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AnalysisClimate Crisis

Remote work aids climate protection, fuels inequality under capitalism

Tina Landis is the author of Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism.

This past week, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that oversees and finances transit in the San Francisco/Bay Area region voted 12-1 to pass a telecommute mandate to address greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion. The policy mandates that employers with more than 25 employees allow 60 percent of their staff to telework on any given day if the type of work they do can be done remotely.

With the majority of jobs in the region being in tech, this means much of the workforce will be able to achieve this goal with large tech companies already moving to a permanent remote work plan post-COVID — like tech giants Facebook and Twitter. And for many companies this makes sense from a business perspective — lower overhead costs without the inflated Bay Area real estate prices and higher employee retention with the ability to work from anywhere. 

But the mayors of San Francisco and San Jose are not so happy. They are among several politicians opposed to the plan due to a drop in revenue from commuters coming to their cities on a daily basis for work. They feign concern for low-wage service workers, but it’s really that these cities’ revenue sources have come to solely rely on workers coming to their downtowns every day.

Transportation in the region accounts for 40 percent of the Bay Area’s greenhouse gas emissions, which the MTC’s Plan Bay Area attempts to curb through various initiatives like the new remote work policy, as well as improvements in transit and building affordable housing near transit. 

Pre-COVID, the Bay Area had the 3rd worst daily commute in the nation and a 62 percent higher cost of living than the rest of the country. The latest tech boom over the past decade that brought millions of new workers to the Bay Area from around the globe saw a rise in super commuters — who commute 90 minutes or more each way to work — as housing prices within Bay Area cities rose far beyond the range of anyone without a high-paying tech job. 

During the period of shelter-in-place that began in March, the Bay Area saw major reductions in air pollutants due to lack of traffic: a 16 percent drop in particulate matter and carbon monoxide, 20 percent in nitrogen dioxide, and 29 percent in black carbon.

Since the state has been struggling to stay on track to meet its goal of reducing GHGs to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, you would think this new opportunity to keep cars off the roads would be a welcome silver lining to our new way of working. 

This remote work mandate makes sense from a climate-protection standpoint. It’s a ‘low-hanging fruit’ policy that’s essentially already been implemented due to the pandemic. Most companies, including the agency I work for, seamlessly transitioned to work-from-home when the shelter-in-place began.

Of course, many are struggling with remote work now, due to the added burden of children to care for during work hours or a lack of space in crowded housing. But all these issues could be alleviated long term with an expansion of coworking spaces, truly affordable housing, and assistance for parents with young children. 

On the issue of low-wage service workers losing their jobs in downtown areas due to the lack of a daily influx of office workers, this could also be addressed through job training in other areas.  But under capitalism the market rules, and when one industry declines, it is up to those workers to find a way forward, which for most generally means a downward spiral into poverty. Under socialism, where a job would be a constitutional right, these workers would be retrained in a new field at no cost to the worker. 

With climate change unfolding and the need to shift to renewables and restore the ecosystem, on top of a chronic shortage of doctors, nurses and teachers, there should be plenty of opportunities for employment in new fields. But that’s not the role of the capitalist government. Instead the government allows corporations to determine what job opportunities exist and where. And when an industry collapses or relocates to another country, it leaves cities like Detroit in shambles without the ability to shift its economy. That could be the future of the Bay Area, where governments hedged their bets on Big Tech allowing for a mono-economy to emerge, which now may collapse as tech workers move to more affordable areas, potentially transforming downtown areas into ghost towns. 

This is why the local city leaders are protesting the new remote work mandate and throwing up their hands claiming that this new climate-friendly way of working is impossible. It is not that it isn’t achievable since the majority of companies are already proving it as a viable way forward. But the system itself, the way society is organized, is what makes it impossible. 

COVID-19 and the unprecedented wildfire season have already driven huge numbers to flee the Bay Area for safer, more affordable places to live. The writing is on the wall,  the shift to a future of remote work is already happening, regardless of protest from city leaders. Under the current system, the aftermath will surely negatively impact the already vulnerable service sector, while remote work will improve the quality of life of many others, all the while widening the class divide that is already so extreme in the Bay Area. But in the fight against climate change, shifting how we work is a step in the right direction. We just need a new system — with a socialist planned economy — that makes the shift equitable for all. 

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