Davos 2020 should be all about climate crisis but Trump won't admit it | Larry Elliott

Subject was not an issue at forum’s first meeting in 1971 but should now be at forefront for US president

Richard Nixon was in the White House, Mao Zedong was running China and Ted Heath was the prime minister of the UK when hand-picked members of the global business, academic and policymaking elite were first invited to a get-together in the Swiss resort of Davos in 1971.

This year marks the 50th Davos but there is not exactly a party mood. The World Economic Forum, the body that organises the annual talkfest in the snow, is “committed to improving the state of the world” but in key respects things look worse today than they did at the start of the 70s.

Not in every way, obviously. The percentage of the world’s population living in abject poverty has come down sharply, largely because of rapid growth in China and India. The gap between rich and poor within countries has increased over the past five decades but inequality is not the same as destitution. Living standards have risen, whether measured by incomes per head, life expectancy or technical progress.

There were no smartphones in 1971 and nor was there an inkling that they would be manufactured in the economic superpower that China has become. Under Mao, China was essentially a peasant economy and the reforms that led to industrialisation and the migration from the country to the cities were still some way off. Nobody had the slightest interest in China’s growth rate or its trade policy. A small group of developed countries – led by the US – accounted for the lion’s share of global GDP and called all the shots. That is no longer the case.

By the early 70s, the long period of post second world war growth was coming to an end. The Bretton Woods currency system, held together by the link between the US dollar and gold, would collapse in 1971 as a result of the inflationary strains on the American economy caused by the cost of the Vietnam war and higher domestic spending.

The mood music does not seem to have changed all that much. The 2020 Davos takes place amid concern that a crisis is looming. It is more than a decade since the end of the financial crisis of 2007-09 but the recovery has been tepid. Wage growth, investment growth and productivity growth have all been poor. Financial markets look dangerously overvalued.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump is due to visit the World Economic Forum in Davos on 21 January. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

So why is the current state of affairs more troubling than it was in 1971? Well, for a start there seemed a simple – if harsh – way out of the economic problems associated with the end of Bretton Woods. Inflation, according to economists such as Milton Friedman, was caused by profligate governments printing too much money to pay for excessive wage settlements and public spending pledges. The answer was to reduce budget deficits, to rein in the power of organised labour and to give control of interest rates to independent central banks.

This was broadly the system in place from the mid-1970s to the moment when everything went pear-shaped in 2008. At that point, there was something of a crash rethink. Interest rates were slashed, central banks pumped money into their economies, budget deficits were allowed to balloon. Yet the strong and sustained recovery that was expected has not happened. The main impact of the extraordinary policy stimulus has been seen in asset prices rather than in the real economy. In the event of another crisis, central banks look to be short of conventional weapons.

Tentatively, there are signs that fiscal policy – regulating the economy through tax and public spending – is making a comeback. In Britain, the chancellor, Sajid Javid, says interest rates are going to stay low for years to come, making it possible to borrow cheaply for long-term infrastructure projects.

Clearly, the money could be put to good use. The big, inescapable difference between the 1971 Davos and the one this week is the threat posed by the climate emergency. A flick through Fritz Schumacher’s seminal 1973 green text – Small is Beautiful – finds no mention of global heating. It simply was not a political issue back then.

Now, of course, it is. Each year the WEF asks a sample of experts and policymakers to list the most likely risks the world will face over the next decade. Unsurprisingly, against a backdrop of droughts, hurricanes, bushfires, melting glaciers and a steady heating of the planet, for the first time the top five threats are all environmental.

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Klaus Schwab, the founder of Davos and the WEF’s executive chairman, has written to all those attending this year’s event urging them to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. An indication of how successful that appeal will be should come on Tuesday when Donald Trump drops by.

What Trump should say – but won’t – is as follows: the US recognises the existential threat posed by global heating. It accepts that multilateral cooperation is needed if the problem is to be tackled before it it is too late. As a businessman, he is aware that no company could hope to survive if it depleted its own capital in the way that humans are consuming natural resources.

To that end, the White House is working on an ambitious plan for the climate change summit due to be held in Glasgow at the end of this year. As the world’s biggest economy, the US will commit to stringent emissions targets, commit to renewable energy and bankroll a modern equivalent of the postwar Marshall Plan to help poor countries make the transition to a low-carbon future. Why? Because whereas the threat in 1948 was the spread of communism, now it is the much greater danger that capitalism will eat itself.


Larry Elliott

The GuardianTramp

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