Jan 23, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Media coverage of Davos portrays more conference rhetoric than reality

illustration of davos Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos via Getty Images: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP and Harold Clements/Express
Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos via Getty Images: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP and Harold Clements/Express

Call it the hypocrisy gap. Davos has always struggled with the difference between the conference's rhetoric and its reality. This year, as climate change and talk of "stakeholder capitalism" increasingly dominate the public agenda, the gap between why delegates go and why they say they go is wider than ever.

Why it matters: Davos, once a quiet Alpine talking shop, has become a global media frenzy. Governments, corporations, and the World Economic Forum itself (slogan: "Committed to Improving the State of the World") increasingly see Davos as an opportunity to send the message that they care deeply about {insert cause here}. But that's not what keeps the plutocrats returning year after year.

The value of Davos, the reason why companies spend astonishing sums of money to attend, has nothing to do with improving the state of the world and indeed has precious little to do with the official WEF program.

  • Heads of state, finance ministers and plutocrats attend Davos for a very simple reason: It's the one time each year when they're all in the same place at the same time. If your job involves talking face-to-face with CEOs from around the world, one week in Davos can save you months' worth of private-jet flights.

Davos delegates are even happy to embrace Donald Trump — the unilateralist who, according to former adviser Steve Bannon, "couldn’t say ‘postwar rules-based international order'" even if you threatened to shoot him. (That's from the new Trump book by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post.)

  • Trump is opposed to almost everything that Davos ostensibly stands for, but his presidency has been good for the markets and for billionaires' net worth.
  • A capital-friendly neoliberal consensus still reigns in Davos, where wealth taxes are anathema and the phrase "doing good" is invariably preceded by the phrase "doing well by."

Davos is home to the world's most exclusive caste system, where even billionaires suffer from crippling FOMO and angle desperately for coveted invites. (The Google party is the perennial hot ticket.)

  • The implicit message: You can never have too much of the two things that get you status at Davos, which are money and power.

The bottom line: Davos delegates have to be judged by their deeds, not by their words. Talk is cheap; white badges with blue dots are expensive. And shareholders demand a financial return on the cost of attendance.

What's happening
greta thurnberg at Photo: World Economic Forum/Manuel Lopez
Photo: World Economic Forum/Manuel Lopez

Greta Thunberg, maybe 5 feet tall, wearing animal-free boots and a well-worn hoodie, stands on a box to reach the WEF microphones to address the assembled suits. The words "Climate Apocalypse" are clearly visible behind her.

  • The message: The Swedish teenager took a train to Davos and was effective in speaking truth to power.
  • The reality: Thunberg was part of a panel discussion in the small Sanada room, which seats maybe 150 people. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin subsequently dismissed Thunberg by saying that "after she goes and studies economics in college she can come back and explain that to us.”

Trump, by contrast, was given the cavernous Congress Hall and gave a characteristically immodest speech in front of thousands of delegates.

  • He was then congratulated by WEF chief Klaus Schwab:
"Mr. President, thank you for your speech, and congratulations for what you have achieved — for your economy, and also for your society. ... All your politics certainly are aiming to create better inclusiveness for the American people. ... I want to thank you personally for injecting optimism into our discussions. We have many problems in the world, but, as you said, we need dreams.
— Klaus Schwab, to Donald Trump

The bottom line: Thunberg's presence at Davos was great for the conference's optics. But Trump (and his daughter) effortlessly topped the conference hierarchy.

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