Davos 2024: A near whiteout in terms of climate discussions

The inhabitants of a small, scenic town in the Swiss Alps have waved goodbye, for another year, to the crème de la crème of a certain segment of the global elite. The streets of Davos are once again full of those whose interests lean more toward good powder than global power.

As is the case every year, the World Economic Forum has prompted much global handwringing about the concentration of influence in the hands of the few—who tend to be wealthy, white, and male. Given that the Davos agenda tends to reflect the priorities and preoccupations of the powerful, however, it is also worth reflecting on what was—and was not—on the agenda. Ukraine and the Middle East featured prominently, but in thematic terms, it was artificial intelligence (AI) that garnered the vast majority of attention, with sides of cryptocurrency and the need to rebuild trust in democracy.

Discussion on the environment was—with a few exceptions—mostly notable for its absence. Despite being the existential crisis of our time, discussion of climate change took up a much smaller proportion of airtime than has been the case in previous years.

Why did climate change slip down the Davos agenda this year?

One top executive told Politico that that COP28 had been such a success that businesses didn’t feel that they needed to weigh in. This interpretation seems much too optimistic, as we’ve written before. Could the sparse climate conversation be related to the fact that the business world appears to have fallen out of love with the idea of ESG? Again, we’d disagree; while the term “ESG” may have become problematic, businesses are aware that their actions in this space are more important than ever.

Instead, I’d posit a couple of other explanations. The first is a lack of urgency. Most of us, including Davos attendees, understand that action to combat climate change is both necessary and a solid investment. But many have the sense that the situation is not yet critical enough to warrant a consistent focus in the face of other overlapping crises, or they may underestimate the value that such investments can bring. To combat the resulting inertia, we—governments, businesses, and pressure groups—need to do two things. We need to communicate the increasingly compelling business case for climate action more strongly and more consistently. And, to make it clear that vanishingly few things are as important as getting our relationship with the environment onto more sustainable footing, we need to get better at finding the climate stories that will connect with and inspire action from key stakeholders. This dual mission is at the heart of everything that we at LEFF Sustainability Group do with our clients.

A second partial explanation may be that global leaders are not exempt from the communication issues that plague the rest of us mere mortals. Perhaps many—or at least some—of them do want to talk about the part they play in the fight against climate change but aren’t sure how to do so in a way that doesn’t open them to accusations of glibness or greenwashing. Such individuals can draw a number of lessons from examples of climate messaging that did—and didn’t—work at Davos 2024.

1. A catchy tagline can help (but isn’t enough). The initiatives that have made it into the standard slew of articles that recap the most important results of Davos tend to be those that can be summarized in a way that is succinct and charismatic. One example from this year was 1t.org’s announcement that more than 100 companies pledged to conserve, restore, and grow a total of 12 billion trees. In today’s media landscape, ideas and initiatives are much more likely to break through if people can understand them quickly. A tagline will not, however, be enough by itself; the bad press that is likely to ensue from misleading information will more than outweigh any initial buzz that a catchy announcement might generate. Strong sustainability-related communications can be built only from solid sustainability strategies and initiatives.

2. The messenger matters.Most Davos-related column inches devoted to climate issues focused on what the “big beasts” of climate activism—including Al Gore and John Kerry—did and said. But politicians didn’t get all the headlines: legendary conservationist Jane Goodall received a lot of attention for the tough messages she delivered to global leaders. Companies need to think carefully about who they choose as the face of their sustainability ambitions and initiatives, which may include considering strategic partnerships with respected experts and influencers. This doesn’t mean that using internal talent can’t be effective, but companies should seek to enable their key executives to build a strong platform as thought leaders.

3. It’s never too late to start doing better. On the face of it, Fortescue Chairman Andrew Forrest, who generated a lot of headlines at Davos, is an unlikely climate hero. He made his money—and Forbes estimates his net worth as $25 billion—by mining iron ore in Australia and selling it to China. More recently, however, he has focused on repositioning his company as a green-energy powerhouse, with a heavy focus on green hydrogen. While LEFF would not, of course, condone his call that the bosses of oil and gas companies be “put on spikes,” his emergence as an authoritative and persuasive voice in the fight against climate change does illustrate that it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf. For companies that feel they are on the back foot in regard to their environmental footprint, promoting transparency and committing to small steps in the right direction are great places to start.

While it can be disheartening to see yet another major global conference come and go without a clear climate-related breakthrough, pockets of progress remain. And for every good news story that breaks through, there are likely tens of others that didn’t make it into the headlines. Our hope is that, by drawing attention to what works—and what doesn’t—in sustainability communications, we can help businesses get the credit they deserve and possibly fan the flames of hope that, globally, we can all do better.

Katie Parry

Katie Parry is passionate about helping clients find the stories and narratives that will unlock the change they want to see in the world. Her principal focus is on sustainability, but she also has substantial experience across other sectors and industries, including the public sector, consumer, and technology. Before joining LEFF, Katie was a McKinsey & Company consultant and a lecturer in writing for public policy in the Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program. She has also managed a clean-water research program for the World Bank and spent two years as the United Kingdom’s climate security negotiator at NATO. She holds an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, an MS in statistics from the London School of Economics, and a BA in philosophy, politics, and economics from the University of Oxford.

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