Never mind their private jets, luxury hotels and lavish parties. Some of the world’s most powerful, famous and wealthy people said the natural world is a paramount concern.
Dire environmental challenges, headlined by the threat of global climate change, took center stage among the 3,000 well-heeled political, business and “thought” leaders attending the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos.
Amid the pomp and privilege of the Davos power-set, a teenage Swedish activist broke through the sound and fury and elegant selfies with a far more somber and realistic message.
“Some people say that we are not doing enough to fight climate change. But that is not true. Because to ‘not do enough’ you have to do something. And the truth is we are basically not doing anything,” 16-year-old Greta Thunberg said in a recorded message to the Davos crowd.
Thunberg was on her way from Sweden to Switzerland, spending 32 hours on a train so she could speak to leaders at Davos, where she also planned to sleep in a tent. Since starting her “Fridays for Future” movement last year, tens of thousands of students worldwide who feel betrayed by adult inaction on climate change have joined her school strike campaign.
“Some people claim the right to steal the remaining carbon budget from future generations and people in poorer parts of the world,” Thunberg tweeted. “1500 private jets to be used getting to the @wef in #Davos.”
Last October, the United Nations’ Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put to rest any remaining sophistry over whether a “safe” temperature guardrail exists. The IPCC said it will be life or death for much of life on the planet as soon as 2040.
The panel’s scientific report, prepared by almost 100 authors and 1,000 reviewers, examined the difference between letting the world warm by another half-degree or 1 degree Celsius.
The report said the planet is on track to cross a threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, bringing the risk of catastrophic climate change marked by floods, extreme drought, wildfires and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people.
To limit temperature change to 1.5 degrees as the 2015 Paris Agreement requires, the world must cut carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050. Experts said that would require virtually eliminating use of coal for electricity within a little more than two decades, and carbon taxes as high as $27,000 a ton by 2100 would be needed.
— World Economic Forum (@wef) January 23, 2019
More oxygen in the room
Increased attention to Earth’s mounting crises was helped by some notable absences at Davos — U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and leaders from Canada to India to Zimbabwe.
Whether due to political problems back home or concerns over the glitzy optics of Davos, the absences of some of the biggest headline-making leaders left more oxygen in the room for others.
With Trump’s cancellation, the most attention-grabbing populist at Davos arguably was Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who also pledged to work in harmony with nature, including his nation’s Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s most important natural resources.
“The environment must go hand-in-hand with development efforts: One should not of course emphasize one more than the other,” said Bolsonaro. “We plan to work in harmony with the world, and in sync with the whole world, in terms of decarbonizing the economy, reducing CO2 emissions, and of course preserving the environment.”
WEF held a high-profile session to highlight the messages of Sir David Attenborough, the famous British naturalist-turned-broadcaster, who warned that the world’s population can now cause the extinction of entire natural ecosystems.
“We are seeing that almost everything we do has its echoes and has its implications across the natural world,” said the 92-year-old Attenborough. “The mechanisms that we have for destruction are so wholesale and so frightening, that we have actually exterminated whole ecosystems without even noticing.”
“We have to now be really aware of the dangers of what we’re doing,” he said, “and we already know that of course the plastic problem in the seas is wreaking appalling damage upon marine life, the extent of which we don’t yet fully know.”
Attenborough was interviewed by Britain’s Prince William, who, while taking a turn at playing journalist, peppered his questions for Attenborough with some global criticisms.
“Why do you think world leaders and those in key positions of leadership; why do think they’ve taken so long” to address the threat of climate change, William asked. “There have been quite a few faltering steps to act on environmental challenges?”
The Duke of Cambridge congratulated Attenborough for being a winner of WEF’s annual Crystal Award, which recognizes those who help make the world a better place. “It is a personal treat for me to be sitting here asking you questions. Normally, I have to endure people asking me questions,” quipped William, the second-in-line to the British throne.
When he began his career, Attenborough said, it was still unthinkable that the environment could be harmed to the extent it is now. Species extinctions seemed like exceptions to the rule.
“To be truthful, I don’t think there was anyone in the mid-50s who thought there was a danger that we would annihilate parts of the natural world,” he said. “There were animals that were in danger, that’s true. And there were animals that we could see if we didn’t do something, they were going to become extinct.”
But he said it was now just the opposite — difficult to overstate the environmental and climate crises. Attenborough, who narrated BBC’s award-winning “Planet Earth” series, has a new documentary series “Our Planet” that will be released by Netflix in the spring.
“Now, of course, we’re only too well aware that the whole of the natural world is at our disposal, as it were,” he added. “We can do things accidentally that exterminate a whole area of the natural world and species that live within it.”