Davos Notebook

How did Davos do on climate change?

One sometimes hears that the World Economic Forum is all talk and no action. I don’t buy it — talk matters. Social currency is a powerful driver of change, even at the highest reaches of business and government. And last week climate change was on center stage at the famous Davos summit. So as I moved through the WEF Annual Meeting, the question on my mind was simple: How many of the conversations here will lead to real-world outcomes?

President Barack Obama had helped point the spotlight with his second inaugural address two days earlier, but the real reason for renewed focus, after several years of near silence, is the increasingly destructive and incredibly costly wave of unprecedented weather events that have occurred around the globe. There were more than 30 official sessions on climate change, environmental resilience and food security this year at the Annual Meeting, and even more related side events.

At a dinner on climate change and extreme weather hosted by my organization the Environmental Defense Fund and The Weather Company, meteorologist Jim Cantore explained that the vanishing sea ice around the North Pole may be changing the whole jet stream. That could trigger a level of climate chaos that makes the disruptions we’ve seen so far look like child’s play.

Beneath all the talk was doubt about whether humanity could rise to the scale of this massive challenge. More than a few hands shot up in one session when the speaker asked if the time had come to deploy geoengineering – using technology on a massive scale in an attempt to reverse the problem by, for example, altering the chemistry of the ocean, or trying to block the sun’s rays from the atmosphere.

I didn’t raise my hand. I don’t see the logic of compounding the dangers of people playing god, with unknowable results. While these grand – and grandiose – ideas might appeal to a certain kind of techno-optimism, they also provide an easy distraction from the investments we know we need to make to protect against extreme weather that’s already here.

A handy guide to Davos-speak

“The impatience for growth will really take patience” — that’s Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan in a panel on low economic growth, using the particular kind of language particular to the people who inhabit particular places like Davos. A panel called “No Growth, Easy Money — The New Normal?” (those latter three words another terrible Davos phrase) began with the moderator grimly telling the crowd: “Will we ever return to the normal, free world?” This kind of sentence is ostensibly the kind of English you and I subscribe to, but on further examination, not so much.

Are the Davos elite really worrying about their freedom? Well, no. The World Economic Forum has no shortage of silly phrases, but some of them actually do have meaning beyond the euphemistic. What Davos folks mean when they constantly call for a “growth plan” or “restoring growth” is that no one can see any particular industry that’s going to increase the pace at which they get rich. And, as a result, the rest of us will have fewer jobs.

Ray Dalio, who runs Bridgewater, the world’s biggest hedge fund, had probably the clearest take on this low-growth world. In a post-crisis, high-debt global economy, Dalio said, economic growth can’t come from debt, as it did during the last few decades or so. Economies are still deleveraging, debt won’t rise faster than income and the primary way large economies can grow is by increasing productivity. (CNBC has a bit more on his philosophy here).

Advertising in Davos: The message isn’t medium

With 1,500 business leaders and up to 50 government officials in town for the World Economic Forum it shouldn’t be a surprise that advertising messages in Davos are aimed at a different demographic than one would expect in even the most upscale of ski resorts.

The most popular source of ads are emerging nations attempting to attract investors with millions of dollars to sling around. For example many of the buses here tout former Soviet State Azerbaijan as the “Land of the Future.”

Despite their subject matter, some of the ads adhere to standard conventions such as citing statistics to prove their “product” is bigger or better than competitors. For example this billboard above Davos’s famed Kaffee Klatsch restaurant informs passing plutocrats of India’s high population of low median age people who apparently enjoy dressing up and striking nonchalant poses.

Where emerging markets are headed next

In its video presentation “Looking to 2060: A Global Vision of Long-term Growth,” the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that China will soon surpass the United States to become the world’s largest economy, and will account for 28 percent of global gross domestic product by 2030. The OECD also predicts that by 2060 the combined GDP of China and India will overtake that of the OECD economies. Meanwhile, Bain estimates that by 2020 emerging economies will account for two-thirds of global economic growth.

Without doubt, emerging countries are showing more resilience and promise than established economies in the Americas and the euro zone.

While emerging economies have shown potential for many years, they came of age during the global financial crisis. Thanks to prudent government and monetary policies, they have helped stabilize the global economy. A closer look at the emerging market growth story reveals some of its key strengths.

To fight worker illness, we need uniform measurements

Improving the health of employees worldwide is vital to our global economic strength and growth. In the U.S. alone, the economic cost of chronic diseases is estimated at $1.3 trillion annually. The World Economic Forum’s Workplace Wellness Alliance was launched in 2010, and it has spent the years since driving home the critical importance of investing in workplace wellness.

This year, the Alliance is releasing a report that underscores a crucial ingredient to help our mission. Entitled “Making the Right Investment: Employee Health and the Power of Metrics,” the report focuses on the need to establish a common set of yardsticks that organizations can use to understand fully the impact of their wellness programs. It further demonstrates how imperative it is for all of us to work together to learn more about the ways we can encourage and enhance health and wellness in the workplace.

The Alliance’s collaborative structure has generated several key insights about developing a sustainable workforce. Primarily, we’ve learned that a healthy work environment makes a positive impact on employee engagement, productivity and the bottom line.

China’s economy absent from concerns on Davos panel

If policymakers and financial markets outside the Swiss alps are concerned about China’s economic outlook, those worries were missing from a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos. While delegates to the meeting of the rich and powerful surfaced a host of challenges facing China’s new leadership later this year, the pace of growth wasn’t one of them.

The panel talked about political cronyism, pollution, and the need for a more robust safety net for migrant workers. But there wasn’t any talk of crisis or hard landing. Despite the fact that China is still very export dependent, defenders and critics at this session betrayed no concern about the impact that the euro crisis and slow U.S. growth could have on the Asian powerhouse.

Many economists expect China to grow at 8 percent or more this year, slowing from 9.2 percent in 2011, as authorities seek to avert inflation and ensure more sustainable expansion. China is comforted by having the world’s biggest foreign reserves, which lets it cope with weaker demand for its products. Li Daokui, Director of the Center for China in the World Economy in Beijing, and an advisor to the Chinese central bank, is sticking to his 8.5 percent growth projection this year and insists the economy, the world’s second largest, will grow by “at least 8 percent” in 2013.

Tackling healthcare for the very poor

This year in Davos, there is a lot of talk about transformations and new business models that will be important in our global economic recovery. In healthcare, new models will be a significant part of expanding access to patients in need. While it is clear there is lots of growth potential in emerging markets, it’s also important to address the larger societal challenges associated with this growth. This is especially true in the developing world where access and affordability are major issues.

Nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day. I was recently in India, where I got to see firsthand what this means. According to the latest estimate from the World Health Organization, there are more than 835 million people across rural India — more than twice the entire population of the United States. Only 35 percent of these people have access to essential medicines. For those of us in the developed world, this is a seemingly unimaginable gap.

As CEO of a global healthcare company, I believe it is critically important to help improve the health of people everywhere by expanding access to medicines in a sustainable way. However, there are many obstacles to delivering care in developing countries, and overcoming them requires adapting to local needs. Poor infrastructure, poverty, inadequate sanitation systems, unclean drinking water and a lack of trained health workers all compound the problem. The question is: With problems so large, how can we be part of the solution?

A Van Winkle return to Davos and to real problems

It was well past midnight in late January 2000 when an investment banking contact called my Davos hotel room to share the latest details on Vodafone’s hostile bid for Mannesmann. That was news, but the huge hostile takeover was no longer the largest deal in history. It had been displaced a few weeks earlier by the agreed merger of AOL and Time Warner. Such was the talk of the World Economic Forum. The great and the powerful had gathered together to celebrate the success of business and, especially, of finance.

Exuberance over technology and venture capital was almost limitless back in 2000, thanks to the seemingly limitless rise of the tech stocks. Dotcom startups were all the rage. When Japanese Internet mogul Masayoshi Son finished one panel, he was assailed by a gaggle of entrepreneurs waving business plans for him to peruse. In full disclosure, this columnist two weeks later signed up to establish the online financial commentary business that eventually became Reuters Breakingviews.

Coming back to this gathering 12 years later is a Rip Van Winklerian experience. The old world and its little worries look positively quaint. Back then, at what in retrospect proved to be the height of the Great Moderation, business was booming, the Nasdaq still had another 20 percent or so to climb, companies were merging like mad; everything looked rosy. President Bill Clinton parachuted in to give a victory lap. Even the demonstrations that took place against neoliberalism and world trade now look quaint. Defacing a McDonald’s is a far cry from overthrowing governments.

Making the business case for a healthy workforce

The role that today’s workplace plays in health and well-being is often debated. People spend much of their time at work, and wellness at work matters. Employers generally find that healthy employees contribute to business success, but the exact quantitative relationship between improvements in employee health and corresponding improvements in employee productivity and engagement remains elusive.

At the same time, employees around the globe are increasingly subject to non-communicable diseases – primarily cancer, heart and chronic pulmonary diseases, and diabetes. Many such diseases have their root in obesity or tobacco use, and thus to a large extent are preventable. Worldwide, non-communicable diseases cause an estimated $2 trillion in losses each year in economic activity, as well as the premature deaths annually of 18 million people still in their productive years. That’s why the World Health Organizations tags such non-communicable diseases as “the world’s biggest killer.”

For the past two years, the Workplace Wellness Alliance has been tackling the problem. Triggered by a call to action during the 2010 World Economic Forum, this consortium began with 13 companies and now has more than 100 major global employers representing 4.5 million employees worldwide, all dedicated to ensuring that – regardless of country or industry – optimum employee wellness is a priority in the workplace.

The problem with capitalism is democracy

The rich and powerful at Davos debated capitalism today with a defense that invoked Winston Churchill’s famous dictum on democracy. “Democracy,” Churchill told the House of Commons, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Carlyle Group Managing Director David Rubenstein suggested in his historical comparison is that capitalism is not perfect but it’s the best we’ve got.

While the Time Davos panel, entitled “Is 20th century capitalism failing 21st century society?” acknowledged a desire to reduce inequality, there was a shrug of resignation about the way forward and an absence of solutions.