World Economic Forum in Davos faces up to towering global challenges

In a photo taken on Jan 21, 2019, a man walks past a sign of the World Economic Forum (WEF) ahead of the WEF annual meeting at the Congress Centre in Davos. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Global decision-makers gather in Davos starting on Tuesday (Jan 21) for their annual meeting, with challenges facing the planet - from climate change to conflict in the Middle East - as imposing as the Alps that surround the Swiss resort.

Observers fear the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) will serve only to again expose the differences between East and West, the United States and the European Union, and businesses and activists in combating the most burning threats at the start of the third decade of the 21st century.

But organisers of the event, which goes back almost half a century to 1971 - when the world was without mobile phones, climate change not a concern and nations locked in the Cold War - seek to tackle the issues with a long list of guests from all sides.

US President Donald Trump will likely hog much of the limelight, but also present for the second straight year will be Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose famously hard stare at the American leader at the United Nations General Assembly symbolised anger over inaction on global warming.

Another issue set to darken the snowy Davos horizon is the risk of conflict between the United States and Iran, as tensions spike following the US killing of a top Iranian commander and Iran's subsequent accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, however, cancelled his planned participation at the four-day forum, removing any chance of a showdown - or even a meeting - with Trump.


With Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng leading a top-level delegation from Beijing, the trade dispute between China and the US will also be at the centre of attention, even after this week's signing of a deal that marked a truce after two years of tensions.

The key European figures present will be EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who may only serve to highlight the extent of differences between Europe and the United States on key issues.

"On climate change and on many global conflicts - such as the US conflict with Iran - US and European leaders disagree not just on the solution but also on the very nature of the problem," Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told AFP.

He said that while EU leaders see climate change as an "existential challenge", Trump considers it a "Chinese hoax".

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The two sides are also at loggerheads over the Iran nuclear deal from 2015 that was supposed to defuse the risk of conflict with Teheran.

"None of this is a firm foundation on which to build common solutions to vexing global problems," Shapiro said.


In its global risk report issued ahead of Davos, the WEF singled out popular discontent over a lack of economic stability, climate change, unequal access to the internet and healthcare systems under stress as the key challenges for humanity.

With the fires that have ravaged Australia attracting global attention, it said "climate change is striking harder and more rapidly than many expected", with temperatures on track to increase by at least three degrees towards the end of the century.

And global health systems risk being "unfit for purpose" as non-communicable diseases - such as cardiovascular diseases and mental illness - replace infectious diseases as the leading cause of death.

Another threat is the growing distrust of vaccines as well as the increasing resistance of many germs to antibiotics and other drugs.

"The world cannot wait for the fog of geopolitical and geo-economic uncertainty to lift," the report said.

"Opting to ride out the current period in the hope that the global system will 'snap back' runs the risk of missing crucial windows to address pressing challenges," it said.

Trump's appearance at Davos from Tuesday to Wednesday, his second after speaking there in 2018, will coincide with the start of his landmark impeachment trial at the Senate on Tuesday.

"I expect him to send a message to the American people and not to the international community," Carlos Pascual, a former US diplomat and now a vice-president at IHS Markit, told AFP.

"The purpose of that message is to reinforce with the elector in the United States that his number one concern in international policy is 'America first'."

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