A snowless Davos tells the world’s elite all they need to know | will it snow in florida


 

In the week before Davos plays its usual wintry part as host of the World Economic Forum’s annual jamboree, the biggest question isn’t what might be discussed among business and political leaders, but whether there’ll be enough snow for skiing.

Though it’s perched at an altitude of 1,560 metres, this year’s rare winter heat wave saw the Swiss town basking in temperatures well above freezing in early January, with its mountainsides covered in dead, brown grass and hikers out with their dogs. The snow arrived just in time for the elite visitors, replenishing the slopes and covering the concrete conference centre with its familiar frosting. More is on the way. But 2023 is no freak year: It’s a sign of things to come in the Davos region, where the atmosphere is heating up faster than most of the planet.

The town isn’t just host to high-level discussions about the changing world, it’s home to a weather station that holds the longest series of high-altitude, daily snow-depth data. Scientists have found that the trends recorded there are replicated across the Alps.

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A lack of snow makes hiking trails accessible to dog walkers on January 6.

Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg

A lack of snow makes hiking trails accessible to dog walkers on January 6.

Satellite images show summertime snow cover has fallen 10% in the last 40 years. That doesn’t seem like a lot, until you look at the depth of the snow that accumulates through the winter. Compared with 1971, when the WEF’s inaugural annual meeting took place, the snowpack has thinned more than 40% on average. When snow disappears, it’s replaced by trees, which isn’t a good thing. Dark foliage absorbs heat from the sun that was previously reflected by the white snow. That causes even more warming, according to Sabine Rumpf, a professor at the University of Basel in Switzerland, setting in motion a negative feedback loop and accelerating temperature rises.

“I hope it’s a real reality check” for the world’s decision-makers, says Gail Whiteman, professor of sustainability at Exeter Business School in the U.K. “Switzerland in the winter should have snow. It’s not just that you can’t ski as much as you might want. The whole biodiversity chain changes, because trees start to think it’s spring and so do flies.”

Despite decades of incremental change, the risks posed by a warming planet weren’t much of a priority for the world’s elite until recently. Barring the pandemic, the WEF has physically convened business leaders and heads of state every year since 1971. This year, more than a third of the panel discussions on the official agenda are linked to climate change, alongside the usual fare on the health of the global economy and the delicate state of geopolitics. But looking at the executive summaries from the 2010s, the first mention of “climate” didn’t come until 2014.

An idled snow cannon in the village of Davos Wiesen, Switzerland, on January 8.

Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg

An idled snow cannon in the village of Davos Wiesen, Switzerland, on January 8.

Even that shift required years of effort from outside the town’s angular concrete conference hall, Whiteman told Bloomberg Green’s Zero podcast, to convince business and political leaders that they were vastly underestimating the risks of unmitigated climate change.

Whiteman has dedicated her career to bringing the natural sciences to corporate boardrooms. After spending time in the Canadian Arctic, which is warming much faster than other parts of the world, she was determined to carry the message of urgency to Davos. The motto was “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

But it was an uphill battle.

Without the magic white pass needed to get past the machine gun-toting security guards at the Davos Congress Centre, and gobsmacked by how much it cost to rent a venue anywhere else in town, Whiteman struck on the idea of building a “base camp,” just as climbers do to scale Everest, part of another iconic mountain range that’s experiencing unprecedented glacial melt.

 

In 2017, she pitched the kind of tent used by polar explorers a little distance away from the venue, which did double duty as presentation space by day and bedroom by night.

“We were very thankful for any dinner anybody ever gave us during the Davos weeks,” says Whiteman. The initiative worked, with over 100 people showing up the first year, and Arctic Basecamp was born.

Over the ensuing meetings, the tent became a home to climate scientists and activists who either hadn’t heard of Davos before or couldn’t afford to come. Their main message was that what happens in the Earth’s frozen expanses has an impact across the world, from rising sea levels to changing storm patterns. The North American cold snap that pushed temperatures in Texas well below freezing in December and the unusually warm New Year’s Eve that central and western Europe experienced are both linked to disruptions in the Polar vortex caused by climate change.

In the language of Davos, however, melting glacial ice has monumental economic repercussions. The productivity of all wheat baskets in the world is directly linked to temperatures in the poles, says Whiteman, giving just one example of the bonds that exist across the planet. At Whiteman’s basecamp, scientists brief business leaders on what these risks mean for their bottom line and why helping the world meet climate goals is very much in their financial self-interest.

Cable cars ascend the slopes of the Parsenn ski resort on January 7.

Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg

Cable cars ascend the slopes of the Parsenn ski resort on January 7.

“When we touch their humanity, and we combine that with self-interest at times, people can rise to the occasion,” says Whiteman. “I’ve seen it happen many times.”

But she is also the first to acknowledge that progress on awareness will be for naught if emissions don’t fall. In 2022, the world hit a record high in planet-warming gases released after the energy crisis prompted some governments to turn back to burning coal.

Still, every meeting that Whiteman has with the powerful people that congregate in Davos gives her another cause for optimism. In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by his security detail, walked by and asked Whiteman, as she tells it: “What the heck are you doing here with this big Arctic tent? You’re sleeping here?”

She ushered him in and talked to him about climate change in the Arctic, showing samples of ice cores that provide us with primary evidence that the warming we observe today is unprecedented in more than 800,000 years.

“Davos gives you the opportunity where you can make those unusual moments” happen, says Whiteman, “and just speak science to power.”

Bloomberg’s Gem Atkinson, Maria Wood, Oscar Boyd and Christine Driscoll contributed to this report.



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