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The World Economic Forum’s ‘Hottest Ideas’ for Climate Change are Tepid at Best

3p Contributor | Wednesday October 2nd, 2013 | 4 Comments
dalian china

Dalian, China

By Adam Byrnes, Erb Institute, University of Michigan

What do you get when you put four amazing climate intellects in a room and ask them for the “hottest” ideas to solve climate change? Well, if you are the World Economic Forum who, at their recent meeting in Dalian, China, hosted a panel session to answer just that question, then the answer is an unqualified: Zero. Zilch. Nada.

The session at the Summer Davos conference was titled “Hot Topics in Climate Change” and was billed as a discussion where four experts from around the world and across sectors would present the “hottest” ideas out there to solve climate change. And, drum roll please, the hottest ideas to solve this massive problem are:

  1. An energy efficiency model that is already used in many parts of the world
  2. A proposal to outline various industry frameworks that different stakeholders use to make decisions so that other stakeholders can understand each other better (if it sounds convoluted and useless, that’s because it is)
  3. Better communication (no joke – that’s the idea and I’m not sure how it’s different than #2 except perhaps in brevity)
  4. And, last but not least, speeding up the funding for a satellite that will drastically increase our certainty that global warming is happening

Are these really the hottest ideas to solve climate change?

With the exception of the satellite idea, which is both pretty cool and might potentially solve an important problem with regards to how humans perceive this problem, these ideas are lacking in both originality and potential.

To be fair to the panelists, the session’s audience members – experts from business, nonprofits, science, and academia who paid thousands of dollars to attend the WEF and fly halfway around the world to offer their insight and wisdom – did not offer anything much better. One person suggested “carbon free” nuclear power. Another offered geoengineering as a serious option in a “Well, since we are all brainstorming here” kind of way.

And to be fair to the Forum, there was some honest dialogue about the problem, some of which came from unlikely places. One CEO addressed the following to attendees of a session about environmental boundaries.

Since you can afford to be at the WEF, then you are likely rich, otherwise you could not afford to be here. Most likely you make up the richest people in the world and the billion richest people in the world consume 40-50% of global resources. You are all aware that there aren’t one or two billion people in the world, but seven billion growing to nine, so you all understand that it is totally unsustainable what we are doing. And that we in the richest parts need to do more with the less.”

Pretty heady stuff, but it is hard to find much of a silver lining when the world’s elite come together to discuss problems and end up with a list of solutions that neither add to the larger discussion nor push the envelope in any direction whatsoever.

What can the WEF do to advance this issue? They can start by taking a lead from the CEO quoted above. Implicit in his comment is the fact that there are four billion people in the world who are currently impoverished, but who are slowly moving up the social ladder into the middle class. As they move into the middle class, they will no doubt expect – and one could argue, deserve – the same quality of life those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have come to enjoy. The problem is that the world does not have enough resources to support that number of people living at that level of affluence. Perhaps the WEF could focus its tremendous network and influence into promulgating hot ideas to decrease resource strain despite increasing affluence.

Fortunately the WEF has just the right people in their network who are working on this issue. Take WEF attendee Sameer Hajee whose South Africa-based Nuru Energy is working to increase energy use, the building block of affluence, in developing countries while mitigating carbon output through the use of renewables. Or take Peggy Liu, whose nonprofit JUCCCE is working to make China’s cities, where soon 75-80 percent of the country’s population will live, more livable and less resource intensive. Or take…well, you get the gist. These ideas, and others like them, are the ones that will change the world and bend the trend line away from a piping hot climate to a somewhat more manageable temperature.

Climate change is a wicked, nasty, complex problem. Unless we have serious discussions among serious and seriously influential people (aka the people who attend the WEF), then we should all just move to Canada where it should be lovely come the summer of 2050 when the temperature has risen 4 degrees.

…but in the meantime I am betting on the Sameer Hajee’s of the world. And so should the WEF.

Adam Byrnes is an MBA and MS candidate at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. He has experience in various private, public, and nonprofit sector roles including: working on multiple (mostly successful) political campaigns, developing public policy at multiple government levels, managing relationships with over a hundred elected officials for a large electric utility, and developing a strategic plan for an urban ecology non-profit in San Francisco. Passionate about technology commercialization, Adam has recently worked for three early-stage start-ups, including Simpa Networks, a Bangalore-based start-up working to provide renewable energy to people without access to electricity.

Adam attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2013 in Dalian, China through the Student Reporter conference reporting program. Student Reporter is a journalism incubator and online media outlet for business, economics and sustainability stories.

[image credit: Ashley Wang, Flickr cc]


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  • Rob Watson

    The WEF regional forum I attended a few years ago as an invited speaker was similarly insipid. I fear for our world if this is the best our economic and business “leaders” can muster.

  • Tim Greig

    With the combination of “economic “and “forum” why would you expect much else?

    • Alyson

      If you want solutions, you need entrepreneurs working on the problems. Their minds are practical and creative, and they love a challenge. We’re working on a project now that will absorb carbon and provide raw materials for products. Can you think what it is?

  • Kendricks Lament

    Here’s one for free – set up mirrors to reflect the suns rays off the earth’s surface.