I think there is a more substantive linkage, one likely to drive lasting changes to the way we live and work.
Contrary to what the president says, the Western wildfires are not purely a matter of too many trees falling unheeded in too many forests and not enough raking of dead leaves. The blazes are consuming fuel parched by two decades of drought — decades that were the warmest on record, thanks to climate change.
Climate is a fantastically complex system. Yet the basic fact of man-made global warming, illustrated in the lurid oranges and sickly grays of the wildfires, has become so clear to so many that the gathered titans of the World Economic Forum made it their exclusive topic at Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year.
Leaders of the world’s largest corporations and wealthiest investors committed to make atmospheric carbon levels central to their decision-making. Bold markers were laid down. Microsoft promised to reduce its carbon footprint to zero and to mitigate all the emissions the company has ever produced. BlackRock, the world’s largest institutional investor, said climate change would be central to every future allocation. A group catalyzed by Salesforce founder and chief executive Marc Benioff pledged to plant 1 trillion trees.
But as the New York Times noted when the moguls dispersed: “Missing, though, was a clear answer to the question of what exactly they would do.”
The novel coronavirus was just breaking out as these grand commitments were voiced in the Swiss Alps, but within weeks the pandemic had shut down the global economy. The streets of major cities, normally jammed with carbon-puffing vehicles, were deserted. The skies, normally crowded with carbon-spewing aircraft, fell quiet. Office towers and hotels, normally packed with people switching on lights, clicking through channels and powering up coffee makers, were suddenly as empty as the tombs at Giza.
Experts estimate that global carbon-dioxide emissions could fall by an extraordinary 8 to 10 percent this year compared with 2019’s, thanks to the Covid Crash. The pain of this economic disruption is felt around the world. But the crash has been an eye-opener for climate-conscious businesses seeking to substantially cut their fossil-fuel consumption.
Consider the ecosystem of lucrative enterprises known as “professional services” firms. These are lawyers, accountants, bankers, consultants, architects, engineers, marketers and so on — white-collar workers who hire themselves out to help other institutions achieve their goals. Until March, it was almost unquestioned law, as if carved on stone tablets, that these professionals must do their work on airplanes, in meeting rooms, at hotels and over restaurant meals. When they weren’t meeting with clients, they were gathered together in the conference rooms of their well-appointed offices.
The Covid Crash has smashed those stone tablets. Using digital-conferencing technologies such as Zoom, professional services firms have largely been able to continue their work without staff leaving home. The experience is better in some ways, worse in others. But it is unquestionably cheaper and consumes far less fuel.
Given the savings to their bottom lines, and the virtuous green aura of reduced emissions, these firms will have no incentive to get back to the old ways. Post-pandemic (whenever that is), businesses will travel less, book fewer hotel rooms and rental cars, summon fewer Ubers and Lyfts, expense fewer meals and lease smaller offices.
A recent survey by the consulting giant McKinsey & Co. found that 80 percent of businesses believe the structure and “cadence” of travel and meetings will be permanently altered by covid-19. Three out of four businesses will rely more on technology to perform “core processes.” Majorities believe their corporate cultures will change and that employees will need different skills to thrive.
No individual business could have safely made these changes alone. Imagine telling potential clients that their services would be provided remotely, with limited face time, while competitors were offering near-constant hand-holding? But the virus instituted these cuts all at once across entire industries.
The new economy will have big losers — hotels, airlines and expense-account restaurants come to mind. But there will be winners, too, including all those CEOs in designer ski parkas at Davos, who promised to go green without realizing they would need a pandemic to help them do it.
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