January 25, 2020

Dear readers,

The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, informally known as Davos for the Swiss ski town where it’s held, is typically a conference about the economy and geopolitics. It makes sense that in 2020, it approximated a climate conference. It’s becoming impossible to ignore the reality that a warming planet is helping reshape geopolitics and threatens the economy as we know it.

Around the halls of the conference center in Davos, you could overhear CEOs and government ministers, politicians and celebrities, talk about big solutions to fix that. They discussed how GDP has failed us as a metric of societal health and the need for new government support for climate mitigation. The question is, where does that conversation lead us?

Clear and present crisis

Most people with even the loosest familiarity with the science of climate change know that it poses a long-term risk that could lead to drowned coastlines and charred cities. Yet, for years it remained on the margins of conferences like Davos, centered around the economy. “I can remember when climate was talked about in a tent outside,” Rachel Kyte, a long-time climate leader and the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told me.

What’s changed is the growing immediacy: climate change has become a clear and present crisis. Australia is on fire. Heatwaves struck much of the world last year, including Western Europe. And, in the last five years, the cost of climate-related disasters in the U.S. topped $525 billion, close to a third of the cost of natural disasters since 1980.

This reality was underscored even before the conference began, with the release of the WEF global risk report. All five of the top risks in terms of likelihood touched on climate and the environment, including extreme weather events, failure to slow emissions and invest in adaptation, and biodiversity loss.

These fiscal pressures helped drive the conversation around climate change in Davos. Just a few days prior to the start of the conference, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, said climate change would lead to a “fundamental reshaping of finance” and promised to rethink its strategy. “Usually, the conversation immediately pivots to sort of far off long-term risks,” Brian Deese, BlackRock’s global head of sustainable investing, told me in Davos. “Those risks, while they do accelerate out into the future, are more pressing on the market today than most market participants understand.”

That was underscored by an announcement in Davos from the International Monetary Fund that climate change “already endangers health and economic outcomes.”

Meanwhile, companies made new commitments to protect nature and biodiversity, acknowledging its centrality to their supply chains. And a group of investors — called the Net-Zero-Asset Owner Alliance — committed to having a zero-emissions portfolio by 2050 grew to more than $4 trillion in assets.

“I don’t want to be naive, but I want to acknowledge that the center of the global economy is now saying things that many of us have dreamed they might for a long time,” Al Gore said at a dinner convened by WWF International on Thursday. “They’re saying them forcefully and eloquently.”

“Better capitalism”

Despite all the talk at Davos, there are fears that change is still not happening fast enough, and that what efforts have been made are too piecemeal. In perhaps the most publicized moment of the week, Greta Thunberg said “pretty much nothing has been done, since the global emissions of CO2 have not reduced.”

Opening Day Of The World Economic Forum (WEF) 2020
Jason Alden—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Greta Thunberg, at TIME's youth activism panel session on the opening day of Davos.

Of course, a lot has been done, but those efforts are also far from adequate. And, while investors and corporations wield enormous power, there is widespread agreement among experts that actually tackling climate change — to the extent that it can be tackled — will require governments to intervene in a major way; perhaps the most important actions governments need to take, many experts say, are putting an end to the free ride polluters receive, and fostering programs that advance our society’s well being rather than focus on GDP growth as an end unto itself.

It’s fitting, then, that the official theme of this year’s Davos gathering was “better capitalism.” Around the halls, political leaders and business honchos talked about the need to rethink our political and economic system, in large part to address climate change and its byproducts. They chatted about the challenge of growing inequality, and many shook their heads at President Trump’s speech cheering economic growth and dismissing climate change. “Our capitalism must be sustainable; it must allow us to fight against global warming following a rapid and credible calendar,” Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister told reporters, according to a translation. “We must move quicker.”

The question is, when push comes to shove, will all the talk about changing the system amount to anything more than words? This year is a critical test as governments prepare to make new commitments to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement ahead of the November UN climate conference in Glasgow. Davos was a good start; leaders are talking. Now they need to act.

—Justin Worland


One.Five is written by Justin Worland, a Washington D.C.-based correspondent for TIME covering energy and the environment.

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