A little hope

July 13, 2023 by Bertrand Piccard

You can blame climate activists who see no future and stick their hands to asphalt, throw tomato sauce on chalkboards or get depressed by refusing to go to school and have children. The fact is, their behavior often reflects genuine desperation, and they see civil disobedience as the only possible response to the empty promises of our leaders. 

Let's try to treat the cause rather than criticize the symptom. In the face of feelings of powerlessness, the best remedy for eco-anxiety is to demonstrate that we can leave behind the status of victims of the past and become actors of change. Do young people know how much the ecological transition needs them? And even more so, that this transition won't happen without them? And why not? Because even if the work were undertaken today to eliminate all CO2 emissions, there wouldn't be the manpower to do it. Not enough qualified personnel to install solar panels and heat pumps, drill geothermal wells, renovate buildings, modernize the many polluting infrastructures and replace them with clean, efficient systems.

Education has sinned by presenting intellectual studies as superior to all others, by scorning manual professions and by failing to imagine the technical needs of the future. If our leaders are incapable of imagining the future, how can our citizens?

We must avoid the catastrophic situation in the UK, where the heat pump sector employed just 2,000 people in 2019, even though estimates had indicated the need for a workforce 75 times larger. Only recently, the British government announced ambitious plans to install 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. An admirable goal, but one that will not be achieved for lack of qualified personnel.

The European Commission has recognized this through the voice of its President, declaring 2023 the European Year of Skills, and stressing that the Union's transition efforts urgently require a "precise knowledge of staffing needs and how best to fill vacancies". Ambitious climate targets such as a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 could lead to the creation of 884,000 "green" jobs. In Switzerland, 52,000 jobs are needed to implement the Climate Law.

Some might say it's a bit late to be thinking about this, and I might agree if training were only aimed at younger people, but there are countless apprenticeship and even retraining opportunities for people already in the workforce. Training as a surface geothermal driller takes 11 weeks. But we still need to create the desire for this type of training and make it more attractive. I think we urgently need to put all these forward-looking professions under the umbrella of "Technician of the Future". We'd no longer be plumbers for heat pumps or roofers for solar panels, but Technicians of the Future. Isn't that more noble and rewarding? Employees want to find meaning in their jobs, to work for a company with a positive impact. This is the time to show them that it's possible.

Efficiency at every level; waste heat utilization; smart power grids; renewable energies; circular economy. These are just a few of the perfectly commercially viable industries in which new generations could find their place. We now need to create these industries so that workers recognize the ecological transition for what it is: an opportunity for renewal. For our economies, our education, our professional ambitions.

It is now possible for us to enable young people to shout "Solutions, solutions" instead of "Problems, problems". So let's do it!

 Bertrand Piccard

President of the Solar Impulse Foundation

*This article was originally published in Le Temps
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