How to liberate the climate from the great American commute

How to liberate the climate from the great American commute
Image via Shutterstock.

The Covid-19 pandemic managed to accomplish, in just a few weeks, what legislation, global climate agreements, direct action, lawsuits, and political organizing has struggled to achieve over decades – take an actual giant bite out of global carbon emissions.  A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change reported that in April of this year global emissions plunged by 17%. 


The results are visible not just in data.  In March, Los Angeles experienced 21 days in a row of ‘green’ level clean air quality, the only time that has happened since the EPA first started keeping track in 1980.  News reports featured stunning ‘then and now’ images of a city that looked like someone had wiped Windex across the horizon.  Similar dramatic impacts were seen across the country.  NASA reported a 30% drop in air pollution levels in the northeast.  Around the world, the very same places that became famous as epicenters of the outbreak – Wuhan, Italy, Spain and the U.S. – also became epicenters for cuts of nearly a third in local air pollution.

As climate activists press forward with all the other important goals that were on the movement’s agenda before the pandemic – the Green New Deal, stopping pipelines, and more – we should also be paying attention to how we can make the pandemic’s emissions decrease stick in some lasting way.  We have a historic opportunity to do just that, by making permanent the great migration to working at home.

There have been many reasons for the stunning drop in emissions during the pandemic, from a near evaporation in air travel to the temporary shutdown of factories, stores, offices and schools.  But nearly half that decrease came from just one thing, a freefall in ground transport.  With Covid-19 on the loose around us, huge numbers of people stayed home and stopped driving.

All this forced staying at home to fight a pandemic has come at enormous economic hardship for those who have lost their jobs and businesses.  Much of that moving around will come roaring back as soon as Covid-19 releases its death grip on our daily lives.  But if we are smart, some large part of all  that commuting doesn’t need to come back at all.  From a political action point of view, working from home is also a rare Holy Grail, an issue in which what is right for the climate is also in the direct self-interest of millions of people from all political corners.  As it turns out, the most fuel efficient car manufactured today is one left undriven in the garage.

Across the economy, Americans have now discovered that working from home is not only feasible, but a much better way to live.  They have realized that getting out of bed before dawn every morning and driving a 3,000 pound box of steel through traffic is not the most pleasant way to spend an hour each day (the time of the average daily U.S. commute).  Neither is getting on an overcrowded train or bus.  The pandemic, even amidst its many sufferings, has shown workers and employers alike that there is an alternative.

There are many reasons for people’s new found fondness for dumping their daily commute.  Amidst a global pandemic, one reason is just staying well.  Nothing makes social distancing easier than staying at home.  It also saves people a huge amount of money, thousands of dollars not paid to put gasoline in a tank, hundreds of dollars not spent on BART or Metro cards.  People have also discovered that they enjoy being able to mix in errands and exercise into their work day.  A Gallup poll on the topic found that nearly 60 percent of Americans working from home during the pandemic would like to continue to do so as much as possible after the threat of Covid-19 has passed.

Many employers who were once big doubters have been converted by forced experiment.  They have discovered in practice what studies have already suggested, that working from home, away from the distractions of an office, can also make people more productive and happier.  Before the pandemic, my eldest daughter Elizabeth, a mother of two young children who works for a major corporation, asked her bosses for months to let her work one day a week from home.  Eventually they relented and agreed.  Since March the company’s entire administrative workforce is working from home every day, and along with many others they have found it creates a better and more relaxed life for they and their families.  The  airline Jet Blue has had its telephone work force working from home for years.

To be quite clear, being able to  do your job from home is a privilege.  Millions of workers – nurses, waitresses, janitors, and many others – don’t have that option and it may be that those jobs going forward should earn extra for that imbalance.  Nonetheless, even these workers get a benefit when others stay home – fewer cars sharing the road, fewer passengers crowding onto their bus, and cleaner air, to name a few.  It is also true that more people working from home will not solve the crisis of climate change.  But even a minor reduction in emissions helps us buy more time to implement longer-term solutions for sustainability – and we need that time badly. 

How then, do we use this moment as a real opportunity to alter the Great American Commute as we know it?  To begin, as states and cities across the country develop their plans for reopening the economy, the promotion of working from home needs to play a central role.

State and local leaders should be encouraging employers large and small to continue to let people work from home if they wish to, even if just part-time.  How that is set up should be the product of genuine negotiation with their employees.  Governments can also lead by their own example, letting public workers continue to work from home where possible and putting together information about the effective work-from-home strategies that employers have used. 

We also need to solve the practical problems faced by people working from home, starting with child care.  Many parents have loved not being separated from their children all day, five days a week.  We have enjoyed those unscripted moments when we get to see workmates, journalists and others suddenly also become parents when one of their small children zooms into a Zoom call.  But working from home and having your kids home all the time doesn’t work for a lot of families.  We need to support our day care centers to find some workable business models that allow parents to have their children enrolled part-time and on varied schedules that meet the needs of people working from home.

Another challenge is that not everyone who wants to work from home is well set-up with a home office.  For many people a shared kitchen table in a small apartment, or some similar squeeze, just doesn’t make a great long-term arrangement.  We need to get creative.  Public libraries, when they open, can begin to welcome home workers in to some of their quiet spaces.  Co-work facilities, with shared equipment, decent coffee, and a chance to interact with other human beings, could become a serious small business opportunity beyond places like Berkeley and Brooklyn.  Small towns and suburban bedroom communities might also find a niche for these as we change the patterns of our work.

None of these things will stir activist passions in the same way as the battle against the fossil fuel industry or calls to decarbonize the nation’s economy.  But we have paid a horrendous price in the Covid-19 pandemic, in lost lives, in suffering and worry, and in economic wreckage.  We need to take full advantage of one of its rare silver linings, a giant global experiment in changing how we work and where.  Sometimes our biggest advances forward come from seizing opportunities we did not expect, and this is one of them. 

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and lives in Lockport, NY.  His most recent book is a new memoir, My Other Country, Nineteen Years in Bolivia which can be found along with his other writings at www.jimshultzthewriter.com.  He Tweets at @jimshultz

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