Friday April 28, 2017

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Bringing the Arctic to the mountain

Foregrounder | Forget Frontiers, and cut out the Circle. A group of scientists is headed to Davos this week to spread the word about the dangers of the changing Arctic
A new frontier (Photo: Flyout)

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One week from now, many of our readers will turn their attention to Tromsø, Norway, and the annual Arctic Frontiers conference. For those who deal with the region on a regular basis, the gathering is one of the year’s high-points.

For those who focus more broadly, on the other hand, the big event of the year begins on Monday, with the meeting known simply as Davos (see video at right for a full introduction to this year's event).

The gathering, which takes its name from the Swiss town where it is held, is the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, a non-profit whose motto is ‘committed to improving the state of the world’. To do that, it gathers A-list decision makers in Alpine seclusion so they can discuss the most pressing global issues.

SEE RELATED: Taking the circle out of Reykjavík

Unofficially, Davos is the place to be if you consider yourself to be anyone in politics, business or the non-profit industry, and folks who attend have a saying of their own: there more programme events you turn up at, the less you get out of it. The real action takes place on the sidelines.

Considering that 3,000-person guest list starts with António Guterres, the newly installed UN secretary-general, and encompasses multiple heads of state (including Xi Jinping) and captains of industry from over 1,000 companies, there is probably something to this.

This heady mix, say a group of scientists who will be on hand to organise a science summit focusing on the global risks associated with climate change, is precisely why Davos, and not Tromsø or the other stops on the Arctic circuit, is the best opportunity to send a message about the risk involved with the changes to the region. 

“Most people in Davos can tell you that the Amazon is the world’s lungs, and will argue for its protection,” says Gail Whiteman, of the University of Lancaster, one of the organisers of the summit. “But few outside the region have an idea of the role the Arctic plays, or the changes it is facing. Those that do tend to see the changes as an opportunity.”

SEE RELATED: Deserving of our full protection

Strictly speaking global warming is not one of the main topics of discussion this year’s gathering is due to take up, but green issues have a heavy presence in this year’s Global Risk Report, the WEF study published ahead of each year’s Davos meeting, and which sets the table for the discussions held there.

It is this interest that Ms Whiteman says her group is hoping to capitalise on.

“We are at Davos to make the Arctic visible,” she says. “Arctic change is at a critical point, and the kind of decisions that need to be made start at Davos.”  

Part of the way in which her group will do that is by camping out using field equipment supplied by the British Antarctic Survey, another of the organisers. Ms Whiteman admits this has an element of gimmick to it, but the summit is founded on substance: it will feature the participation of Al Gore, a former US vice-president who is know best known as a climate evangelist, and Christiana Figueres, who for six years until this July served as the UN's leading climate-change official.

The organisers also hope to be able to walk around a petition urging Davos attendees to throw money into the kitty to help fund efforts to keep decision-makers up-to-date on the situation in the region.

SEE RELATED: Debunking persistent myths about a global asset

The idea of showing up at Davos, Ms Whiteman explains, dates back 2012 and a discussion she found herself having during that year’s Arctic Frontiers.  

“Everyone wanted to know how to get people in boardrooms to talk about the risk Arctic change was posing to their businesses. The answer seemed obvious: you needed to be where those types of people were. They were not in Tromsø. They were in Davos.”

Although this will be the first year that the Arctic is addressed specifically at Davos, the WEF has had its eye on the region since 2010. In 2014, it made it a special focus. Since then, Ms Whiteman and her colleagues have written a number of articles for the WEF seeking to explain the changes the Arctic is going through and the effect they will have on the wider world.

“It’s clear that the WEF gets what’s at stake, but not all of its constituents do. Posting articles is a start, but going to Davos and delivering the message in person will go much further,” she says.

SEE RELATED: A spill in time

WEF, at last year’s meeting, issued its Arctic Investment Protocol, a list of guidelines for responsible investment in the region. Ms Whiteman underscores that her group supports the guidelines, but she worries that once investors take an interest in the Arctic, the will see the opportunity but overlook the risk.

“Yes, there is something to be gained from change in the Arctic, but there is more to be lost. And unfortunately, the biggest burden – whether it is oil spills or black carbon – could be borne by the people who live there.”

If this message is to sink in, then what happens in Davos must not stay in Davos.