Business Administration

The 7 Highest-Paying Careers in Climate Change and Sustainability

The 7 Highest-Paying Careers in Climate Change and Sustainability
Nearly every U.S. state saw an increase in clean energy jobs in 2018, equating to roughly 110,000 net new jobs for a growth rate of 3.6 percent. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly January 21, 2020

As it turns out, most opportunities to simultaneously do good for the planet and your bank account exist in science and management fields. To land them, you’ll need to have advanced levels of education and in-depth, specialized experience.

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Over the past several decades, the U.S. has slowly chipped away at its goals to transition into a more environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient economy. It’s a move that’s pushed companies to adopt large-scale energy-efficiency measures, households to switch to solar-driven power and electric and hybrid cars, and government agencies to support sweeping measures to reduce the country’s longstanding dependence on fossil fuels. And jobs—in solar and wind installation, environmental engineering, green architecture, among other areas—have grown in the marketplace to meet increasing demand.

According to a 2019 analysis of energy jobs data by the national nonpartisan business group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), nearly every U.S. state saw an increase in clean energy jobs in 2018, equating to roughly 110,000 net new jobs for a growth rate of 3.6 percent. Another report from the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) indicates that 611,000 Americans were employed in zero-emission technology industries, including renewables and nuclear in 2019.

In many cases, these sectors are rapidly outpacing the remainder of the U.S. economy and job growth, creating a green job to suit virtually every interest, skill set, and educational background. And while many professionals don’t go into sustainability jobs for the money, in some areas, their work can open doors to six-figure pay.

Most opportunities to simultaneously do good for the planet and your bank account exist in science and management fields as opposed to those in social sciences or humanities. Naturally, entry-level positions have lower starting pay than positions higher on the management or decision-making chain. What’s more, those in this chain are typically required to have advanced levels of education and in-depth, specialized experience.

Chief Sustainability Officer

__Annual median pay: $189,600

  • What they do: A relatively new position within the U.S. corporate sphere, chief sustainability officers (CSOs) are responsible for monitoring their organization’s environmental impact while strategizing ways to improve it. Additionally, chief sustainability officers may be tasked to create, develop, and manage sustainability policies and programs in line with both their employers’ corporate objectives and government-mandated environmental regulations.
  • How to become one: Although education and training requirements vary widely by position and industry, most CSO candidates have specialized degrees like a master of business administration (MBA) degree with a sustainability concentration, a master’s in energy, or a master’s in sustainability management. They also tend to have a considerable amount of work experience in their field.


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Natural Science Manager

__Annual median pay: $123,860

  • What they do: Though the responsibilities of natural sciences managers vary with the field of science or the industry they function within, their work tends to encompass the supervision of scientists, technicians, and other support personnel in labs and corporate spaces. In the realm of sustainability, these activities may be aimed at efforts like developing energy-efficient manufacturing processes or working with government agencies to improve land utilization without negatively impacting soil and water.
  • How to become one: A master’s degree or Ph.D. in a natural science discipline or a related field, such as engineering, is usually required. Alternatively, because of this position’s high level of administrative tasks, candidates may also consider an MBA or a Ph.D. in natural sciences that incorporates business management courses.

Environmental Lawyer

__Annual median pay: $120,910

  • What they do: Environmental lawyers specialize in legal matters pertaining to natural resources like air, land, and water. They lobby for balanced regulations regarding pollution and materials handling, fight to protect biodiversity, agriculture, and ecosystems, and confront issues of waste management. They may also serve in consulting roles, helping companies become greener and drafting business practices aimed at sustainability. Many are employed by private law firms that specialize in either a niche environmental issue or dedicate a specialized division to environmental law. Others work for nonprofit organizations that serve smaller clients like environmental lobbyists and activists against large economic interests or government.
  • How to become one: Prospective environmental lawyers must complete a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) program and obtain professional licensure to enter the field. Some may opt for <a href=”
    target=”_blank”>law programs that offer a concentration on environmental law or environmental policy.

General Operations Manager

__Annual median pay: $100,930

  • What they do: General operations managers who specialize in sustainability can be found in private and public sector organizations like power and utility companies, waste stream facilities, as well as municipal government agencies. Whereas chief sustainability officers determine environmentally sustainable operating strategies for an organization, general operations managers are responsible for putting them into effect. Depending on their employer, their duties may include managing programs designed to reduce waste or improve energy efficiency, overseeing their organization’s reporting process on sustainability, as well as ensuring their organization meets all applicable environmental guidelines. They also help spur change by encouraging internal and external stakeholders to adopt and practice environmentally conscious procedures.
  • How to become one: Some positions may require a bachelor’s degree while others will need an MBA or an MS in Energy Management or a master’s degree related to fields like environmental science, urban planning, and <a href=”
    target=”_blank”>public administration. A significant amount of relevant management experience is also necessary.


__Annual median pay: $94,110

  • What they do: From ocean tides and trade winds to pressure systems and phases of the moon, there is a myriad of systems influencing Earth’s long-term weather patterns and ultimately, it’s climate. The study of this relationship is called climatology, with climatologists known as the atmospheric scientists who specialize in this field. Many climatologists find work with academic institutions along with a range of private companies, government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and emergency management offices. Some may use their research on historic weather conditions to forecast trends in climatic conditions like changes in temperature or a difference in regional weather conditions to advise on environmental policy or agricultural projects. Others may pursue teaching and independent opportunities in research at colleges and universities.
  • How to become one: While candidates with a bachelor’s degree in climatology qualify for entry-level jobs in the field, work at government and private institutions generally requires a master’s degree in climatology, meteorology, or atmospheric science. Those aspiring to pursue roles in academia will need a Ph.D. in a similar subject area.


__Annual median pay: $91,130

  • What they do: Geoscientists study the composition, structure, and other physical aspects of the earth to understand how it was formed, the processes involved, and how it’s changing. The field is broad, with some working with extraction companies and private engineering services to locate and develop commercial reserves of natural resources. Others may specialize in areas like seismology, volcanology, environmental protection, land reclamation, and oceanography, and seek out roles at environmental consulting companies or within state or federal government.
  • How to become one: Although it’s possible to start a career in geosciences with just a bachelor’s degree, many employers look for candidates with a master’s in geoscience or a Ph.D. in a geosciences realm such as geophysics, petroleum geology, or hydrogeology.

Environmental Engineer

__Annual median pay: $87,620

  • What they do: Environmental engineering is the branch of engineering that focuses on protecting the environment by reducing waste and pollution. In it, environmental engineers harness their expertise in engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry, and environmental laws to remedy environmental issues at the facility level. Whether devising solutions to issues like contaminated drinking water, acid rain, or ozone depletion, environmental engineers must be able to design, plan, and implement measures to identify pollution and public health hazards and create plans for remediating them. Those in this role typically work in public or private organizations that operate within the fields of engineering services and technical consulting, as well as local, state, and the federal government.
  • How to become one: Entry-level environmental engineering jobs require a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering or a related field such as civil, chemical, or general engineering. A master’s degree in environmental engineering can create a pathway for career advancement, including opportunities to teach at the university level and pursue research and development positions.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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