Although the effects of climate change on our planet are well-understood, we hear a lot less about how warmer temperatures might impact workers and companies in the years ahead. But there’s no question that by altering our environment, climate change will also affect our day-to-day lives — including our jobs.
For employees, shifting weather patterns pose a very real risk to productivity and human health — even for people who work indoors. Europe’s record-breaking heatwave this summer didn’t just affect frontline workers, it also made it unsafe for people to commute into work. More recently, Hurricane Ian left tens of thousands of people jobless, and many workers may not ever return to their old occupations.
These are just two examples (among many) of how climate change is already impacting the world of work as we know it. In many industries, these shifts could result in notable modifications to how, where, and even when people work. Climate change will also affect the skills that are required of employees, which jobs are more (or less) in demand, and even the existence of certain roles.
Employers, on the other hand, will have to consider how shifting weather patterns might impact their operations, expenses, and labor force estimations. They’ll also need to ramp up their commitments around sustainability initiatives, not only for the greater good but also to attract and retain today’s eco-savvy employees.
Let’s take a closer look at what climate change could mean for the workplace and the global economy, and what companies can do to mitigate some of these risks.
How climate change affects workers
Workers whose jobs require them to be outdoors will be most likely to feel the impact of climate change. This includes employees in industries like transportation & logistics, postal & shipping services, landscaping, construction, manufacturing, fishing, tourism, farming, healthcare, emergency services, fire fighters, agriculture, forestry, mining, waste removal, and oil and gas.
These workers will primarily be affected by rising temperatures, air pollution, and extreme weather events like floods and wildfires. Heat-related illness and fatigue can make it immensely dangerous for employees to carry out their tasks, while poor air quality can exacerbate (or lead to) respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. Rising temperatures can also contribute to a higher incidence of diseases like malaria and dengue.
Below are a few eye-opening statistics to drive home just how much worker productivity and health could be impacted by climate change in the near future:
- According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), thermal stress due to climate change will result in an economic loss of $2.4 billion and productivity losses equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs worldwide by 2030. The regions losing the most working hours are expected to be southern Asia and western Africa, and people in the poorest regions will suffer the most significant economic losses.
- The agricultural sector, which employs 940 million people worldwide, will be most affected: thermal stress could cause the loss of 60% of the working hours between farmers and workers in the agricultural supply chain. The construction sector will also be impacted with the loss of 19% of working hours.
- The direct damage costs to health are estimated to be between $2 - $4 billion/year by 2030. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.
How will office workers be affected?
Although workers in climate-controlled environments won’t be as influenced by climate change, they’ll certainly be asked to play a part in combatting it. And most people will be eager to do so, especially with the rise of “eco-anxiety,” i.e., fear over climate change and the future of the planet. In a recent global survey, 84% of respondents expressed worry about climate change and 45% said these feelings negatively affected their daily life and functioning.
One action we’re likely to see is an increase in remote working as well as greater use of coworking spaces, which can shorten or eliminate commute times. One study found that flexible working could save more than 3.5 billion hours of commuting time by 2030, which would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 214 million tons a year.
We also may see companies requiring people to work from home during extreme weather conditions. “Just like we have school and work closures for inclement winter weather — snow days — we’re likely to see ‘heat days,’ where businesses and schools don’t operate, or people telework, because it’s too hot for people to commute safely,” says David Arkush, managing director for the climate program at the nonprofit Public Citizen.
Arkuch’s prediction dates from 2020, and just this past summer we saw it realized during the extended heatwave in Europe. In the UK, for example, government officials urged people to work from home due to the unsafe temperatures and significant disruption to travel services. Unfortunately, this is likely to become the norm, at least according to one analysis which found that the record-breaking heatwave will become the “average” summer by 2035.
How businesses are affected, and how they should react
There’s no question that business operations and profitability will be significantly affected by climate change — especially in industries where team members are exposed to the elements. Some companies may need to reduce working hours to keep people safe during the hottest times of the day. Many businesses will likely face a labor shortage, or they’ll have to pay higher wages to compensate employees for working in high-risk conditions.
Of course, an important step is for organizations in all industries to pledge their commitment to sustainability initiatives. When it comes to climate change, we’re all in this together — and even if your business isn’t feeling the effects of rising temperatures or changing weather patterns, you’re almost certainly contributing to the problem in some capacity.
And there are other reasons to align your business with climate change mitigation, including the potential to attract a broader consumer and employee base. Research from Deloitte find that 65% of consumers expect CEOs to do more to make progress on societal issues, including reducing carbon emissions, tackling air pollution, and making supply chains more sustainable. In another study, 65% of workers said they’d be more likely to work for a company with robust environmental policies.
I won’t go into all of the steps that organizations can take to help fight climate change — suffice it to say that nearly every aspect of a company’s operations, including the physical workspace, can be altered to be more energy efficient and sustainable. What I do want to talk about a bit more is how climate change might reshape which skillsets are needed among tomorrow’s workforce.
New skills requirements for new challenges
It’s critical that businesses invest in upskilling their workers so they’re better equipped to deal with the impact of climate change in their roles. “Despite the size of the challenge, fewer employees are trained in incorporating climate patterns in their planning for the future than should be,” says Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers. “We don’t have the right people with the right skills in the right places,” he says.
He uses civil engineering as an example. “We don’t expect to get monster inundations of rain […] And our systems aren’t equipped to deal with larger rainfalls,” Kreeger says. “When those parameters change, you need a workforce to deal with those changes. But our civil engineers haven’t been trained to deal with climate change in their training. Our urban planners, our city managers, our architects. Nobody’s been taught this stuff.”
Employees, too, should take note of evolving expectations for their roles as well as new job opportunities. The “green job market” is quickly growing, and with that comes an increased demand for “green” skills like pollution mitigation, waste prevention, and sustainable procurement. In fact, from 2015 to 2022 the portion of green talent — workers with the knowledge or skills needed to support environmental sustainability now and in the future — grew by over 38%, according to LinkedIn's new Global Green Skills Report 2022.
But the number isn’t growing fast enough, says Sue Duke, head of global public policy at LinkedIn. “The trend is in the right direction, but based on those projections, we're going to hit a skills gap in 2026," notes Duke. "That means the demand for green talent is going to outstrip the supply […] That's not good for workers, and it's not good for the planet, so we need to act now if we're going to ensure that gap doesn't emerge."
I couldn’t agree with her more, and I think Duke’s advice to “act now” is really the only way forward when it comes to fighting climate change. And while I know this article only lightly touches on this topic, I hope it’s inspired you to learn more, take action, or maybe even rethink your career or educational trajectory in some way.
Thanks for reading — don’t forget to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on this important subject.