background image

Davos Man hits the snooze button — again

author image

By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

Who is Davos Man to you? 

Perhaps he stands for the Liberal Technocrat & Globalist Philanthropist. Alternatively, he might fit the bill more easily as a Billionaire Elitist. Perhaps there is one amongst you who would even stretch to Totalitarian Lizard. 

The Swiss resort attracts as many caricaturists as it does private jets this time of year. But whatever you read on the motives of Davos Man, there is one character flaw that risks sinking us all: he is a Snoozer.

Hitting the snooze button

Anyone who does a lot of travel will soon develop their own brand of hotel ninja-ness. For me, one of the must-dos of any stay is the wake-up call. Rise early in a boring enough hotel, and you’ll be amazed how much you can do before breakfast! 

In the penthouse suite of Davos Man, however, I imagine Samuel Huntington’s ‘dead soul’ starts the day something like this:

  • *Knock knock* “Mr Davos?”

  • “Uh? Ghfrtggzgh?”

  • “This is the wake-up call you ordered.”

  • “Uh-huh. Grsdgfffb. Gfgfgd-zzzzzzz…”

  • “Mr Davos? It’s your neighbour in suite 15. Your alarm’s been going off for the last half an hour.”

  • *Sound of heavy object being thrown at the door*

  • (aside) “Well, honey, at least the alarm’s stopped”

  • “Ah, Mr Davos. This is reception calling. You asked for a wake-up call two hours ago, and the kitchen has been keeping the breakfast you ordered warm for the last 45 minutes, but- “

  • “I’m going to tear the phone out of the wall socket now. Stick it on my bill ----------”

Long-term talk, short-term walk

Joking aside, what’s this got to do with climate change?

Well – to extend the metaphor – Davos man claims he likes wake-up calls. And nature has dutifully been knocking on his door with the mother of all wake-ups – and knocking louder each year. A week before the 2024 summit, C3S (the EU climate agency) announced that 2024 would be the first full year to breach the 1.5-degree threshold. That global crisis thing? It’s already here. 

The trouble is, when it comes to climate, Davos Man has been relentlessly hitting the snooze button.

Sure, there is a lot of sustainability talk at the conference. But despite earnest statements and grand titles across the 2024 programme, the numbers tell a different story. Climate change fell down the ranking of CEO concerns in the annual WEF survey – whilst AI leapt ahead. Of the nearly 3,000 participants, only around 50 white badges went to Chief Sustainability Officers – down 20% from the previous year. Meanwhile, Switzerland and Ukraine found a spare 120 slots just for national security advisors; whilst the UK used the forum to announce an extra £200 million in military aid, over three times its contribution to the headline loss and damage fund at COP28.

2024, to borrow the title of one panel, was all about “bots and plots.

What gets you out of bed?

There are two types of problem Davos Man will get out of bed for. 

The first is the whiff of breakfast, i.e. a money-making opportunity. This year AI took over the hype machine, securing over 30 separate sessions and topping the WEF’s annual global risks report. AI is a fascinating subject I’ll write about more this year. But there is also the feeling of a gold rush in the air, much as there was following the ‘Crypto summer’ just a few years ago.

The second is a hotel-wide, five-alarm panic. Ukraine and Covid have filled this role in previous years. Geopolitics took the crown in 2024. A majority of the world’s population - 4.2 billion people – will go to the polls this year, in an atmosphere of worsening polarisation and ratcheting tension. Javier Milei appeared as the Libertarian ghost at the feast. Tragedy in the Middle East added a few more war drums to Ukraine’s ongoing chorus. 

The real event horizon

Cue plenty of handwringing around both politics and technology. What will this all mean for growth, immigration, democracy? Of course, geopolitics matters. But unless the attendants can lift their eyes off yesterday’s newspapers and scan the horizon, they will continue to miss the bigger picture. 

Worrying about economic growth whilst ignoring climate action makes no sense. Where do they think growth will come from, if not the greatest economic transformation the world has ever undergone? What does an untreated climate breakdown mean if not economic collapse?

Worrying about immigration and social cohesion whilst ignoring climate action makes no sense. If you think this year’s wars and other drivers of mass movement are causing problems – just wait until half the globe can no longer support organised human life.

Worrying about political polarisation and extremist politics, whilst ignoring climate action, makes no sense. Without a coherent, focused push for a just transition, more and more of the world’s precarious and frustrated people will be pushed toward populists and green nativism. Just look at the way the AfD has co-opted the farmers' protests in Germany – a warning for the future, from the country most aware of its populist past.

Yesterday’s next big thing

If all Davos can focus on is this year’s election, this year’s war, and this year's hot new technology – all of which promise to ‘change the world forever,’ each and every year – then there will never be any space for long-term reflection on genuinely systemic problems.

This myopia isn’t restricted just to Davos. Solving climate change calls for farsighted, holistic thinking, century-defining investment, and the patience and courage to stay the course as we wait for the deferred returns. 

In that sense, the near-sighted snoozing of difficult problems characterises leadership in every major sector yet to make the transition. But it is in Davos that the world expects to find this leadership. Sadly, sustained attention is the resource in the shortest supply there.

Time to wake up, Davos man!

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)