbon output is brought below a threshold that the environment can safely absorb.

Sure, maybe you can't make efficient electric planes. But maybe you can replace 90% of short range flights with trains and make electric planes unnecessary.

> It doesn't need to happen in every area. It just needs to happen in enough areas that the carbon output is brought below a threshold that the environment can safely absorb.

That is actually a misconception. There is no such threshold, at least not for carbon dioxide (it's a bit more complicated for methane and some other greenhouse gases). It accumulates in the atmosphere.

There is some uptake of co2 by natural processes, but that's roughly relative to the amount you put in. If you put in more co2 the concentration of co2 in the atmosphere will keep growing.

The hope is that we buy ourselves additional time to figure out the truly difficult problems.

> In some areas like cement the only option seems to be carbon capture and storage. There's no way whatsoever that a cement plant + a ccs plant is cheaper than a cement plant alone.

Yet, improving the cement plant and the carbon capture one makes it much easier for a government to intervene and require zero emissions.

We'll get aviation and steel production to use synthetic fuels in due time, and we will have plastics produced from captured CO2. Yes, those are more expensive, but nobody is saying that the solution should be left entirely to the market. But neither of them make any sense right now, and that's because the technology isn't there.

That's a lot harder to do when fossil fuels benefit from massive subsidies.

> is not an engineering problem, it's a political problem

That's a political choice, and it doesn't have to be that way. You think it's a hard political problem because we'd have to make very hard choices (reducing quality of life) with the currently deployed technical solutions.

We could push along the R&D levels tech that's already researched, just not deployed (renewables and storage for their intermittent production like li-ion utility scale batteries), and research more some stuff that's barely researched (next gen nuclear, fusion).

Having palatable tech solutions would mean not making unpalatable political choices.

Having palatable tech solutions would mean not making unpalatable political choices.

The only answer is to tackle the issue from both a technological point of view and a political one. Waiting for someone to find a tech solution, and then failing to find one, will make things so much worse.

Eh, I somewhat agree, but when it comes to engineering, there are more engineering fields than software. Civil engineers, for example, are one of the top 3 (my opinion obviously) of disciplines that can have a significant good impact on the environment. Bio, chem and even mechanical engineers can have a good sized impact as well. Software engineers... yea, not so much.

For example, when it came to the ozone layer, it was chemical engineers that led to alternatives to the aerosols of the time that allowed the Montreal pact to even be feasible. The ozone is still on track for full healing in 2060 because of that.

I just think tech folks in general have a hubris problem. To "solve poverty and gov control on currency", 37 megatons of extra co2 gets pumped in the air: https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption. Let alone all the companies claiming to make the world a better place by harvesting private data and controlling what content the public is allowed to see or agree with.

It's a shame because mechanical and electronic engineers developed light bulbs (LED) that used a quarter of the power compared to traditional (incandescent).

It's also mechanical engineers that are developing better renewable energy generation.

So yes, engineers can help the environment. Most here are just the wrong kind of engineer that can actually do more than hold a glittery poster board saying, "I'm upset".

I switched out of dev to work in the concrete industry so I can do my part in cutting unnecessary co2 emissions.

It's not like political organizations don't use IT. They have websites and databases.

More generally, political solutions are important but technical solutions are necessary too.

Bill Gates' new book goes into this in detail, with the concept of a "green premium," the percentage cost increase of going with a carbon-neutral solution in place of whatever we're using now. In some areas of the economy, the premium is quite large, and finding new tech to shrink it would help a lot.

Technical solutions won't make many green solutions cheaper than fossil in the foreseeable future, so we still need politics, but making the expensive stuff more reasonable makes the political task easier.

All problems are engineering problems. In this case we haven't engineered a culture with enough people of engineering mindset at the top.

To say that something is a political problem is an empty statement, it attempts to pass the buck. Politics is decision making, as is coding. If we had decision makers who understood things like how the natural world works, we would have fewer problems with it.

I am even allowing a very broad definition of what engineering is: understand some dynamic well enough to intervene in it.

Climate change will require a combination of technological advancement, policy change, and market incentives and alignment for it to be fully change. We need to make green energy cheaper to use than other forms of energy.

It's very much a technical issue. The scale of energy utilization is one of the defining characteristics of how technologically advanced a civilization is. The total power output of the sun is 3.8 x 10^26 watts and our total power consumption is about 1.5 x 10^13 watts, which is about 0.000000000004% of sun's power output. As a civilization, we're still very undeveloped, almost non-existent.

Imagine designing an IT system for a dyson sphere when we can't even get websites consistent though

It’s a very big problem, in that it touches a lot of different sectors. One of those sectors is tech. There can be technical solutions to climate change; they are in the category “necessary but not sufficient.” There must ALSO be business and political solutions, but reducing wasted ocean traffic by 20%, for example, could have huge consequences.

I don't think this is an answer to their question though. They didn't ask your opinion what the problem is, or even how to solve it, but rather what companies are trying to do it. I'll add that there are plenty of organizations that aren't looking for a technical solution but still need technical people.

I disagree, partially. We, (and I mean you guys as I'm an amateur here), can help build tools to inform and help spread information.

Parse information in a way which helps people fighting climate change is helpful.

Climate change requires also a few technical problems to be solved. Jobs in the IT area are usually included in the chain.

Though, I also think joining a climate movement is very important.

We already have the solution: nuclear power.

The rest is the political problem of the anti-science attitude of one party in the US being spread to the rest of the world.

No, it's the result of traditional reactors being inextricably linked to nuclear weapons proliferation, and the huge cloud of fallout across Europe in the early 80s.

Would you be happy for Iran to build a fleet of dozens of nuclear reactors to replace its current fossil fuel consumption?

The massive cost and time overruns don't help its case. When is Hinkley Point C going to be finished?

What is the latest development on nuclear power? I tried to read about these recently, but maybe can you point me in the right direction?

Small reactors, they remove the main problem with nuclear power: huge reactors that no western country knows how to build any more. The largest projects we can build today are the size of a large office building. Anything bigger will be over budget and time.

What about safety and nuclear waste?

While I am also concerned about safety (there’s always something that can go wrong, and the energy density and the conversion factor from energy to risk are both very hazardous here), the waste is a surprisingly small issue: The actual quantity of material, thanks to the energy density of the fuel, is tiny and easily managed.

Interesting. How about the supply of the Uranium. As far as I know it is not renewable?

It’s not renewable, no. Exactly how much uranium is economical to extract isn’t clear, even before the last decade of tech development caused renewables to reduce to about 1/10th the price of nuclear.

My opinion is: keep any current reactors running while they’re in decent condition, but don’t bother trying to plan new reactors for electricity because PV is faster and cheaper to deploy even if you have to add LiIon batteries. (I’d be fine with making new reactors for big new cargo ships, but I believe someone tried something like that already and it didn’t work out).

I spent a few years working for a small environmental advocacy group in small-town USA. One thing you could do is branch out your skills and learn GIS, then offer that to small groups who are doing environmental advocacy.

These groups are crazy desperate for more people who know how to use GIS software, because there are needs for good mapping in almost every single aspect of the work they do. The issue is that anyone who is good enough at GIS to be useful can get a job elsewhere making 2-3x more money. Maybe they don't get to go help release a rehabbed sea turtle back into the ocean during their lunch break at that other job, but cash is king I guess. At my org we had an ex-high school history teacher working part time learning to use ArcGIS from youtube so we could present results of a bicycle infrastructure plan to local city councilpeople. For another project we paid a shit ton of money (like, more money than was responsible to spend for an org. of our size) for an architectural firm to basically come in with their intern who knows GIS and create maps with overlays of how much money the city would save with new stormwater infrastructure in key places.

Do you know where those org put their job offers or accept remote worker? I found that most org with gis needs or consultancy gis companies tends to be super small in size and scale making it hard for an outsider to be considered as a potential applicant. I am on the other side of the coin, 3y working with GIS and remote sensing in agriculture, environment and public health. I am having a hard time finding a job to stay in the field (because searching in another country with a different language).

Based on my experience, full-time positions just specializing in GIS are probably extremely rare for this type of organization - hence the desperate need for someone who is good at it. Nobody in those places has time to learn/maintain skills in something like that.

A small-to-medium sized nonprofit does not have the time/money resources to hire very many specialists at all - everyone is wearing multiple hats and learning to do things on the fly that they have never done before. As an example, in my role within the span of 2-3 weeks I went from graphic design invitations/menu for $250-a-plate dinner party, to literally running food and filling drinks at that same party while also taking pictures for social media and washing silverware for the chef, to patching together a transition to a new donation payment platform, then the next week I was designing a social media marketing campaign. It's a constant "all-hands-on-deck" at all times, and nobody has time to specialize in anything.

In the case of GIS needs, an organization like this might rely on an "advocate" (whose main job is to lobby elected officials) to do some of this work because they did one project with it in one class of their Public Administration grad program. In my experience, even our semi-retired secretary who did mostly bookkeeping was "punching above her weight" in job responsibilities.

That's why I suggested it as mostly a volunteer-type gig if one is truly passionate about using tech skills to help the environmental movement. If you want to work for one of those places you need to be more of a generalist, and accept that your passion of GIS might involve doing what should be a full-time job in 25% of your time at work.

Public Lab might be able to use you. Or move to New Orleans and throw a brick.

Most software engineers I've met in the climate science field are either scientific programmers or data scientists. If this is the type of job you like to do I think there are regular position openings in scientific institutions. My knowledge outside academia is limited

You need to checkout https://climateaction.tech. They've an active German presence and you could find myriad opportunities there.

This should be the top rated answer!

"We are a community of practice of tech workers that provides support and guidance for systemic change in our organisations and industries, to face the climate crisis."

One of the very lowest-hanging fruit for reducing emissions at the moment is bitcoin. It is burning 0.1% of the entire world's energy for doing barely anything at all.

Do all you can to make sure bitcoin is destroyed.

That's easy. Simply don't buy Bitcoin and tell everyone to not buy Bitcoin.

If you get a chance to take an action that would crash the price of bitcoin, do it.


> An exciting and ambitious job in a young company with horizontal hierarchies and flexible working hours awaits you. Here you will find a motivating environment where your ideas are welcome. In our dynamic team, you will be able to expand your practical knowledge and promote your personal development. You will get an insight into the growing renewable energy market and you will also be able to demonstrate your skills in the company's foosball table.

It's marketing speak but they do work in the sector and are expanding afaik.

And do fully remote work.

The First thing you should read is the research article by 80000hours: https://80000hours.org/problem-profiles/climate-change/

They link to this website with a few general options: http://worrydream.com/ClimateChange/

For more traditional jobs, I would look at:

- startups developing and marketing greener tech. (Tesla, Sonnen [1])

- publicly funded research organizations (Fraunhofer [2], MPG, universities)

- Established companies that are heavy polluters, but investing in becoming greener: Automotive [3], Energy sector, Concrete

[1] https://jobs.sonnen.de/job/Wildpoldsried-IT-Systemadministra...

[2] https://recruiting.fraunhofer.de/Vacancies/56493/Description...

[3] https://www.bosch.de/karriere/job/REF92958E-softwareentwickl...

To add to the advice that it's a political problem - you should think of ways of using your tech skills to provide leverage to campaigners. Build a proof of concept and approach NGOs and campaign organisations to see if they would sponsor you. There may also be PR firms with ethical agendas (if that's not a contradiction).

Some ideas off the top of my head - visualisation tools (mapping large offenders and their carbon footprints, tools for unearthing dirty money flows). Ways of reaching potential converts more effectively. Ways of linking people to green energy sources and products.

The 'greed camp' have been using tech very effectively to convince people nothing bad is happening. Use their own tactics against them.

An NGO that can afford to pay “software engineer” salaries is probably not doing as much good in the world as they claim. There’s no money in meaningfully addressing the climate crisis — only in tinkering around the edges and pretending.

There is this company which was posted to the HN Who’s Hiring thread recently: https://youtu.be/LDJ_QdUaap4

Anything ag tech is going to be high impact in the next two decades.

I've aligned my side projects to be climate focused.

I spend a lot of time and money building a website to encourage people to pack less when they travel. My impact may be minimal, but I feel like I'm helping.

Some companies I found on my current search that are somewhat related to fighting climate change: - https://www.ecosia.org/ - https://klima.com/about/ - https://www.energy2market.io/

Buildings take up a major proportion of the carbon and energy budget. Consider contributing to EnergyPlus[0]:

> EnergyPlus is a whole building energy simulation program that engineers, architects, and researchers use to model both energy consumption and water use in buildings.

There are a ton of open issues...

[0] https://github.com/NREL/EnergyPlus

You should aim to grow out your e-commerce career. Companies like Amazon make the greatest difference to climate change as improved logistics benefits the entire supply chain. Mom and pop shops are great for romanticism and NYT hit pieces about the terrors of gentrification and white flight but their logistics are incredibly inefficient compared to efficiencies of scale offered by e-commerce. "Micro" low hanging fruit efforts like data visualization which these comment threads tend to favor make little difference. Grassroots won't solve climate change, you need changes in technologies that allow the emerging economies to no-strings-attached capture the value and benefits of economic growth without the side effects of pollution (that means convincing or forcing institutions like the World Bank/IMF to replace their onerous neoliberal funding requirements with only one: green technologies), you need systematic changes in federal policy, and you need restructuring of company operations to be more efficient. As a software engineer, the most effective thing that you can do is the latter.

I work for a sustainability startup in Berlin that is focussed on helping businesses analyze their carbon footprint to become neutral through reduction and offsetting.

We are looking for frontend (react), backend (python mostly), and data engineers.

If you're interested let me know how best to contact you!

VR - With good enough virtual reality everything in the world would just become a poor substitute. A high quality VR enabled world would see the end to most transport and production of commercial goods.

I've just learned that we will soon be hiring a couple more software engineers, though we are in the UK:


Nothing will change without strong incentive on the part of the elites. Unfortunately, it would be already deep in the catastrophe, when even them on their yachts will feel it.

I found my job at CarbonCure on the whoishiring thread. Sometimes we post here, but you can keep an eye on the careers page.

Fix some bugs - github.com/PecanProject


Yes, just close your eyes and ears to reality and pretend to be safe. It's the easy way to handle problems.

This is not reddit.

Can you provide more explanation?

It's not first time the experts make mistakes in their catastrophic predictions:


And let's not forget our dear Al-Gore saying the ice on the artic would be vanished by 2014 :)

Hmm, for long distance prediction it might be wrong, but for short term predictions, everything seems to get worse. Microplastics, trash in the ocean, warmer ocean, bees dying, etc.

Looks like Gore didn’t quite understand what he thought he was quoting when he said that: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2009/12/al_gore_trip...

Oh look, AEI cherry picking.

Avoid AWS and K8S.

Probably rule out activist EU stuff.

"that's not my job" x 1B

You are passionate about a "catastrophe" that doesn't exist: https://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2020/6/29/on-beha...

I'd be cautious about taking Shellenberger's conclusions as fact. He's not a climate scientist. His writings will basically lead to denialism rather than action and moderation [0]

For example he says to save the environment we should be producing more meat - this is in complete contrast to this 5 year Oxford University study [1].

This is a good summary (by a climate scientist) arguing against Shellenberger's claims.



[0] https://independentaustralia.net/business/business-display/m...

[1] https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2018-06-01-new-estimates-environme...

And here's a long list of failed apocalyptic predictions by scientists: https://cei.org/blog/wrong-again-50-years-of-failed-eco-poca...

Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman wrote that by 2005, it would become clear that the Internet's effect on the economy is no greater than the fax machine's.

Climate scientists can model the climate to a certain degree but they're not all-knowing oracles. They are not qualified to predict future societal collapses, wars or even famines. The idea that a gradual 2.0 °C temperature rise spread over decades would necessarily cause such things just doesn't pass the smell test.

I'm sorry but in the face of an overwhelming consensus amongst scientists I think we'll need more than a blog post full of unsupported claims if anybody is to reconsider their position.

Fascinating. They claim to have data from respectable sources and yet don't link them. They only link news stories of people talking about negative effects of climate change and an Amazon link to their book.

Well, for all we know it doesn't exist yet. I personally dislike the idea of calling it a catastrophe. It will drive large cultural shifts against our will.

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