Many are expecting the COP26 meeting in Glasgow to fall short of the flurry of ambitious, immediate action needed to avert catastrophic global warming.
While the meeting kicked off with world leaders issuing doomsday warnings, I expect that the meeting will conclude with half-hearted declarations of progress accompanied by an array of commitments to future action (to take place after most of the attending leaders are out of office, of course). I imagine that, in response, the activists massed around the Scottish Events Campus will act up in ways that express their anger and despair. Those twin emotions will be shared by millions – perhaps even billions – of people who know that they are likely to be harmed in a future filled with more hurricanes, massive wildfires, droughts, famine, species extinction, rising sea levels and flooding cities.
Yes, there will be future COP meetings, future opportunities for the world to commit to the giant costs and sacrifices required to halt and reverse all the processes ruining our land, air and water, but resistance will continue to be stiff.
This means environmental concerns will increase among a growing portion of the workforce since research shows younger people are significantly more alarmed than older workers about this threat.
“Instead of asking how the organization needs to respond to the environmental challenge, ask what people inside the company can do.”
In my view, addressing climate change will be a personal concern of employees, one that many will consider as important as healthcare. This will happen because a growing number of them will be impacted by some manifestation of climate change or at least know someone who has been harmed by one of its disastrous consequences. Moreover, younger workers will think often about the world in which they will raise families and be appalled by the ongoing news reports of the planet’s deterioration.
I think this situation can be viewed by leaders as an opportunity, at least with regard to building employee loyalty and engagement, which have proven ties to efficiency and profitability. They can seize this opportunity by developing programs that empower employees to act on their environmental concerns inside the workplace and as activist citizens in their personal lives.
This requires a shift of leadership thinking from addressing climate concerns as an institutional response (as reflected by ESG programs and the activation of Chief Sustainability Officers) to the level of the individual employee. Instead of asking how the organization needs to respond to the environmental challenge, ask what people inside the company can do.
In a way, this could be another example of how societal concerns are becoming part of the corporate agenda. This is happening now around issues such as remote work, DE&I (diversity, equity and Inclusion), student debt, family leave and more. Given that around 40 million Baby Boomers will retire from the workforce over the next decade, leaving employers in an even stiffer competition for talented young employees, this shift is likely to be permanent, so why not consider the environmental enablement part of the employee value proposition?
Here are just some of the offerings that might appeal to employees concerned about climate change:
- Share environmental news; and offer education through company channels and programs so employees gain a deeper understanding of this complicated challenge.
- Invite and be receptive to employee suggestions with regard to improvements the company can make to operate more sustainably.
- Provide funding, time off or in-kind support for workers who want to join environmental initiatives outside the workplace
- Increase support of philanthropies or NGOs with environmental agendas, perhaps involving employees in identifying and selecting new recipients.
- Engage with employees about the company’s environmental impact, using disagreement as learning opportunities.
- Create employee recognition programs to encourage environmental awareness and activism.
- Be open to lending company personnel, equipment, products or expertise to environmental crisis response.
I’m listing these possibilities to show that with creativity and goodwill, a motivated management team can find ways to demonstrate a commitment to environmental action now. The outcome from Glasgow may be a sour lemon for those hoping to avert climate catastrophe; but for employers seeking to do their part to save the planet and strengthen their competitiveness at the same time, this lemon can be made into lemonade.