This week, among the private chalets and deep snow of Davos, the world’s leading politicians and businesspeople have been spending their time at the World Economic Forum (WEF), and they’ve been talking about the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg and Prince Charles have given stark speeches warning of the dangers of a warming world, and CEOs and presidents have promised long overdue action.
For those of us in the climate movement, this shift of focus is no surprise. Last year changed everything. From the wave of schoolchildren going on climate strike, to large scale non-violent uprisings like Extinction Rebellion, 2019 proved to be the year that people in power couldn’t hide any more from the need to act. And then Australia caught fire: no amount of money could put those fires out.
With this sudden focus on climate it’s no wonder that attendees of the WEF have come under fire for their choice of transport in getting there. Prince Charles flew to the summit in a private jet, before demanding new green taxes. And he wasn’t the only one. Figures from last year suggest over 300 private jets landed for the talks – somewhat overshadowing the summit’s eco-credentials, including the carpets made from “end-of-life fishing nets” and the rooms painted with renewable resources “like seaweed”. But though the egregious use of private jets is both deeply hypocritical and climate-wrecking, it shouldn’t be the main focus of our ire.
Instead, let’s look at what those sitting around this year’s mountaintop tables have on their climate record. And let’s be real about how much big corporates can plan for a carbon-free future, in light of the fact that just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Just 20 companies have contributed to 480bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent since 1965 – that’s a third of all emissions. Many of them – including the two largest emitters on Earth – are listed as “affiliates” on the WEF website. And it’s not just big oil – the financial institutions participating in the WEF are responsible for pumping at least $1.4tn into fossil fuel investments since the Paris climate agreement was signed.
And then there’s the governments. Prince Charles’ speech was a powerful challenge to those in power, asking if “we want to go down in history as the people who did nothing to bring the world back from the brink?” But the UK government was this week revealed to be supporting fossil fuel mega projects around the world with the combined emissions of a country the size of Portugal.
Such climate failure is not a byproduct of the economic system advocated by the WEF, it is baked into their model. An ideological commitment to free markets – advocated by those at Davos every year for the summit’s 50-year history – has been a consistent block to progress on the climate crisis. Just look at the world emissions data – an endless pursuit of economic expansion, of marketising every aspect of our lives, of extracting oil and gas to the point of no return, has put us on course for climate catastrophe. Climate data isn’t, as Thunberg says, “anyone’s political opinions or views”: it’s just a statement of fact.
And that’s why over the last week I trekked across the mountains to Davos. Alongside 1500 people I spent three days walking from Landquart to Davos in possibly the coldest and most high-altitude climate justice march of all time. On the final day, we even managed to block the road to Davos, which has been blocking progress for a fairer and more just world the past 50 years.
While Australia is burning and frontline communities all over the world are threatened by the very real consequences of the climate crisis, Davos-style meetings will never give us the answers we need. In truth, it would be foolish for anyone to expect a private club whose 1000 member companies have paid between 60,000 to 600,000 swiss francs to be a member (the more you pay the more access you have) should be trusted to solve an issue they created.
A crisis of this scale needs scalable and just solutions – whether that’s a Green New Deal, divestment from fossil fuels, or decarbonisation targets in richer countries being rapidly brought forward. If the rich and famous at Davos really want to tackle the climate crisis, they should make this the last World Economic Forum.
• Payal Parekh is an international climate activist and media spokesperson for the Swiss based Strike WEF Collective