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McKinney Climate Fellows apply green skills to lead climate response

Mar 28, 2024

Before embarking on careers in sustainability, members of the 2017 McKinney Climate Fellows program helped Indiana organizations make pro... Before embarking on careers in sustainability, members of the 2017 McKinney Climate Fellows program helped Indiana organizations make progress on their climate and environmental goals. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Resilience InstituteAs the global economy becomes greener in response to the threat of climate change, Indiana University is connecting students to the critical skills employers are seeking to meet sustainability targets.

Through innovative programs like McKinney Climate Fellows, IU students are seizing the opportunity to be sustainability leaders before they’ve even completed their degree. Nearly 200 fellows have helped Indiana organizations advance their climate and sustainability goals since the paid professional development program started in 2017, with projects spanning climate action planning, outreach and education, and climate risk assessment.

Early-career alumni of the program, administered by IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute and Integrated Program in the Environment, are hitting the ground running. About 75% are working in environmental and sustainability careers after graduation in roles as diverse as state and local government, private consulting, and data analytics.

Erin Lasher. Photo courtesy of Erin Lasher Erin Lasher. Photo courtesy of Erin Lasher

One of those McKinney Climate Fellows alumni is Erin Lasher, who graduated from IU Bloomington in December 2020 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in geography and environmental sustainability studies.

Today, Lasher works as a target validation manager with the Science Based Targets initiative, a London-based corporate climate action organization that enables companies and financial institutions worldwide to play their part in combating the climate crisis.

“Being a McKinney Climate Fellow is the reason that I’m on the path that I am,” Lasher said. “My entire career trajectory has come back to the valuable skills I picked up through the program that I would not have picked up otherwise.”

A sustainable skill set

In 2019, Lasher joined McKinney Climate Fellows to help her hometown of Evansville, Indiana, develop its first greenhouse gas inventory, a snapshot of all the heat-trapping gases released within the city over the course of a year. Greenhouse gas inventories establish a baseline for local governments to understand community sources of emissions — including emissions from transportation, industry, solid waste and more — and to identify strategies to reduce them.

https://docs.livewhale.com/decorative-images.html Erin Lasher, center, helped Evansville compile its first greenhouse gas inventory in 2019. Standing next to Lasher is Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke, left, and city staff member Crystal Harper. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Resilience Institute

To complete the inventory, Lasher collaborated with community stakeholders, gathered emissions data from disparate sources, and informed city leaders and residents about her findings. As an extension of these activities, Lasher also teamed up with local clean-energy enthusiasts to revive a solar education and cooperative buying program that resulted in 38 new solar installations in the city. The next year, Evansville built on Lasher’s work to develop its first climate action plan.

“I developed new technical skills, but also soft skills and just confidence in general,” Lasher said of her time with McKinney Climate Fellows. “It was one of the most rewarding things to come home and do this for my hometown.”

Upon graduation, Lasher waded into an uncertain job market at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She soon realized, however, that her Evansville experience had equipped her with a marketable, high-demand skill set.

In January 2021, Lasher became a greenhouse gas inventory specialist for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, helping the state environmental agency publish its first public account of Virginia’s emissions. In June 2022, she transitioned to the corporate sector, where she reviews businesses’ emissions inventories and climate targets. The practice is becoming increasingly common as countries adopt climate disclosure rules that require major companies to share information about their greenhouse gas emissions.

“Through reporting platforms and regulations, putting that data out there for anyone and everyone to use is super critical. It can definitely drive market demand and the shift to more sustainable practices,” Lasher said. “We’re working with all types of companies, from small businesses to global corporations. It’s just very rewarding to play a role in true commitment to making a difference at this scale.”

‘They’re all over the place’

A map of Indiana with pins showing the location of past McKinney Climate Fellows host organizations. In Indiana, nearly 100 businesses, local governments and nonprofit organizations have hosted IU students to help complete projects since McKinney Climate Fellows launched in 2017. Graphic courtesy of the Environmental Resilience Institute
In the U.S., demand for green jobs is set to increase more than 5% in the next five years, with some green careers projected to grow as much as 20%, according to WorkingNation. As more students and organizations join the McKinney Climate Fellows network, it’s increasingly clear that the program is helping to meet the demand for sustainability leaders in the Midwest and beyond.

“If you look at any past class of fellows, you’ll find they’re in federal government, they’re in state government, they’re in local government, they’re in corporations, and they’re in nonprofits. They’re all over the place,” said Bill Brown, the assistant director for strategy and engagement at the IU Environmental Resilience Institute.

In a previous role at IU, Brown helped launch the first iteration of McKinney Climate Fellows, called the Indiana Sustainability Development Program, in collaboration with the McKinney Family Foundation. The program had two goals: build up the knowledge and capacity for sustainability in Indiana and equip students with work experience that would position them to lead in creating a sustainable future.

The plan seems to be working on both fronts, Brown said, with about half of McKinney Climate Fellows choosing to live and work in Indiana after graduation.

“Now it seems like every time I go to a major meeting, there’s at least one former climate fellow sitting around the table,” he said. “That happens over and over again.”

Author

Environmental Resilience Institute

Jonathan Hines

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