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Davos 2020: Annual perma-chaos dominated by climate change

The World Economic Forum is an odd event.

It’s odd for me as a journalist and, I imagine, it’s odd for those of you reading about it and watching it.

Part of the explanation is that unlike most other big meetings of politicians and dignitaries there is no official agenda.

This is not a summit aimed at solving climate change or recapitalising banks or securing peace in the Middle East. It is simply a place lots of important people come to from around the world to chew the fat.

Image: Donald Trump delivers a speech during the 50th WEF

The upshot is that there are hundreds of separate different events and agendas popping up all over the place.


In that room is the Bank of England and other central banks committing to new plans for digital currencies.

Over there you’ll find Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, defending his firm’s reputation following the US ban.

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Here in this room are some millionaire bankers doing deals, but over there you’ll find anti-capitalist campaigners against corruption.

All of these things are happening in the same building at the same time, making the whole thing rather confounding.

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Is Davos really an exclusive gathering of the elite? Well, clearly yes. Unashamedly so.

But it’s also one of the few places where those elites are plonked smack bang next to people raging against inequality and calling for more redistribution.

This perma-chaos means that at any given time it is impossible to tell a simple narrative of what’s going on in Davos.

Does it follow that there is nothing to learn from what’s going on here at Davos? No, on the contrary I’d argue that in some ways this week tells us more about the state of the global economy, about the mood music and about the tenor of politics than almost any gathering of the great and the good.

Because despite the absence of a coherent agenda, each WEF meeting tends, almost by osmosis, to coalesce around one or two themes.

This time around if you peer through the clouds of hot air, the overarching theme is climate change. And the overarching lesson is that for the first time in a long time it appears that the great and the good are starting to take it seriously.

The big story of day one of WEF 2020 was about the simultaneous presence of both Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg calls out ’empty words’ at Davos

The two of them represent, more than any other public figures, the culture clash of our days.

Those warning a climate catastrophe versus those who think they’re being alarmist. Those saying we need to make economic sacrifices to save the world versus those who say you can have your cake and eat it. Globalists versus nationalists.

And here they were in the same room. Not only that but when I asked him what his message was for Greta Thunberg (Davos is one of those odd occasions where economics correspondents suddenly come face-to-face with the leader of the free world), he insisted that the US was acting to address climate change.

Many will raise their eyebrows and point towards his decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement – or to the absence of any commitment to get US emissions down to net zero by 2050.

Still, the intriguing thing about Davos is that it forces unlikely bedfellows to come together.

Here in this Swiss mountain town the entourages are smaller than usual and the possibility of bumping into someone you’re trying to avoid is perilously high. For all that its critics accuse it of being a monoculture of like-minded plutocrats, there is much more texture to it than that.

Does that mean it will help the global community actually solve any of these intractable challenges? Almost certainly not.

Yet it is an interesting prism through which to view the politics and economics of the 21st century.


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