Five climate communications lessons we can learn from Davos 2023

As the curtain closes on Davos 2023 and on the eve of edie’s Engagement Week, edie’s senior reporter Sarah George reflects on how the communications successes – and failures – of the World Economic Forum’s high-profile attendees can provide learnings for climate professionals.

Five climate communications lessons we can learn from Davos 2023

It’s over as swiftly as it begun – the Davos crowd are heading home this weekend. The week of 16-20 January has seen more than 2,500 people descending on the Alpine resort, with the summit back at full capacity after three years of Covid-related reschedules and cancellations.

But this return to the ‘new normal’ has not been a jubilant occasion. Between Russia’s war in Ukraine, fractured global supply chains, the ongoing pandemic and waning trust in governments, leaders are being asked to step up in the short term rather than celebrating with champagne and mapping out images of utopia.

As John Elkington, the founder of Volans and the creator of the ‘triple bottom line’ and ‘green swans’ concepts wrote on LinkedIn: “Having served on the Davos faculty back in the day, am not sorry to be elsewhere this year. The storm of challenges we predicted back then are coming home to roost.”

This has undeniably been a challenging environment in which to keep climate high on the agenda.

The summit has, I’ve observed from a distance, put on display hundreds of people attempting to strike the delicate balance of communicating the risks of the climate crisis while acknowledging that they are speaking predominantly (directly at least) to the wealthy, as the world faces a recession.

Some got it very right. Others have been hounded for getting it wrong.

This blog lists five takeaways on effective climate comms from Davos. Fear not, you don’t need to be a world leader or billionaire to implement them.

  1. Always think and rethink about how your message will land in context

In previous years, world leaders who skipped Davos have been accused of failing to care about the environment or other pressing world issues. Others have been hailed for skipping out in cases where they state that they are taking a stand against things the summit can represent to its critics, including grobalisation (think Donald Trump) and social exclusion (119 billionaires attended in 2020 and, each year, the attendee demographic is only around 25% female).

This year, several world leaders opted out on the grounds that they were needed in their countries amid the energy price crisis. This line of argument was taken by all G7 leaders bar Germany’s Olaf Scholz, as well as South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa.

It seems that this is only a successful line to sell if you are, actually, credibly addressing the energy price crisis and related issues in your country. UK PM Rishi Sunak has attempted to demonstrate care for the general public with new Levelling Up funding this week, but has been rapped for taking three jet flights within the UK in ten days and for continued clampdowns on the right to protest.  This comes amid continued strikes in sectors including healthcare and postal services, largely with employees unable to make ends meet.

The message here is clear: If you want to be seen to be taking a stand, you have to do the work.

This Davos has also, hopefully, prompted leaders to consider whether, in their messaging, they stand with long-standing traditions of politeness between the powerful, or with the interests of a wider group.

Several of those in attendance, including US climate envoy John Kerry and EU green chief Frans Timmermans, were rapped by environmentalists for welcoming the appointment of the new COP28 President. As expected, the UAE selected Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber. Al Jaber is the chief executive of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Corporation (ADNOC) and is also the UAE’s Special Envoy for Climate Change.  Kerry said he was a “terrific choice” and Timmermans emphasised his work on renewables. Activists say his appointment shows a conflict of interest, with the UN permitting fossil interests to permeate decisions that will affect the future for billions.

It is undeniably a tricky time to get your optics right. But there are opportunities to define where you stand and to clearly explain why. In this digital age, your choices will be resurfaced in the future. Think about who can hear what you’re saying and whether it will connect with them.

  1. Do not shut yourself off from challenges

There have perhaps been fewer world leaders on the ground in Davos this year than ever before. In addition to the G7 absences, Russia was, as expected, absent. The US and China sent ministers and envoys but not their leaders. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ahern stayed back home and stood down this week, citing burnout.

This means that the cohort represented at Davos is shifting. While this opening up of spaces means there are more billionaires, which brings its own can of worms, there was also an increased presence of activists this year, many with environmental messages.

Activism has taken many forms, from direct protests against private jets; to rousing statements from Greta Thumberg at a panel also featuring Vanessa Nakate and Luisa Neubauer; to the presence of investors and academics and others looking to disrupt business-as-usual through their day jobs.

In all its forms, this activism presents opportunities for a change in stance or behaviour – or just the provision of new information. This opportunity is rarely seized by media-trained leaders.

Away from Davos, though, this isn’t always the case. Several businesses are moving to open themselves up to questioning and criticism, with the aim of improving their environmental and social impact. The Body Shop, for example, hosted a panel at COP26 with questions led by youth activists sceptical of business sustainability pledges. It has since set up a ‘Youth Collective’ who are consulted for feedback on environment-related decisions.

  1. Balance risk and opportunity

A highlight of the Davos proceedings is always the publication of the annual global risks report. Taking into account the predictions of more than 1,200 experts, the report maps out the most likely and most severe risks on the horizon over a two-year period and a ten-year period.

By publishing the report at the start of the week, the WEF makes clear to attendees the sheer scale of the issues their discussions are grappling with. It also makes clear that these issues are not happening somewhere else, decades into the future – they are here, now, and are poised to worsen within a decade. Additionally highlighted are the dimensions of risk; that the environmental and social is ultimately economic.

Underplaying risk means we will likely fail to act accordingly. Using the language of risk doubtless opens the ears of financial players. But only thinking in terms of what we have to lose, and in terms of the sheer global scale, can be a recipe for paralysis induced by climate anxiety.

The WEF followed the global risks report with publications laying out the job creation and economic opportunities of creating a more environmentally sustainable and socially just world. These confirmed 60 million social jobs and 12 million green jobs by 2030 in just ten countries.

These two sets of reports balanced each other out, in a way. You can show the opportunities and make progress without forgetting how steep a hill there is to climb, and vice versa.

  1. Emphasise the ‘win-wins’

Nature has been edging its way up the UN climate COP agendas for several years now. New, unprecedented commitments on forests caught attention at COP27 and, last year, COP27 was swiftly followed by negotiations on a new biodiversity treaty in Montreal.

The organisers of this year’s WEF programmes on climate and nature listed together. There were also several events covering both topics, including a session on polar ecosystems and another on nature-based solutions for low-carbon cities.

There is an opportunity, here, to communicate that, if the world’s most pressing problems are interconnected, the solutions are too. This will help to gain buy-in from anyone who is pressed for time, short on resources or confused on where to start as they try to grapple with multiple issues.

There are intersections not only between climate and nature but climate and all manner of other issues – some of which will doubtless capture hearts and minds in your organisation. These range from public health (think air pollution interventions, active transport and sustainable diets) to social inclusion and culture (providing high-skilled green jobs in deprived communities, centring Indigenous knowledge, even saving languages from extinction).

  1. Go beyond pledges 

COP27 badged itself as an ‘action COP’. The hosts, in choosing this framing, were recognising how previous national and international commitments have gone unmet, with seemingly little in the way of accountability. They were making an attempt to ignite greater real-world impact, not create an ever-longer list of commitments and initiatives.

Davos meetings, perhaps to an even greater extent than COPs, are described as talking shops. Attendees hold all manner of panel discussions and speeches but no treaty is agreed upon. Yes, initiatives are launched by the WEF, but there is always the argument that one well-designed initiative that delivers on its pledges are better than several which all remain at pledge stage.

It was, therefore, welcome to not have an inbox inundated with new initiative launches. There were, however, plenty about existing initiatives being consolidated, streamlined or scaling up.

The Transforming Industrial Clusters Towards Net-Zero initiative announced nine new members, adding to its founding eight, for example. The initiative is striving to convene 100 industrial clusters to secure commitments to net-zero by mid-century. Even with just 17, it covers facilities currently generating 451 million metric tonnes of CO2e each year. This is about the same as Turkey’s annual CO2e footprint.

Elsewhere, the Giving to Amplify Earth Action (GAEA) initiative was formed to leverage philanthropic funding to the tune of $3trn annually for climate and nature. It will replicate the successes of existing programmes rather than reinventing the wheel.

Join the communications conversation during edie’s Engagement Week

Brought to you by the award-winning edie content team, Engagement Week 2023 (23 – 2January) is our themed week of editorial content and events dedicated to supporting sustainability, energy and CSR professionals in getting to grips with the everchanging sustainability reporting landscape and drive stakeholder engagement through captivating communications. 

Find all of our Engagement Week 2023 content and events here. Expect exclusive interviews, in-depth features, downloadable reports and an afternoon of online inspiration sessions.


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