When corporate leaders and politicians gather today for the World Economic Forum's annual meeting, climate change will dominate their agenda in an unprecedented way.
From U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres to European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard, the Swiss Alpine town of Davos will be awash in high-level advocates for curbing global warming. Working under the theme "Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business," the summit's Wednesday-to-Friday program features no fewer than 23 sessions on disaster resilience, clean energy development and low-carbon growth as well as a dedicated Climate Day.
Forum advisers say they hope to see some concrete partnerships emerge from the discussions on issues like ending tropical deforestation and spurring corporate investment into clean energy in developing countries. But the overarching goal, analysts said, is to spark a sense of momentum as world leaders head toward a 2015 Paris deadline for creating a new global climate pact.
"This is the kickoff of a new political season on climate change," said Nigel Purvis, president and CEO of the consultancy group Climate Advisers. "The World Economic Forum is kicking off the year when climate is coming back to the political level, and that creates opportunities."
Governments have vowed that a new climate agreement is in the works that will see all major emitters cutting greenhouse gas levels in the years after 2020, with targets due to be announced early next year. That means most of the heavy lifting will have to be done this year, and U.N. leaders are pulling out all the stops to make sure the issue is on the global radar screen. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a leaders' summit on climate change in September parallel to the 68th session of the General Assembly.
Looking for 'large-scale actions'
Dominic Waughray, head of environmental initiatives at the World Economic Forum, said the United Nations specifically requested that the Davos gathering feature climate change as a way to boost practical low-carbon collaboration ahead of the leaders' summit. Government leaders from Peru -- which is hosting this year's U.S. climate talks -- and France approached the WEF on climate, as well.
"We have an interesting arc coming up here," Waughray said of the U.N. climate leaders' summit and annual negotiating session in Peru before final talks in Paris. Davos, he said, is a natural place to spur momentum on the issue. He pointed to a $12 million water security partnership and the Grow Africa collaboration that accelerates agriculture investments on the continent, both of which developed out of the forum, as ways it can contribute practical action.
"There is no better place in the world than the World Economic Forum to bring together key CEOs, key heads of government, key NGOs," he said. Waughray argued that the global negotiations on climate change are critical for creating the global goals. But, he said, "we also need a portfolio of large-scale actions."
The agenda for this year's World Economic Forum includes a conversation with leading economist Nicholas Stern, author of a landmark 2006 assessment of climate change's economic risks; discussions on how to anticipate and manage the economic risks of climate disasters; and an update on what the science has to say about melting ice sheets and rising sea levels.
A handful of issues, in particular, Waughray said, will see a concentrating of work around them Friday, which is Climate Day. Those are short-lived climate pollutants, like black soot, methane and the refrigerants hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), around which the United States and other countries have built a voluntary partnership; energy efficiency and energy access; ending deforestation in supply chains; the role of youth in motivating the climate agenda; and spurring "green" private investment in developing countries.
Breaking through the 'crowd noise'
"Davos is probably not going to create policy, but it can generate business consensus, and business consensus is very important," said Christoph Frei, secretary-general of the World Energy Council and a member of the World Economic Council.
With countries now thinking through cohesive energy policies, Frei argued that forums like Davos combined with bottom-up actions happening on domestic levels in rich and poor countries can drive change. "A climate agreement is about energy policy," he said. "The climate issue, without movement on the energy side, is going to go nowhere."
Richard Saines, head of North America climate change and environmental markets for the law firm Baker & McKenzie and a member of the forum's Global Agenda Council on Climate Change, said he believes the attitude toward the global negotiations has fundamentally changed since the 2009 U.N. climate talks, and in a good way.
Before that 2009 summit in Copenhagen, Denmark -- which failed to deliver after it was billed as the place where the climate treaty to end all climate treaties would be completed -- Saines said, "there was so much anticipation about that being the moment where it all got solved. Now we understand that this is a long process."
"But we need to make important progress along the trajectory," he said, arguing that if corporate and political leaders at a forum like Davos can develop a shared understanding of the need to take serious action on climate change, it can translate into policies.
"Davos represents an opportunity to bring the leaders of the private sector together with leading thinkers and government actors to talk about the issues of the day," he said. "With all the other crowd noise that's out there, climate change has still managed to rise to the level of very, very serious prominence in the context of Davos because it does have fundamental impacts on the global economy."