Deluging Davos: the World Economic Forum could do with an 'avalanche of youth'

| 29th January 2018
Professor Gail Whiteman

Professor Gail Whiteman at the Arctic Basecamp in Davos

The World Economic Forum is a beast with two heads; the first is old-world economic growth and capitalism, while the new is one set on solving the mountain of problems created by the other. How can events like the WEF be 'retooled' to serve succeeding generations? NICK BREEZE reports

The World Economic Forum needs an avalanche of youth contributing to the conversation that is defining their future.

Taking the mountain lift from the main promenade in Davos almost vertically upward, the commotion of the Open Forum falls steadily away, replaced by the majestic panorama of the Swiss Alps. 

It is here, not so far from the madding crowd, that a collaboration between Lancaster University, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) have set-up their Arctic Basecamp, with the intention of reminding world leaders of the risks posed by drastic changes that are taking place in the polar Arctic.

But the question is, against the backdrop of the US President’s daft and misinformed commentary on climate change: is the agenda moving fast enough in the right direction to avoid global catastrophe?

All angles

Throughout the week the Arctic Basecamp have been posting videos from visitors that include Al Gore and Christiana Figueres. The night before, Dr Jennifer Francis dropped by. Francis is the scientist linking the loss of Arctic sea ice to changes in the jet stream, which is turn is driving extreme weather events. 

Professor Gail Whiteman from Lancaster University is holding fort when I arrive and is upbeat about the attention they have been getting in Davos.

“I think that is the interesting thing about Davos - both the informal and the organised events. Last night there was a lot of people walking passed the Basecamp who didn’t know very much about the Arctic or climate change. That gives us the chance to give them a bit of information and show them the data that we have.”

Whiteman adds that, just before I arrived, Benjamin Netanyahu had stopped by and was asking questions about their work. That is certainly high-profile but one imagines that his reasons for being in Davos have little to do with Arctic change.

When I ask Whiteman if the momentum for climate discussion is growing, she replies: “Well I think the World Economic Forum has seen the risks from climate change for the last few years.

"The global risk report has been listing climate change as an important risk to pay attention to. So for the forum staff that is not news. I think what is news is how climate change is increasingly part of the agenda discussions and that it is coming in from all angles.”

Raising the spectre

While that is true, the big driver of Arctic change is global emissions from our use of fossil fuels, and currently we still do not have a price on carbon pollution that can accelerate global environmental restoration on the scale required. 

It is well known here that many of the big institutional investors remain loath to drop their high carbon polluting investments, and governments are still very slow to stop giving subsidies to high polluting industries. 

President Trump’s arrival here in Davos, as reported in the US media, is an opportunity for him to gloat about his tax cuts given to the wealthiest people in the US, whilst signalling to foreign businesses that America is open for just about anything profit making.

These incumbent forces, including world leaders in business and politics, are still committed to their economic models of continuing growth at whatever cost. Earth systems, conversely, are strained and climate change is kicking in.

"These impacts raise the spectre of a global food crisis that could lead to a cascade through the World Economic Forum’s ‘global risk report’ list, that includes economic collapse, “profound social instability” and “large-scale involuntary migration”,  that we are not by any means prepared for.

Getting graphene

The promenade in Davos is lined with corporate giants, as well as national economic and commercial delegations, hosting all manner of meetings and panels. It is surreal and lively at the same time.

The CryptoHQ is a pop-up networking and event hub for the newly minted blockchain generation. These young trendier visitors are talking about decentralising payments systems, making them cheaper, faster and safer, as well as a myriad of other mind boggling projects.

I interviewed Juan Boluda Soler, CFO at Climate Coin, a new blockchain initiative that is gearing itself to be in step with the growth of global carbon markets, predicted to become a key mechanism for building trust in how carbon fees are collected and then delivered directly to environmental restoration projects around the world. Soler highlights the implementation of the Paris Agreement as a signal that carbon pricing is on the way.

In the ‘Ukrainian House Davos’, a panel of investors discuss the merits of investing in the Ukraine. Blockchain and clean energy storage seem to be on peoples minds.

One of the panelists says that “whoever cracks getting graphene cheaply will be the first trillion dollar company!” Although he doesn’t expand on this discussion it is a powerful statement when it comes to abundant clean energy storage.

The same speaker observes that a generation ago the big players in Davos were the guys with assets in the ground. Today the big companies are those whose assets are in the cloud, in the form of data.

Joining the dots

As it stands, everyone knows that the Paris Agreement falls well short of safeguarding the world against climate impacts. The rhetoric now tends toward words like “ratcheting up ambition”, meaning that efforts to lower the rates of carbon emissions will need to be exponentially increased if we are to stay below 1.5ºC (itself reckoned to cause a very dangerous level of global warming).

Blockchain maybe the buzz of many tech-savvy young people, but these same people are having to design their future from the ground up. It’s a future they will inherit from my own and previous generations in very poor condition.

It is heartening to meet the people joining the dots on climate change and endeavouring to solve issues like linking carbon pricing to global restoration.

The climate change summit in California in September of this year should lay the foundation for setting a price on carbon that could make subsequent agreements at the UNFCCC’s COP24 in November, a much easier gambit. It will be at the COP that the ratchet mechanism for reducing carbon emissions is enacted and those blockchain experts with solutions at the ready could well be finding themselves in great demand for generations to come.

Tremendous support

Looking out from the Basecamp at the frozen rugged landscape, the trends that dominate political and commercial agendas also have enormous consequences for us as individuals, where ever we live in the world. 

The World Economic Forum needs an avalanche of youth contributing to the conversation that is defining their future. What does the world they want to live in look like? What are the steps to achieving it? 

Trump has just arrived and I ask Professor Gail Whiteman what she thinks the impact of his dismantling America’s climate polices will be. She doesn’t seem too disheartened.

“My experience is that globally there is a tremendous support for the low carbon economy and the transformation that we need amongst business leaders. I think that is unstoppable. While there is always going to be some who are behind the curve of change, even in the North American context, we are still in. You see how strong that is and it contains both governmental actors at the state level, or city level, or civil society, as well as business leaders.

So I think that fixing the problem is not dependent on one administrations actions. I think it is about the global movement forward and I think that that is continuing.”

This Author

Nick Breeze is a climate change reporter and interviewer and co-founder of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series taking place at Trinity College, Cambridge starting on 12th February at 7:30. Lectures will be live streamed. Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickGBreeze

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