Transforming industries and workplaces in an era of climate change

By Brigid Trenerry and Julienne Chen

At the end of 2019, many predictions were made about the key trends that would shape business in the next decade. Almost all of the predictions include new technologies and online platforms: 5G, artificial intelligence, e-commerce and digital currencies to name a few. But there is another disruptive force that is frequently mentioned alongside technology: climate change.

The start of 2020 has already shown the imperative to take climate change seriously. In January, bushfires in Australia burned through more than 10 million hectares, claiming the lives of 33 people and an estimated 1 billion animals, while floods ravaged Jakarta, killing 67 people and displacing an estimated 400,000. The previous year, wildfires swept through the US, while floods and typhoons ravaged parts of South East Asia.

As scientists have long warned, extreme weather events that give rise to natural disasters such as bushfires and floods are increasing at an unprecedented rate. The past five years have been the hottest years on record, with global temperature rises on track to increase by at least 3°C towards the end of the century. Some scientists are concerned that the Earth system has already reached a tipping point, which could cascade into a series of even more severe and unpredictable weather events in the coming years and decades. Such events will impact cities and coastlines, food supplies and water, demanding a fresh and coordinated policy response.

One topic that is less frequently discussed is the impact of climate change on workers and jobs. In this blog post, we explore three examples to illustrate why climate change should be an important part of the conversation on upskilling and retraining the workforce of the future:

1. The transition from fossil fuel industries into cleaner energy sources will impact the type and availability of jobs in the sector
2. Greater resources and training are needed for people working at the front-lines of extreme climate events
3. Embedding pro-environmental behaviours into the workforce can make significant strides towards improving commercial sustainability

We discuss these in more detail below:

1. The pressure to transition into cleaner energy sources will require a strong look at how to provide new career paths for those working in the fossil fuel industries

Increasing focus on climate change has accelerated demands to reduce the emissions of carbon-heavy industries such as energy, manufacturing and transport, among others. While there will be a corresponding growth in sectors such as renewable energy, waste management, lean manufacturing and green financing, there is not a seamless transition between the two.

The coal industry provides an apt example of the challenges and opportunities of this transition for the workforce. For example, following the bushfires, Australia was lambasted for not doing enough to address the climate crisis, with a particular focus on its status as one of the world’s largest exporters of coal. Thus, Australia’s coal industry doesn’t only keep the lights on at home, it also generates significant revenue and helps fuel the growth of other countries such as India and China. This is certainly part of the reason behind Australia’s insistence to maintain its coal industry.

Another reason is the loss of jobs, and concern about how to transition workers in the coal industry into new professions. Previous efforts to reskill coal workers, notably in the US where the coal industry has been in decline for many years, have highlighted many of the challenges. One tempting policy proposition has been to “teach coal miners how to code,” thus propelling them into new careers in the tech industry. While there are some positive success stories, there are many skeptics who warn against seeing basic coding skills – imparted through a few months of training – as a panacea, automatically translating into the trainees being hireable and finding attractive, well-paying jobs where they live.

Another strategy is to focus on what is increasingly commonly referred to as “Green New Deal” policies, which wean the economy off fossil fuels and will require a significant and well-trained workforce to design, build and operate the infrastructure for renewable energy. It would be a natural transition for the workers to move into these nascent industries, but important questions remain. These include: how to respect the identity and culture that is closely tied to coal mining in many these communities, how to craft re-training programmes that are actually effective, and whether new jobs can match the existing salaries. Equally important is the question of whether the new industries will see value in locating in the towns and villages where the coal workers live.

Whether it’s coal or another industry that is heavily reliant on fossil fuel production and consumption, similar issues relative to re-training, identity and local job creation will need to be addressed in the new era of climate change.

2. Workers on the front-line of the climate crisis will need more training, equipment and support

Intense weather events have numerous immediate implications for those working at the front-line of the climate crisis. For instance, extreme drought can turn into extreme agricultural disaster and wildfires, extreme rain can turn into extreme flooding, landslides and snowstorms – which impacts first responders such as firefighters, police officers and medical professionals. Extreme heat and extreme cold impacts those who work outdoors and in non-climate controlled indoor environments, such as farmers, construction and factory workers. It is certain that there will be new tasks, activities and risks that the workforce will need to take on to respond to these weather events.

Taking the example of firefighters specifically, in Australia there is a growing concern about relying on volunteer firefighter brigades, many of whom lack the training and equipment to deal with the frequency and intensity of the recent bushfires. A review of the West Yorkshire Fire service in the UK has recommended it conduct new training, buy specialized equipment and create a ‘burns team’ to increase their wildfire preparedness.  Some countries are sending elite firefighting teams to the International Fire Training Centre – a training facility that provides a physical space for firefighters to train on combating complex fires, paired with virtual reality to practice communications protocols and test scenarios that cannot reasonably be simulated in real life. Meanwhile, the Australian government allocated $16 million AUD to support emergency services workers and their families, including PTSD and other mental health support services.

It is likely that these scenarios will continue to play out against a worrisome backdrop where many cities are already struggling to recruit and pay for firefighters, police officers, and healthcare workers, and it will become even more important to convince the new recruits that they will be equipped with the right safety training and equipment to do their jobs.

3. More sustainable behaviours will need to be embedded into organisations and the corresponding tasks and activities of their workers

The individual actions of workers, taken collectively and over time, are an important contributor to a more sustainable future. This is particularly the case when you look at employees who work in sectors that have an outsized environmental impact such as facilities management (air conditioning and heating) and transportation (logistics, delivery and travel).

While many companies have created sustainability plans or visions, actually implementing these plans in practice and not only in rhetoric requires a significant reframing of existing organizational culture. Embedding more sustainable mindsets and practices into an organization is a large-scale undertaking and requires active training, reinforcement, learning from practice and performance management. Companies will need to integrate sustainability into standard operating procedures, rather than expecting the workforce to fit new sustainable tasks into, or on top of, existing practices as is currently often the case. These actions are essential to instil the belief that sustainability is a priority, and cannot be relegated to the backseat in day to day activities.

Eco-driving is one example of how workers are being trained to positively impact a company’s sustainability profile. EMBARQ India has been training bus drivers on fuel-efficient driving, vehicle maintenance and fuel monitoring practices that are proven to increase fuel efficiency. When implemented across multiple public transportation systems, this can make a significant difference to curb harmful emissions and improve air quality.

The successful implementation of eco-driving hinges upon the bus drivers incorporating new skills and behaviours into their day-to-day work, and bus companies accepting the potential impacts on routing and timing. Drivers do have significant discretion over decisions that directly impact their emissions, including speed, acceleration, braking, routing and idling. However, driving behaviours are also deeply ingrained, and long-term change will require a combination of training, positive reinforcement, and the right incentives and motivations. Research has also found that technology adoption, such as in-vehicle devices that provide real-time feedback and data to the driver, is an important part of the equation.

Commercial activities and workers have a disproportionately large environmental impact because they affect so many people downstream, and behaviour change is a cornerstone of creating lessening that impact. This is why we envision that the future of work will not only be about how to incorporate new technologies and behaviours to increase efficiency and productivity, but also more sustainable practices.

In this blog post, we provide three examples of how industries and workplaces will be transformed in an era of climate change, and illustrate the need to embed new practices and orientations into current efforts towards upskilling and workforce transformation.

This transition is not only about the environment or technology: it’s also about how to change mindsets and behaviours, how to deal with uncertainty and be resilient in the face of disruption. Alongside governments and organisations, everyone will need to do their part to contribute to a more sustainable world, and be as prepared as possible for the uncertainty of climate change and its unknown impacts as we enter into 2020 and beyond.



Dr. Brigid Trenerry and Julienne Chen are Research Fellows at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. Brigid is currently working on a project aimed at tackling digital disruption in the workplace in Singapore. Julienne is in the Cities and Innovation research group.