One sometimes hears that the World Economic Forum is all talk and no action. I don’t buy it — talk matters. Social currency is a powerful driver of change, even at the highest reaches of business and government. And last week climate change was on center stage at the famous Davos summit. So as I moved through the WEF Annual Meeting, the question on my mind was simple: How many of the conversations here will lead to real-world outcomes?
President Barack Obama had helped point the spotlight with his second inaugural address two days earlier, but the real reason for renewed focus, after several years of near silence, is the increasingly destructive and incredibly costly wave of unprecedented weather events that have occurred around the globe. There were more than 30 official sessions on climate change, environmental resilience and food security this year at the Annual Meeting, and even more related side events.
At a dinner on climate change and extreme weather hosted by my organization the Environmental Defense Fund and The Weather Company, meteorologist Jim Cantore explained that the vanishing sea ice around the North Pole may be changing the whole jet stream. That could trigger a level of climate chaos that makes the disruptions we’ve seen so far look like child’s play.
Beneath all the talk was doubt about whether humanity could rise to the scale of this massive challenge. More than a few hands shot up in one session when the speaker asked if the time had come to deploy geoengineering – using technology on a massive scale in an attempt to reverse the problem by, for example, altering the chemistry of the ocean, or trying to block the sun’s rays from the atmosphere.
I didn’t raise my hand. I don’t see the logic of compounding the dangers of people playing god, with unknowable results. While these grand – and grandiose – ideas might appeal to a certain kind of techno-optimism, they also provide an easy distraction from the investments we know we need to make to protect against extreme weather that’s already here.
Technological fixes won’t change the fact that a certain amount of climate disruption is already guaranteed, thanks to past emissions. But we also need to make sure we don’t make the problem worse. That means we have to manage the unavoidable, but also avoid the unmanageable. The trend line to hell stops only when we slash emissions.
On that score, the conference reverberated with talk about the U.S. windfall in natural gas from shale, made possible by new drilling techniques, and how it is generating an economic boom while reducing heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution. Many of these enthusiasts didn’t mention the serious problem posed by methane – the main component of natural gas – leaking from wellheads, pipes, compressors and storage tanks.
Methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 in causing stronger storms, prolonged droughts and higher temperatures over the next two decades. That means these “fugitive” emissions could seriously undermine the climate advantage of natural gas.
I listened as many business people in Davos raised concerns about extreme weather and its effect on their enterprises. This made me hopeful that worried talk will lead to climate action.
The WEF released its Global Risks 2013 report assessing the biggest and most likely risks that threaten the world over the next 10 years, citing rising greenhouse emissions as the third most likely hazard of the coming decade. Not coincidentally, water shortages came in at No. 4. Failure to adapt to changing climate was No. 7, and extreme weather No. 10 on this list of good reasons for sleepless nights.
Business seems to share this view. Seventy percent of companies believe climate change has the potential to significantly affect revenue, according to a report released last week by the Carbon Disclosure Project and Accenture, based on a survey of over 2,400 companies. Nearly a third say they are experiencing the impact already.
Here, I am cautiously positive. There’s no mystery about what we must do to avoid the worst impacts. We need to continue the urgent efforts to cut CO2 emissions. In his first term, President Obama cut carbon emissions from automobiles by acting to double fuel efficiency in cars and light trucks. Now he needs to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to finally cut emissions from power plants, proposed and existing
The president has also begun to open up a second front in the war against climate pollution. The administration founded a 65-nation group with the unwieldy name The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants to cut emissions of fast-acting potent gasses like methane, which are responsible for up to 40 percent of the incremental warming and radiative forcing we will see in the next 20 years. If we slow the increase in warming, we also reduce the threat of extreme weather impacts.
Those are good steps, of course, but they’re not enough. To bend the climate trend line upward from the fire pit, we need to pick up the pace of change. That’s going to take the combined efforts of leaders from all walks of life, as well as new action by government.
Getting there will not happen without continued public pressure. But I am more optimistic than I have been in a long time that we may be ready to break the political logjam and move forward once again on the solutions needed to prevent economic and environmental catastrophe.
The question now is what happens when these global leaders go back to their day jobs. Without action, talk is cheap. And we know silence will be devastatingly expensive.
PHOTO: A woman wearing a mask rides past smoking chimneys and cooling towers of a steel plant in Beijing, January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Suzie Wong