Bold business leadership is key to rebuilding a resilient, low-carbon economy

Tom Murray\

This post was first published by Forbes.

Even before the tragic illness, heartbreaking loss of life and growing financial hardship of the COVID-19 crisis, the social contract between government, business and society was stretched to its limit. In our pre-pandemic world, long-held views about the roles and responsibilities of government and business were already in question.

As Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Chairman of Business Roundtable said in August 2019, “The American dream is alive, but fraying. Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term.”

The current crisis is only accelerating this trend. As a result, expectations about the role of business have evolved — and enthusiasm has surged for stakeholder capitalism that links profit and purpose, and for a deeper investor focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance.

Is this just a temporary response to the crisis, or part of a fundamental rethinking of the company’s role in society?

Alan Murray, Fortune

Fortunately, many business leaders are rising to the immense and immediate challenge of defeating COVID-19. The months ahead will test their ability to sustain this new level of conviction and extend it to another urgent challenge, one for which businesses have not been doing enough to prepare: climate change. Expectations are high, as investors, employees and customers demand courageous leadership and are paying unprecedented levels of attention to Corporate America’s behavior — both the good and the bad.

 

Near the top of their list of demands will be urging businesses to play a leading role in helping to build a low-carbon economy that can put millions of Americans to work and create durable, long-term job growth for generations to come.

The key question is, will businesses commit to the decades-long leadership effort required to make a thriving and sustainable future a reality?

Rising to the challenge

I have been moved by the healthcare workers and first responders, the retail workers and delivery drivers, and the state and local officials who are demonstrating bold leadership and offering much needed hope and inspiration during this global human health crisis.

Companies across nearly all sectors — auto manufacturing, banking, healthcare, retail, shipping and technology — are also rapidly reacting to the crisis at an unprecedented scale. They are protecting workers’ health, applying creativity to minimize job losses, supporting communities, manufacturing personal protective equipment and ventilators, and deploying their technology to inform the public and assist health experts in tracking and tracing the virus.

Take Apple, for instance, which is partnering with the CDC on its coronavirus screening tool, and working with its longtime competitor Google to amplify contact tracing efforts. Or Kroger, which is giving bonuses and increased pay for its frontline workers, and forming partnerships with “local, regional, and national businesses from the most-affected industries to temporarily move employees to roles at Kroger.”

These examples highlight the critical role of business in today’s world, especially when it comes to the essential collaborations between the public and private sectors.

Standing united for the long term: building a better future

As many experts and influencers have pointed out, if we simply return to business as usual after this pandemic, we’ll continue to face immense environmental, health and economic risks. Among these risks is increased air pollution, which has been linked to the current pandemic and to higher death rates from COVID-19. A return to “normal” would also be a devastating step in the wrong direction.

María Mendiluce, the interim CEO of the We Mean Business Coalition, shared via the World Economic Forum, “Business and government can and must work together at this extremely challenging time to lay the foundations to build back better. Concrete government policies that send a clear signal to business will help us rebuild from this devastating crisis…”

Solving climate change for a stronger, more resilient economy

While corporate climate commitments will undoubtedly be tested as the economy recovers and companies get back on their feet, it is not the time to shy away from bold leadership. Instead, it is the time for business leaders to emphasize — and more importantly, to showcase — how solving climate change also builds a healthier, stronger economy and a more resilient future for all.

As America works to build back from this pandemic, the real leaders will emerge based on their commitment to purpose and stakeholder capitalism, and their ability to meaningfully engage with and support employees, customers, communities and the environment. Long-lasting leadership will also require activating and rewarding climate leaders; investing in and scaling new business models, innovation and technology; collaborating for greater scale and impact; and increasing ambition and transparency on policy advocacy.

To date, the business response to this pandemic has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. As Alan Murray of Fortune asks, “The big question is: Is this just a temporary response to the crisis, or part of a fundamental rethinking of the company’s role in society? Is it a brief grab for feel-good PR, or a reflection of larger corporate purpose?”

I, for one, hope that business leadership in response to COVID-19 sets a precedent for united and proactive business leadership with the ambition and speed required to avert the worst impacts of climate change and build a more sustainable and resilient world.

Like COVID-19, climate change is a predictable crisis, but at an exponentially larger scale. While the reactive leadership we’re seeing now is critical to rise and meet the current global health and economic crisis, proactive leadership on an even more ambitious scale will be necessary to accelerate the collaboration, innovation and policies needed to win the fight for our climate and our future.

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