Before the coronavirus reached pandemic levels, nine in ten executives said their businesses felt the increasing impacts of climate change, according to a recent Deloitte Global report. Yet business environmental sustainability initiatives often failed to match executives’ sense of urgency, the report states.

One reason for the disconnect between urgency and action is that well-intentioned environmental sustainability programs can be weakened by short-term thinking, says Sharon Thorne, Deloitte Global Board Chair.

“Humans are poor at thinking long-term and gradual change can be difficult to process,” says Thorne. “Climate change has been creeping up on us for years, and since the most devastating effects have likely not yet materialized, it can be difficult for organizations and investors to truly grasp the threat.”

Business sustainability initiatives can also take time to show results, adds Thorne, which makes climate change a difficult sell compared to actions that generate more immediate short-term returns.

“Unfortunately, short-term thinking often drives more insular, self-serving decisions rather than broader, society-based ones,” she says. To challenge that thinking, Thorne credits the increasingly important role of activism, of young people who are calling for change, and of ongoing media coverage of the issue to ensure that climate threats stay top-of-mind for business leaders and policymakers—and encourage action.

A Case For Long-Term Thinking

While the threat may be difficult to grasp, the solution may be easier to visualize. A pause in global activity during the recent COVID-19 shutdowns made a compelling case for sustainable actions as the polluted skies and waters began to clear in some parts of the world. For the first time in recent memory, residents of Jalandhar, Punjab, for example, reported seeing the snow-capped Himalayan mountains from over 100 miles away. We have seen a glimpse of what is possible.

While these environmental improvements are likely temporary, their impact on younger generations could be longer lasting. Deloitte Global’s 2020 Millennial Survey asked millennials and Gen Zs both before and after the start of the pandemic whether they believed it’s too late to reverse the damage already done by climate change. The report found those surveyed during the pandemic were more optimistic about the chances to repair the damage than those surveyed a few months before.

Climate change also remained a top issue for millennials and Gen Zs surveyed before and during the COVID-19 crisis, even as healthcare and economic concerns were growing. Eight in ten young adults say that governments and businesses need to make greater efforts to protect the environment.

A New Opportunity For Change

If the pandemic reinforced the younger generations’ commitment to fighting climate change, it also created new opportunities for businesses to reconsider their sustainability efforts, says Thorne. COVID-19 is causing many people to pause and think about what’s really important, she says.

“Many people are rethinking the definition of ‘value’—it’s about more than profit,” says Thorne. “Many businesses will require a strategy adjustment or even reset in the wake of the pandemic, and there is an opportunity to demonstrate that they are creating true value for the societies in which they operate.”

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