Business

'Feel the fear': Climate change is now the talk of Davos

Posted January 25, 2019 9:51 a.m. EST

— Has business finally woken up to the enormous challenges posed by climate change? This year's World Economic Forum provides some hope.

Climate was a major theme in Davos, where panel discussions on everything from global warming to ocean sustainability and biodiversity drew large crowds.

Naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough was given top billing and primatologist Jane Goodall appeared on a panel. A dinner hosted by climate and environmental groups was one of the hottest tickets of the week.

The focus on climate reflects developments that have been hard to miss even for profit-obsessed CEOs. Damaging storms have in recent years resulted in major financial losses and a California utility company has been brought to its knees by billions of dollars in claims related to wildfires.

Companies have also seen how easy it is for their reputations to be tarnished over environmental issues — and how easy it can be to change.

"Things change instantly because of the power of social media," Burberry board member Orna Ni-Chionna said during a panel discussion in Davos.

Ni-Chionna knows what she's talking about. Burberry was caught in a PR firestorm when it emerged last year that unsold clothes were being destroyed.

"When this was discovered, the social media theme that rocketed to the top was 'Burberry burns.' It took me about five minutes to send an email to our chief executive and ... it took our chief executive three weeks to have a completely new policy," she said.

Call to action

Talk is well and good, but there was widespread recognition in Davos that real change won't happen without action.

For experts here, that means corporate and government policy reforms. Many speakers acknowledged progress won't be made until the economics change.

"There are still fossil fuel subsidies from G7 countries — that's ridiculous," said Rachel Kyte, special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy.

"Why we are subsidizing something we know is killing our children, poisoning them and affecting their ability to learn? That's beyond me," she added.

There were new initiatives too. Procter & Gamble, Pepsi, Nestlé and Unilever joined forces with waste management company TerraCycle to launch Loop, a project that will allow people to reuse containers for some of the world's most popular household products.

'Feel the fear'

The spirit of the event was reflected in two attendees with little in common: One is a former vice president of the United States; the other a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl.

What Al Gore and Greta Thunberg share is anger at corporate executives who aren't moving quickly enough to address climate change.

"I don't want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day," Thunberg told attendees.

Gore participated in a friendly panel discussion with David Attenborough on Tuesday, where he warned that politicians are in denial about environmental risks.

The former Democratic presidential candidate was downright fired up by the end of the week.

On Thursday, he stood before a room packed with CEOs and climate change experts and warned that humanity's survival is at stake.

"Who is with me?" he yelled into the microphone as the crowd roared their approval. The question everyone was asking: what will follow that roar?