TThe highlight of the last gathering of the global elite in Davos was the dispute Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump. It was January 2020, and on the report of Fr. new virus recently discovered in China. Most of those who made the hike to the Swiss alpine resort were too busy signaling their deep concern for inequality and the extreme climate.
A lot has happened in these 28 months. What was considered a small local difficulty in Wuhan was the beginning of a global crisis. Davos in January 2021 was a virtual affair, and the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), scheduled for January 2022 was postponed due to the proliferation of the Covid-19 Omicron variant.
Gathering WEF this week will have a different feel, and not just because many of its slopes will be green rather than white. Attendance has dropped to pre-pandemic levels, and there are no writers among the headliners.
None of the main heroes of the 2020 climate emergencies will be around. Trump has resigned, and Thunberg gives Davos months Joe Biden is not on the guest list, nor Boris Johnson, nor French President Emmanuel Macron, nor Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Restraint is understandable: joking with billionaires when the cost of living crisis is raging is not the kind of thing.
In recent years, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been a guest speaker at a business lunch held at the posh Grandhotel Belvédère in Davos. This year, Rishi Sunak got rid of the embarrassment when he had to decline the invitation because dinner was not being held.
Klaus Schwab, who organized the first Davos – in 1971 – and is the executive chairman of the WEF, has made a brave face in the absence of world leaders.
“The annual meeting is the first summit that brings together world leaders in this new situation of a multipolar world resulting from pandemics and war,” he said. “The fact that almost 2,500 leaders from politics, business civil society and the media have come together in person demonstrates the need for a credible, informal and action-oriented global platform to address the challenges of the crisis.”
Schwab hopes that this year’s restrained event will be only a temporary setback and that in January next year Davos will return to normal and he may be right. Managers of large multinational companies might be less likely to travel to Switzerland in the spring than in the winter, especially given the stringent health requirements to attend the meeting. As evidenced by the permanent blockades in China, Covid-19 has not been eliminated.
It is also possible that this Davos will prove its worth as a global conversational platform by making some progress in the climate emergency. The most senior U.S. politician at the show will be Biden’s envoy for climate, John Kerry, and Alok Sharma, who chaired the Cop26 meeting in Glasgow last November, will be the UK’s leading government official.
However, there is an alternative narrative. Davos has always been dedicated to globalization and has long sought to use the forum to address common issues such as global warming and inequality. But how does it cope with a fragmented world where globalization is receding? Vladimir Putin was the keynote speaker at last year’s virtual Davos, but this time the Russians were not invited to the war in Ukraine. Chinese President Xi Jinping in Davos called for globalization five years ago. It is unlikely that he will make the same speech today.
The combination of the pandemic and Putin has accelerated the already existing trend towards de-globalization, and this process – rather than the protesters outside the steel ring – poses the greatest threat to the future of Davos.
The former British cabinet minister, who once stayed in Davos, said the meeting was no longer relevant. “It got ridiculous,” he said. “You have executives who fly to Switzerland on private planes and then promise to plant millions of trees as carbon compensation.”
Fewer trees will need to be planted this year.