COVID-19, Climate Change And The End Of Baby Boomer Leadership

Wal van Nierop

Jun 28, 2020

Published on

In an episode of the TV series Mr. Bean, the British comedian wakes up late for a dentist appointment after ignoring his alarm clock. During his frenzied drive to the dentist, Mr. Bean changes into his suit and brushes his teeth, at one point using a brick to hold down the accelerator while steering with his feet. He enters a roundabout and goes around in circle after circle while attempting to put on his necktie and shoes, unwilling to exit until he’s dressed.

Mr. Bean perfectly captures our moment in history. We ignored the alarms about climate change (for decades). We rushed to correct our mistakes with unenforceable climate agreements, which endangered everyone by creating a false sense of progress. And today, panicked by Covid-19, we circle the roundabout, seemingly unwilling to take an exit towards climate action until the global economy is properly dressed and presentable again.

The Baby Boomers, the generation that has mismanaged climate change, have the fewest years to suffer the consequences. For the most part, they’ve stopped being a source of bold climate ideas. Boomers crave the normalcy they built on oil and gas, a fuel source that borrows security and economic opportunity from Generations X, Y and Z to further enrich Boomers in the present.

Boomers in government and industry have handled the greatest threat to human life on Earth with all the grace and ingenuity of Mr. Bean. They have lost the moral authority to decide what the future should look like. It’s time they sit shotgun and let young people take the wheel.

This is an opportune moment to pass over the keys. By disrupting almost every aspect of modern life, Covid-19 has created an opening for radical reforms, new leadership and bold agendas. Young people, ready or not, must choose how societies will function, survive and hopefully prosper in the future. They have three questions to answer:

1.    What should future communities look like?

The Covid-19 lockdowns taught us that “home” is not just a box with a bed, bathroom and kitchen. Rather, home is a community set in a neighborhood with restaurants, shops, offices, theaters, museums and cultural events.

Under Covid-19, neighborhoods have withered. I pass boarded-up shops and restaurants in Vancouver’s urban neighborhoods, unsure of whether or when they’ll reopen. Use of public transportation is down 50% to 90% from pre-Covid levels in North America, Europe and China. Amazon AMZN trucks and Instacart drivers pass by with the goods we used to purchase down the street. And now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is encouraging people to commute alone in their cars. As Professor Lawrence Frank from the University of British Columbia put it, “Promoting private vehicle use as public health strategy is like prescribing sugar to reduce tooth decay.”

I cannot imagine anyone wanting a future where people live alone in apartment buildings, stranded in business deserts, serviced day and night by e-commerce companies. Rather, I believe young people will choose neighborhoods where they can walk, bike and scooter to locally-owned shops—or to hydrogen-powered buses, electrified people movers, bullet trains and Hyperloops. They will choose neighborhoods where cleantech startups, urban agriculture, vibrant nonprofits and 3D printers fuel local commerce—and where nuclear fusion virtually eliminates dependence on fossil fuels.

That, anyway, is the future that many young people claim to want. That future will run into resistance, however, from Boomers who have made their billions forestalling or gutting that way of life.

2.    Should industry and the free market decide on this future, or should democratically elected governments?

Today, Western corporations decide their future and ours through regulatory capture, political donations and propaganda. It is not a coincidence that fossil fuel companies still receive subsidies worth over $500 billion annually (more than their net profits) while spending $200 million per year on lobbying. Amazon magically didn’t pay income taxes for three years straight and then patted its own back for paying 1.2% in 2019, while the average U.S. taxpayer owed 14%, and small, local shop keepers pay much more. During Q1 of 2020, found that lobby spending in the U.S. reached a near-record $903 million. Every company wanted a piece of the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion Covid-19 stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress in March.

If the U.S. leaves 1,600 lobbying clients in charge of shaping the biggest economic stimulus plans in history, who do you think will benefit most from it? I assure you, Amazon didn’t spend $4.525 million on lobbying in Q1 to ensure that local grocers and shops survive. Community-scale industries will not recover if we tax local shops while giving Amazon a 1.2% rate and a free pass to deliver goods without any accountability for its carbon footprint.

Community should not be the unintentional byproduct of corporations maximizing profits. Rather, communities should be the output of a democratic process that translates collective values into policies. Young people must rekindle the basics of democracy if they want the rules of the game to favor innovative businesses, local commerce and an energy transition. In the absence of politics—a word that ought to signify progress, not paralysis and polarization—dominant companies will bend institutions to their interests and parade the results as a “win-win.”

3.    How do governments pay for a better future?

Right now, world governments are passing stimulus packages that will shape the global economy for decades. Meanwhile, they’re anticipating massive shortfalls in tax revenue in the near term. Thus, the stimulus packages are like a massive venture capital experiment in which governments bet on the people and industries that will provide a return in the form of jobs and tax revenue.

Which ventures deserve funding?

Supported by EU member states, the European Commission intends to make its $1 trillion Green Deal the centerpiece of its Covid-19 recovery. Likewise, China plans to invest about $1.4 trillion in green and digital infrastructure over the next five years. Many financial institutions increasingly push for green investments that go hand-in-hand with advancing social equality and economic opportunity. And both the IMF and World Bank plan to loan over $1 trillion to developing economies with sustainability strings attached. World leaders (minus Donald Trump) bet that their economies must develop clean technologies to be relevant and competitive throughout this century. So do multinational enterprises like Microsoft MSFT and Siemens, both of which intend to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

The alternative is to continue subsidizing multibillion-dollar oil companies and e-commerce monopolies that excel at turning independent business owners into warehouse automatons (at least until their robot replacements are sufficiently trained). Instead, societies should pay for their future by reinventing value chains, not by building anticompetitive fences around the champions of a prior era.

Boomers, Move Over

Under Baby Boomer leadership, human society is stuck in the roundabout. Without a change, Covid-19 will be a wasted opportunity, a regression to an illusive “normal” that leaves inequality and climate change more dangerous than before. Global temperatures will shoot past 1.5°C while Boomers keep that brick on the accelerator and keep fiddling with their ties in a roundabout of indecision and irresponsibility.

The alternative is to hand the wheel over to young political leaders, entrepreneurs and researchers who have the biggest stake in climate change and a more balanced society. In New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, Finland’s Sanna Marin and Costa Rica’s Carlos Alvarado Quesada, we already have executive leaders who take climate change and social renewal seriously. They have set ambitious targets. They are harbingers of a new political order that sees community, democracy and decarbonization as the exit to a dynamic, innovative future.

It’s time for Baby Boomers to sit shotgun and let young people pilot a recovery. The future is theirs.