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Davos 2023 Open Forum: Underrepresented voices for climate justice take centre stage

Climate justice requires representation from grassroots to national policy-making. Davos 2023

Climate justice requires representation from grassroots to national policy-making. Image: World Economic Forum

Katherine Docampo
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • This year, the Open Forum – a side event at Davos 2023 – featured voices from communities who are least represented in global business and government but most vulnerable to climate change and other global shocks.
  • Celebrating its 20th year, the 2023 Open Forum urged those in power to ensure full representation - including from indigenous, disabled or otherwise marginalized voices - so that solutions to major global issues are relevant to people’s lives.
  • Young people must be equally engaged and inspired to challenge the assumptions built by older generations.

This year the World Economic Forum celebrated a special milestone: the 20th anniversary of the Open Forum. Held on the sidelines of the Annual Meeting in Davos, Open Forum features a series of high-level panel discussions that are freely accessible to anyone who signs up.

The inspiration for Open Forum pre-dates social media when the official events held within the high-security Congress Centre remained largely out of view to the general public. Now that the Forum livestreams most of its content to over 30 million followers, Open Forum’s uniqueness is no longer just about access but rather the opportunity to create a more open space for diverse voices to share experiences and hold leaders accountable.

This year’s programme upended the usual statistics in representation: from among the 60 speakers featured across five days, the majority represented non-white, minority or underserved communities, including indigenous voices, disability activists, not to mention megastar influencer will.i.am. There were almost twice as many women as men and nearly all sessions included at least one speaker under 30, with one under-20 star moderator coming from a local Swiss high school.

On the surface, the programme was designed to focus on climate. But with the powerful testimonials from relatively lesser-known voices in Davos, it was clear that the real conversations were about the need to radically increase representation when designing solutions to tackle the “polycrisis” facing our people, planet and prosperity.

“The high level of diversity and representation at this year’s Open Forum allowed us to hear from the voices who are not always at the table when decisions are made but then often most adversely affected,” noted Michele Mischler, Head of Open Forum.

Here are three big takeaways from this year’s Open Forum.

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1. Climate change exposes injustices

If there was one message this Open Forum wanted to send, it is that the least well-represented in global business and government are those who are most affected by and vulnerable to climate change.

This truth was evident in discussions related to climate migration and displacement, where experts like Ama Francis from the International Refugee Assistance Project highlighted how climate disasters are now displacing up to three times more people than conflict, with those in the global south disproportionally affected. Agnes Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International, further framed the issue of climate displacement as being driven by the interlinking consequences of repeated extreme weather events, environmental degradation that erodes livelihoods and the lack of assistance to rebuild and restore.

Testimonials from indigenous voices gave insight into how those communities, in particular, can be vulnerable to trends like sea-level rise and extreme storms. For example, Fawn Sharp of the National Congress of American Indians recounted the catastrophic flooding of her ancestral homeland in Washington State due to sea-level rise, while 20-year-old indigenous activist Helena Gualinga spoke about how 80% of her community in the Amazon was washed away by floods a few years ago and now this year they face drought.

Gualinga further warned that indigenous peoples are equally vulnerable to the negative consequences of natural resource extraction and that despite international commitments made “on paper” during the COP processes, little has changed on the ground.

2. ‘No decisions about us, without us’

While Open Forum in Davos enabled underrepresented voices to feature on a global stage, this is only one part of the battle. Now, leaders must listen to them and take action. While the world is preparing adaptation and mitigation strategies, those in power must ensure representation at every level – from grassroots to national policy-making – so that solutions are relevant to people’s lives.

It was cited, for example, that while indigenous communities represent 5% of humanity, they protect 80% of the earth’s biodiversity, showing how important it is to include them in finding nature-based solutions.

One of the most dynamic quotes of the week came from Ashleigh Streeter-Jones, a Global Shaper from Melbourne, who called upon leaders to better embark on meaningful consultation, arguing that “the issue is not necessarily the absence of voice, its the absence of listening.”

When preparing for the future climate or public health shocks, Streeter-Jones, who has a disability, argued that leaders must remember that underserved populations are experts in their own lived experiences. As a result, they are best placed to pre-identify barriers and contribute to policy and investment decisions.

Such sentiment was echoed by Swiss disability activist Christoph Keller, who argued that, even though 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability, the needs of disabled people are not sufficiently considered when preparing for or responding to climate or health disasters. Speaking from a wheelchair, Keller challenged the idea of simply taking a seat at “your table,” he wants a whole new table.

3. Current and future generations are on the line

While all the talk in Davos about the “poly-crisis” could easily leave one depressed, today’s leaders must remain positive and help surface inspiring stories for future generations. This was the argument of several panellists, including will.i.am, who stressed the importance of leaders remaining optimistic and focused on equipping the next generation with the skills, resources and hope needed to improve their lives and communities.

The next generation is equally on the line to bring forward new ideas and take up the fight against climate change. Jim Hagemann Snabe, Chairman of Siemens, argued that the “stone age end didn’t end because we ran out of stone;” hence “the fossil fuel age will end once we have something better.” He called upon young people to bring forward a breadth and depth of ideas that challenge the assumptions built by older generations.

Taking in the crowd at the Open Davos auditorium, it was encouraging to see the speakers’ words were already getting to the right audience. The room was often filled with high school students and local Scout troops, some of whom were engaged by the Forum to co-design the sessions. As the Open Forum embarks on the next decade of its evolution, we hope to see more of these voices take centre stage sooner rather than later.

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