A select group of the world’s richest and most powerful people are gathering in an Alpine town to sip champagne and talk shop. But what began nearly 50 years ago as an exclusive business club is increasingly being joined by scientists and activists keen to draw attention to the environmental crises facing the whole world.
Environment and climate concerns were for the first time uppermost in its annual global risks report, with climate action failure considered to have the greatest potential impact on the global economy.
“This is the year when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and reinvigorate our systems of cooperation, not just for short-term benefit but for tackling our deep-rooted risks,” wrote WEF president Borge Brende in a foreword.
But with much of its influential guest list arriving by private jet, and global emissions still relentlessly on the rise, campaigners want to challenge attendees to act on their wealth and connections.
Appearing at Davos alongside business leaders, financiers, politicians and celebrities – including US president Donald Trump – will be Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who in 2019 gave a blistering speech attacking attendees for their role in the climate crisis.
This year, she and other young climate campaigners will demand an immediate end to all investments and subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and extraction.
Micah White, who co-created Occupy Wall Street, has moved from protesting outside Davos to working within it. Writing for the WEF, White said he is “more aware than ever that this kind of interaction is always a risk. Not only a reputational risk but also a risk that collaboration will lead to neutralisation”.
But he argues that the forum has a long history of social engagement and concludes that the “landscape of power has shifted substantially” in recent years, with both activists and elites now needing each other to address the existential problems humanity faces.
Not everyone agrees with this approach. A coalition of grassroots climate activists began a 50-mile, three-day march-cum-hike over the Swiss Alps to Davos on Sunday morning. They plan to tell CEOs and others attending the meeting, who they consider “responsible for the climate catastrophe”, that it’s time to resign.
Hannes Blaser, who joined the hike as part of direct action group Extinction Rebellion, says there has been a history of violent anti-WEF protest but this year campaigners “will stay calm”.
“It’s important to go there, to show them that no matter what we will be there. They say on their home page, ‘We look after our stakeholders.’ So OK, the stakeholders will come up to Davos and will say they are not happy.”
Mr Blaser expects thousands of people to join the demonstration march, which will not go inside the conference venue and doesn’t have official permission to go the last leg into Davos. “But we will do it anyway. We are in an emergency with the climate crisis and the 100 corporations that are responsible for 71 per cent of the CO2 emissions are there.”
Others plan to keep a distance too. For the fourth year running, a group of Arctic scientists are camping in a research tent in sub-zero temperatures just the down the road from the swanky Davos Congress Centre. They will be joined at Arctic Basecamp by young climate campaigners from Brazil, China, Greenland, the Marshall Islands, Uganda and the US.
“We want to speak science to power and show the evidence base for making urgent decisions on climate change,” says professor Gail Whiteman, director of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business at Lancaster University, who set up the camp in 2017. “The reason why it’s cool for us to camp is that’s how many of the field researchers do the science.”
Over the past decade, she has seen a dramatic change in how seriously the business world is taking evidence on climate change. “I don’t see the pushback on the science that we may have got 10, 15 years ago. I’m not saying that everybody agrees on the solutions, or how fast they have to get out of fossil fuel reliance, but there’s a complete difference.”
This year, many investment industry representatives are due to visit the camp, and Ms Whiteman herself is scheduled to speak at sessions run by WEF.
But she wants to retain a “progressive edge”, which means staying physically separate from the main conference venue. “We always want to have the tent and be outside. This is about the science – it’s not about trying to meet celebrities for us.”
Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan also has a foot in both camps. She is due to speak to protesters at the end of their hike. But she’s also attending the congress centre for panels on green growth, climate justice and plastic waste.
Compared with the highly political international climate summit, which ended in disappointment in Madrid in December, Ms Morgan describes Davos as “going into a lion’s den”.
“We discuss every year whether to go or not to go and it is a valid question. Once you’re in that space, you’re not able to be as much of an activist except in the way that you engage people. But I think if you’re an organisation that wants to speak truth to power, it is an opportunity to do that.”
Although growing public pressure and the evidence of extreme events such as the Australian bushfires has forced organisations such as the WEF to talk about climate, Ms Morgan has not yet seen “any kind of commensurate response”.
“Planting trees is not at the same level as if you were to get all the bankers at Davos to commit to phasing out funding fossil fuels. That’s still a huge disconnect.”
However, Ms Morgan thinks the relationship between the Davos elite and campaigners is likely to remain antagonistic. “The west stands for a system that is deeply inequitable and is more part of the problem than the solution, even if they talk about wanting to make the world a better place. And I think that civil society over the last 50 years has always tried to challenge it.”