Wharton's Regina Abrami and Nina Hall from Johns Hopkins University discuss key themes that emerged at this year's World Economic Forum.

The World Economic Forum that concluded last Friday at Davos, Switzerland, met against the backdrop of a global economic slowdown, especially in China, and fears of a recession, while other concerns loomed over trade wars and the economic crisis in Venezuela. Data privacy in the age of social media was another major topic that surfaced: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella praised GDPR – Europe’s new data regulation – suggesting that the U.S. and other countries follow suit.

The WEF, which German engineer Klaus Schwab founded in 1971 to get world political, business and social leaders to find ways to solve challenges facing economies and societies, was different this year in the absence of several heads of state busy with their internal challenges. British Prime Minister Theresa May was preoccupied with her faltering Brexit campaign and the threat that posed to her government; U.S. President Donald Trump was dealing with a government shutdown; and French President Emmanuel Macron was grappling with the “Yellow Vest” protests in his country.

With fewer political leaders headlining, some unlikely voices were foregrounded. They included British broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough, who lamented the destruction of the natural world and the loss of biodiversity; Britain’s Prince William, who spoke of the urgent need to destigmatize mental health issues; and a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl named Greta Thunberg suggesting that her government and world leaders should panic about climate change, and in the process sparking off a worldwide campaign. Another high-profile participant was New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who had a joint appearance with Prince William to discuss mental health.

The Knowledge at Wharton radio show invited two experts to share their views on some of the key takeaways from this year’s forum: Regina Abrami, a senior fellow in Wharton’s management department and director of the Lauder Institute’s Global Program; and Nina Hall, assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Abrami called the World Economic Forum’s 2019 meeting the “Davos of Value Change.” “The topics that were talked about – mental health, inequality and climate change — and the people who were allowed to have voices on those issues, probably would not have [been given the spotlight] had [heads of state] been there, because oftentimes they define the agenda,” she said. The deliberations allowed participants to reflect on “what globalization actually means,” she added. The discussions suggested a need “to rethink the rules, and that’s never a bad thing.”

Combating Climate Change

Attenborough set the tone for the deliberations on climate change, offering hope: “Humans are a problem-solving species,” he said. The teen-aged Thunberg was “probably the most remarkable young activist” in the fight against climate change, said Hall. “She travelled by train from Sweden, and she’s been [leading a strike] every Friday for the last two months to say her government needs to do more on climate change. She was very strong with business leaders. She said to them, ‘I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic and act as if the house were on fire.’ She wants action now, and she’s going to do all it takes to get it.”

While global cooperation is crucial to achieving climate change goals, two of the biggest polluters – China and the U.S. – have not been on the same page, said Abrami. “China has moved exponentially faster than the U.S. … [and it] has not stood down around climate issues; it has stood up far more than the U.S. of late,” she noted. China has expressed its willingness to have dialogue on these issues, but it also wants to have a say in setting the standards – similar to its stance on intellectual property rights and allowing foreign companies to operate in its domestic markets, she added. “We remember the China Olympics where suddenly the skies of Beijing were bright and blue. So, it’s not that they don’t have an ability to attend to it – it’s under what conditions.”

“All governments fear these young activists.” –Regina Abrami

Only action on the ground could force governments to address climate change, Abrami continued. “Even in the case of China, any of those big leaps around climate change and improvements in environmental matters were because you had Chinese protesters speaking about, particularly, factory waste. All governments fear these young activists, but also older activists because [activisim] does two things: One, it points out the regulatory incapacities of a government. [Two], there is no stance one can take on climate change except to either negate science or appearing to be for pollution, which you can’t be.”

A Sharp Focus on Inequality

“Inequality has become a major issue for global politics,” said Hall. She noted that NGOs used the Davos platform effectively to highlight inequality. She pointed in particular to Oxfam, which a day before the Davos meet began released a global inequality report with some “killer statistics” on inequality. “[The Oxfam report] told us that 26 of the world’s richest billionaires own the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population,” she said. “Now, that statistic really took off.”

Another unlikely headliner at the Davos forum was New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who emphasized her government’s new approach to dealing with inequality and ways of running its economy. Among other things, the New Zealand government is looking to change the indicators by which a country’s progress is measured, such as moving away from GDP, said Hall, who hails from that country.

“It’s easier to focus on a broken leg or a broken arm, and it’s much harder to think through how you deal with somebody who has severe depression or anxiety.” –Nina Hall

“Ardern sees New Zealand as a role model in thinking about how we measure our economy in a much more holistic sense,” Hall noted. At Davos, Ardern argued in favor of a “wellbeing budget” as a more comprehensive measure. “[New Zealand’s next budget] will have a series of indicators that aren’t just about economic turnover but also about mental health, about child poverty – an issue that’s very big in New Zealand – and about climate change, where the New Zealand government is working to try and pass a bill to make New Zealand carbon-neutral.”

Mental Health Matters

Along with Britain’s Prince William, Ardern struck an impassioned note on mental health at Davos. Hall said New Zealand has one of the highest youth suicide rates. “We know from various international reports that one in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, and some estimate the cost of that to the global economy will be about $6 trillion by 2030,” she added. “It’s easier to focus on a broken leg or a broken arm, and it’s much harder to think through how you deal with somebody who has severe depression or anxiety.”

“Hats off to Jacinda Ardern for putting [mental health] on the table there, [although] Prince William and his brother [Prince Harry] of course had been speaking of it earlier,” said Abrami. Mental health issues are central to the opioid crisis in the U.S., she noted, adding that many people aren’t able to get the requisite treatments. “This is going to be front and center in the [next] U.S. election.”