How do you summarize 300 sessions over four and half days? The sessions are picked by hundreds of experts and the staffed with the brightest minds in their fields. The issues are all relevant and important.
At the end of last full day I was nearing the end of a panel discussion on Climate Leadership... perhaps a metaphor for our broader time constraint. We were 57 minutes into the hour long session when the question was asked, and I paraphrase, “In 2050 how will current leadership on climate change be accessed?”. The audience gave an uncomfortable chuckle, recognizing the challenge of the question. Feike Sybesma, CEO of Royal DSM took the microphone and delivered one of the best quotes of the event:
“If we don’t move fast, and we don’t unlock the private sector money, as we discussed earlier, and if governments don’t help us unlock the money quickly, the next generation will be very sad with our results. They will say that we had a good time. We had a good drink. We had good food. We had a good life and we transferred the burden onto them.”
While I only attended a small fraction of the sessions, I found myself focusing on one issue in my attempt to prioritize the content of the conference overall. That issue was time. The message that came through loud and clear was that we are running out of time to address the challenge of climate change. Gender equality, water, wealth inequality, immigration, pollution, and many others are important subjects. But with these challenges, we can consistently say that they are important, but not urgent. Climate change is different. In October of last year the UN IPCC released a report emphasizing how urgent timing has become and stressing the need to limit the rise in temperature at 1.5 degrees C by 2030. As stated in various ways throughout that report, we are running out of options. Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III, said,
“Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”
The decisions we make today are critical in ensuring a safe and sustainable world for everyone, both now and in the future, said Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II,
“This report gives policymakers and practitioners the information they need to make decisions that tackle climate change while considering local context and people’s needs. The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
Why is this happening? We have very clever people amongst us. We have wealth and we have leaders. Where is the disconnect? In my opinion, we have failed to establish a governance framework for solving intergenerational problems of this scale. The developed world functions on a democratic political system in which we choose our leaders every few years. We are now facing a formidable foe. In order to overcome the challenge, we (the more affluent), must be prepared to accept a disproportionate share of the cost burden.
Given the realities of campaign finance, and the sharing of the climate change burden with the developing countries, this is a difficult bill of goods to deliver. Presenting, much less passing, legislation with the teeth needed is not feasible within our current framework, and if it were, it would likely lead its sponsors to an early retirement. No one state or country wants to be the first to encumber its economy. While The Paris Agreement attempts to build a shared vision, it lacks the consequences necessary for success.
So where does this leave us? Do we need to restructure our constitution? Do we need a Carbon Czar with broad reaching power and political impunity? Is this a referendum that would make Brexit look easy? And what are we supposed to do with this information?
First, let's not despair. Hope is foundation on which all survival is built. Please do take some time in the next few weeks to re-access your potential for change as everyone’s contribution does matter, and it is only through individual efforts that we will succeed in reducing our collective impact. If you haven’t calculated your carbon footprint ever, or recently, do it now. Here is a good UK oriented site, and here is a more US centric site. How you make a contribution? It you only do one thing, consider reducing your air travel.
Secondly, contact your government representatives, whether you elected them or not, and ask them to do what they can do to help address the problem as urgently as possible.
But, you may still be wondering, what is the point? You may be feeling quite pessimistic about our chances of achieving our targets. Please let's recognize that we are working on a sliding scale and whatever we can do to reduce the impact will benefit those who are likely much less fortunate than yourself. It is the populations living on the margin, with limited access to food, water and shelter who will suffer the most.
So Davos 2019 did not deliver a light hearted article about the world’s elite meeting in the alps. The question for 2050 is whether or not it delivered the courage to enable world leaders to fight for the difficult solutions? Let’s hope we won’t just be remembered for how well we ate and drank.
Photos and article by Michael Payne
About the author:
Michael Payne writes with a commercial background and focuses his time on the intersection of ESG, finance, renewable energy, human rights and urban mobility. The bulk of his career has been spent in general management, initially with a start-up in the software industry, later developing utility scale wind energy projects around the world and, most recently, running a social impact non-profit fighting for cyclists rights. He lives in the Netherlands.