Oxfam and the Pharrell and Al Show: Inequality and climate change at Davos

As Newsweek estimate 1700 private jets descend on Davos, it looks as if climate change is set to be at least a topic of debate at the annual World Economic Forum.

Pharrell Williams kicks things off at 9am with a session on climate change, speaking alongside Al Gore (Williams is there as creative director of plastic recycling company Bionic Yarn, not as a musician, in case you were wondering). The latest WEF Global Risks report highlights environmental issues strongly. We might expect the recent papers on Planetary Boundaries to frame debates too, and for environmentally concerned business leaders like Paul Polman to keep climate on the agenda.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, is one of the co-hosts at Davos this year, and introduced the ‘twin challenges’ of inequality and climate change in a blogpost on the WEF site.

Her post runs alongside headlines around the world for Oxfam’s new study on inequality. According to their report, published on Monday, the share of the world’s wealth owned by the richest 1% has increased from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014. Oxfam further argues that on current trends, this richest 1% would own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016.

As Byanyima argues on her WEF blogpost:

The impacts of climate change are exacerbating this growing divide. As temperatures rise, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe, crops and livelihoods are being devastated, and the efforts of people on low incomes to feed their families are being undone. Those who are least to blame are suffering the most.

Issues of inequality’s intersection with issues of climate change have also been hinted at in the discussion around an expected encyclical on the environment from the Pope. Although this has been talked about for a while, debate over what might be included in the statement — and how sceptics will react — resurfaced just after Christmas with a nod to the Pope’s recent visit to the Philippines.

Still, the detail of the encyclical is yet to be seen. And Byanyima’s blogpost is light on detail too. Whether topics like the Green Climate Fund, more ambitious carbon cutting targets in richer countries or — possibly — climate reparations are really allowed an airing is yet to be seen.

As she told the Guardian “I was surprised to be invited to be a co-chair at Davos because we are a critical voice. We go there to challenge these powerful elites. It is an act of courage to invite me.” How far she challenges, and how far she’s listened to, is yet to be seen.

Davos is certainly an event of elites. Following the Pharrell and Al show, there’s Tony Blair on religion, Larry Summers on stagnation and quantitative easing, Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), and Eric Schmidt (Google) on the digital economy, and the King of Jordan on peace in the Middle East. Friday also sees will.i.am speaking on accelerating youth entrepreneurship in underserved communities in the US, but Davos is very much an event for those who hold the most power in the world, even if the rest of us are discussed. If you want to see exactly who is there, Quartz have a handy tool to search and sort who’s attending.

And Davos is only the first in many large high-level global events which will explore climate change on the run up to Paris. We’ll see various other UN talks, as well as G7 and G20 events before the end of the year. Many will be pleased to see climate change talked about in such settings — a necessary step on the way to a strong global agreement. But just as Oxfam’s work on inequality has increased scepticism over trickle-down economics, some may wish to unpack ideas of trickle-down power too.

Written by . Published on January 20, 2015. Last edited on February 10, 2015.

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