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Green Davos: Climate sceptics charm investors

Dr David Whitehouse, Science editor

“This is not a conference about climate science, it’s a conference for investors. This is not scientists presenting papers and building their profiles, this is about something that requires a deeper intelligence. Money.”

The Ballroom of the Dorchester Hotel in London is not somewhere I frequent very often, but the so-called Climate Change Forum conference is always held in such grand places. It’s a conference for what it calls high-net worth individuals, with not a few policy makers, royal families and international celebrities thrown in. The conference was called “Global Investment in Sustainable Development.” Delegates flew in from all over the world. Marc Morano of Climate Depot called it the “Green Davos.”

Within seconds I was offered a drink and finger food first class. One expensively-dressed strategic communications consultant, as she introduced herself, briefed me on the clientele. “There is money in this room,” she said, “but it’s not where you think it is. Look over there, European aristocracy, rather flamboyant, and they have money. There are those here to promote their good ideas, hopeful to get backing,” then she added, “and there are those who are rather quieter. That’s where the real money is. You need such opulence to entice them. It’s a place to see and be seen.”

I spoke to a person who told me about fostering mechanisms for future visions, which I only half-understood, but then he said, “You must remember that this is not a conference about climate science, it’s a conference for investors. So we’re not talking about scientists presenting papers and building their profiles, this is about something that requires a deeper intelligence. Money.”

Long-Term Science

For the day I was there I was impressed with the ideas circulating around the informal areas. One person told me about his plans for recycling in Africa, another for removing plastic from the oceans, another about how to make hydrogen the fuel of the future. One person told me they founded an institute for global change. I spoke to a couple of others who ran a group advising firms how to achieve their net zero targets – weaving the words resilience, productivity and creativity into almost everything they said. Perhaps this is not the place for details. Offer the pitch, follow up later. One person told me that there are three ways to make money: one is with a good idea, one is to use the system of subsidies, grants and carbon credits to your advantage. And the third? I asked. “Look at the science soberly and then think long-term,” he said.

With investment in sustainability the topic of the day the science of climate change was always in the background. I asked many if they could tell me what the global temperature is and how it has changed in recent years. They couldn’t, adding that all they knew was that it was increasing, everyone knew that.

Outside the ballroom was a stand where a corporate health group had set up, not financial health but spiritual help. One of its proprietors told me that you make better corporate decisions when you are in spiritual harmony with the planet. He would be delighted to come to my boardroom and tell my company how to do it. I didn’t ask how much it would cost, seemed impolite.

At the conference proper someone talked about connecting humanity back to its heart’s values. I looked her up on social media – she had fewer twitter followers than me. Someone else was talking about how to avert the coming global disaster. I quickly looked him up: his investing firm lost more than a million pounds last year. I hope they don’t follow his advice. Another presentation was from Mastercard whose Vice President was talking about a new credit card that counted your carbon dioxide consumption and would cut off your access to money when you had reached your carbon allowance. I don’t think many of the attendees would be keen to use such a card! Someone else was talking about music for climate justice, pity Bono wasn’t here!

The presentations were a mixed bag. Some were fascinating, others were puffery. Many of them trivial, given by representatives of very small companies looking for a green niche and a break. A session on diversity, mainly women, sounded almost like a Meghan Markle speech given six times. It was clearly important to be photographed at the podium, presumably for their website alongside a “connect to me” tab. I got the impression that many delegates didn’t regard the presentations as the main thing.

Sceptical Debate

The reason I was at the conference was to watch the debate between so-called climate deniers Marc Morano and Christopher Monckton and two other speakers. Credit is due to Max Studennikoff, the chairman and founder of CC Forum, who withstood numerous demands and requests to de-platform Morano and Monckton. One of the participants withdrew, saying that in all conscience he could not share a stage with such heretics, presumably preferring his preferred pastime of glueing himself to government offices in protest. I forget his name, as did everyone else.

The other withdrawal was UK Climate Minister Graham Stuart who was to give a keynote speech. He suddenly had unexpected government business, perhaps – it was joked – he was going to be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer. Later DeSmog activists claimed the credit for dissuading him. One person told me they were unimpressed by his absence: “This is just the audience he needs to talk to if he wants to bring growth into the UK,” he moaned.

The debate itself was all rather surprising. There was no frisson of annoyance or expectation of fireworks as Morano and Monckton made their way onto the stage. There was nobody in the ballroom who was there to protest or cause a disruption. They were interested in what they had to say.

The session was opened by Max Studennikoff who started by saying that extreme events, hurricanes, droughts, heatwaves, were all on the increase and, what’s more, the moat around his medieval castle in France was dry for the first time in 600 years! I saw Lord Monckton smile as this was a gift for him to counter. Studennikoff took this with good grace. After the opening statements I got the feeling that the audience decided that the sceptics were rather more substantial than some had expected. A person on the table next to me muttered, “hmmm details!”

There was not that much about climate during the debate as one might have expected. Energy policy, subsidies, clean water, pollution etc. were discussed with not that much between the two sides. On the non-sceptic side one panelist said that after Krakatoa had put 20 million tonnes of sulphur into the atmosphere and cooled the world by one and a half degrees, just imagine what 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year could do! Then he mentioned the 97% climate consensus which Monckton swiftly rubbished. 

Gunter Pauli was a different matter. To my surprise he had a lot in common with Morano and Monckton and he clearly read the mood of the audience. Sometimes he veered into telling stories about himself, but the audience loved it. Unsurprisingly, the wealthy audience all seemed to agree that wealth is what was needed to clean up the environment. Morano said this came from cheap energy, Pauli said we needed a new system of business altogether and that Net Zero was nonsense and “the opium of the masses.”

The applause was slightly louder for the non-sceptic side, but not by much at all. But where was this applause coming from? One or two sceptical tables, I wondered. No, it was widespread, much of it from the quiet money. Such was the interest in the session that subsequent sessions were cancelled as it continued. No hostility, just some very good questions. Morano and Monckton were pleasantly surprised. 

Afterwards, staying clear of the prowling DeSmog activist, I asked others about the debate. We should do it again said one. Another added that, “It’s not been lost on us that the climate disasters aren’t what is being claimed.” But what about the floods in Pakistan? Hasn’t the Minister for Climate Change, Sherry Rehman said it’s a climate catastrophe and appealed for international aid, “She would say that wouldn’t she, we all would if we were in her position.”

Did Something Change?

Afterwards there was the reception before the gala dinner, along with operatic singer and a ballet dancer. The flamboyance at the reception rivalled Hollywood. It was attended by Miss World who had flown in especially to talk about her studies for a Master’s degree in business. One person told me that she won the Miss World title in Puerto Rico – in the Coca Cola Music Hall. It reminded me that earlier in the day a government member of the Upper House of the Netherlands, responsible for sustainability and climate affairs, gave a presentation that said that globally a million plastic bottles were being thrown away every minute with some being incinerated but most going into landfill. Such ironies and inconsistencies are part of life here.

I left the conference having met a lot of very nice people and wondering if the mood music was beginning to changed – or if my impression was due to my limited experience of the big money community. Before the evening was out I started receiving nice to meet you emails.

Next year’s meetings are in Los Angeles and later in Beijing. The organisers are clearly not daft. Perhaps another such debate might be in the offing. I’m available!