If Billionaires Want to Rescue the Climate, They Have to Walk the Talk

When the world’s wealthy and powerful descend on the Swiss ski resort of Davos every year to offer prescriptions to fix the world, the assumption from many on the outside is that these moguls are converging to fix it in a way that will protect their riches, or better yet expand them. Thus while there was XXL greenwashing afoot at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in January 16 to20, at least it’s clear to the Davos crowd that the climate crisis is an acute threat, if foremost to their fortunes. Paul Hockenos on the role of climate change debates at the billionaires’ summit in Switzerland.

World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland (Credits: World Economic Forum/Mattias Nutt, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Indeed, climate breakdown is now so advanced that it threatens even the super wealthy, which is why the WEF agenda included climate change – prominently, yes, but still just one of many “important” issues including the likes of the “space economy.” Moreover, the event happened against the background of the journal Science’s revelation that US oil multinational ExxonMobil knew about and publicly downplayed climate change for decades, although its own scientists had made accurate predictions about global warming since the late 1970s. Representatives of ExxonMobil were in Davos, of course, as they always are, and opted to say nothing about these revelations.

It wasn’t Fridays for Future’s Greta Thunberg who took the company to task. UN general secretary António Guterres did the honors, saying about the analysis:  “We learned last week that certain fossil fuel producers were fully aware in the 1970s that their core product was baking our planet. Just like the tobacco industry, they rode rough-shod over their own science, and like the tobacco industry, those responsible must be held to account.” But fossil fuel producers are still increasing production, he continued, “knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival.”

For decades, the Davos gatherers believed the ExxonMobil spin doctors rather than the leagues of climate scientists. But now they appear to have woken up and are calling climate change the greatest impediment to the global economy – the core of their interest, not the global environment or the globe’s species or the Global South. They concluded that, thus far, world leaders have failed to mitigate climate change, to implement an effective climate change adaptation strategy, and to reduce natural disasters caused by global warming.

Better late than never to come to these conclusions, I guess.

Philanthropy and climate

The philanthropists noted with dissatisfaction that only 2 percent of the over $800 billion philanthropic spending every year has gone toward climate-related issues. That’s 16 billion dollars, which is 29 times less than the $469 billion invested in the space economy in 2021. It’s also just 4 percent of the Biden Administration’s state aid plan for greening the US economy.

In response, a broad coalition  launched the Giving to Amplify Earth Action (GAEA) initiative, the purpose of which is to fund and grow new and existing public, private and philanthropic partnerships to help unlock the $3 trillion of financing needed each year to reach net zero, reverse nature loss, and restore biodiversity by 2050.

GAEA’s pack of philanthropic partners reads like a who’s who of global money-givers including: Active Philanthropy, the African Climate Foundation, André Hoffmann Family Office, the Arab Foundations Forum, Bezos Earth Fund, BMW Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the Clean Air Fund, Climate Leadership Initiative, ClimateWorks Foundation, Eleven Eleven Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Growald Climate Fund, IKEA Foundation, Laudes Foundation, Noah’s Ark Foundation, Open Society Foundations, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Pearl Initiative, Philanthropy Asia Alliance (by Temasek Trust), Philea, The Rockefeller Foundation, Trottier Family Foundation, United Nations Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, WINGS, Workday Foundation. And this list doesn’t include dozens more of individuals, academic institutions, companies, and public sector organizations.

The idea, apparently, is that this pile-up will mobilize private sector funds. But exactly how this will happen remains a secret. Will it have an office? A board? Staff? Oversight? And what impact will this have on curbing emissions? It did not – no surprise – advocate for a global carbon tax, the shutting down of all coal plants by 2030, or raising money for the UN’s new losses and damages facility. There is always the suspicion with philanthropy that it will inevitably recreate the conditions that made its denizens successful.

Serious Business

A letter signed by 650,000 individuals says: “This cease-and-desist notice is to demand that you immediately stop opening any new oil, gas or coal extraction sites, and stop blocking the clean energy transition we all so urgently need.” Among the signatories were Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Helena Gualinga from Ecuador, and Luisa Neubauer from Germany.

The Guardian came to the following damning conclusion: “In an era of global polycrisis, Davos is no longer fit for purpose – and instead acts as a reminder of how ill-equipped capitalist orthodoxy is to figure out a better future.”

On the conference’s final day, the ober-elite climbed back into their private airplanes, seemingly oblivious to a report that shows that private planes are up to 14 times more polluting, per passenger, than commercial planes and 50 times more polluting than trains, according to Transport & Environment, a European clean transport campaign organization.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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