Every year, 50 Global Shapers are selected through a competitive process to attend the Annual Meeting at Davos. The Shapers represent the voice of the youth on the most important issues affecting our world. Dhaka Hub had the distinct honour of having Shaper Risalat Khan not just be selected, but speak on the 'Stepping up Climate Change' panel with the likes of Al Gore, former Vice-President of the USA and Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the Mahindra Group. It was a singular image to see Risalat in a punjabi, not only holding his own but looking into their eyes and challenging them to do better on climate change.
Tell us about your path to Davos and how does that relate to your work?
I am very fortunate to have had three things in my early childhood that were fundamental in shaping me: a safe home, a good education, and caring parents who instilled strong moral values. I came to see climate change as an existential threat, particularly for our generation and our country. In my academic pursuits, work and volunteer engagements, my focus is on the urgency to shift to 100 percent renewables, and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
As part of my work with the global civic movement Avaaz, I was part of a small core team that spearheaded the global climate marches that brought over 800,000 people out to the streets to march for climate action in over 2,000 cities. I was involved with the march in Dhaka which itself had over 10,000 people. The mobilizations played an important role in applying pressure on country leaders to adopt the historic Paris climate agreement.
However, there still remains a major gap between what the Paris agreement targets, and the commitments that countries have made. I spoke about this need in my application to attend the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual meeting in Davos. Out of 580 applications, 50 were chosen, and I'm grateful to be able to represent the Dhaka Hub of the Global Shapers Community on the world's stage.
Going into the panel, what were some goals you wanted to achieve?
The night before the panel, I was speaking with Christiana Figueres, the former head of the UNFCCC, and I asked for her advice. She had said to me,“be bold!” I had already been considering that as a young person, I needed to push the boundaries and challenge (older) decision-makers to think long-term and act in the interests of youth. Christiana's statement gave me more confidence to do just that.
I wanted to put a human face to the climate challenge because people relate best to stories, not statistics. So I talked about the woman I met last month in Dhaka whose family lost all crops in the rainfall last year near Sylhet, resulting in her being forced to come to the city and work in people's homes.
Finally, I wanted to draw the close connection of the Rampal coal plant with Indian state and private institutions, given that the panel was being hosted and livestreamed by NDTV. I appealed to the Indian prime minister and the Indian people to stop supporting the Rampal coal plant to help protect our shared heritage of the Sundarbans.
What was the actual experience of being on the panel?
It was a rather surreal experience for sure. Right before the panel, I was in a small speakers' room with all the other panelists and the moderator. The other panelists, despite being very prominent people, were courteous, and treated me as an equal, which I appreciated. They valued having a young speaker in their midst, especially someone from a particularly climate vulnerable country.As the panel started, I made sure to take a deep breath and remind myself that it was not about me, but simply about carrying the voices of the vulnerable. The nervousness I had felt over the previous few days largely subsided, even though I could feel the high stakes of a livestreamed discussion with top leaders.
You have campaigned on the ground against the Rampal Power Plant. One of the most powerful moments on the panel is when you shed light on the issue and it is amplified by Al Gore. Tell us about that moment.
Last year at the same meeting in Davos, Al Gore was on a panel with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and there was an exchange between them about Rampal where Al Gore criticized the project and PM Hasina defended it. So I knew that Al Gore was well aware of the project. It was really great to have him amplifying the message after I raised the issue.
I particularly wanted to highlight the Indian dimension because, as I mentioned on the panel, the Rampal plant has been driven by one Indian entity after another since the very beginning. The NTPC started with the original 50:50 partnership with BPDB; then BHEL won the engineering and procurement contract; Exim Bank of India came on to provide around 2 billion dollars of funding; and finally now Coal India is looking to supply the coal — despite it being denied for years that the coal would come from India. I wish Al Gore had built on the Indian angle further and make an appeal to Prime Minister Modi, but even though that did not happen, it was really inspiring to pick up my words and elevate the subject further.
Tell us about the Shapers community at Davos.
Even though being on the panel was a very rare opportunity, I feel that the friendships I have built with the other shapers from across the world are far more valuable. We had youth from 40 countries, from Venezuela to Tanzania to Norway to Australia, doing everything from promoting mental health awareness, building smart cities, providing rural solar energy access, and much more.
Despite the inspiring work that everyone is doing, everyone is really humble, caring, and selfless. We supported each other throughout the week by bringing each other food, facilitating connections, supporting one another's panels, and simply being there for one another. At the end of the week, we shared our stories and ended up crying as people opened up and shared their deep struggles and bold triumphs. We were sad to be leaving the friends we made, but we all agreed that we would maintain these bonds and continue to elevate each other to create positive change across the world.
How would you sum up your experience in Davos?
I believe the theme of this year, of Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World, is an extremely pertinent one given the divisive narratives we are hearing now. I appreciate their efforts to amplify the voice of the youth. This year, the most shapers had speaking roles compared to any previous years. 28 shapers spoke at panels, led discussions, or moderated conversations
However, I have two reservations that I hope the Forum will take into account. First, the Forum gave Donald Trump the biggest platform at the conference, despite his unmistakable role in fracturing the world. He was not challenged about his responsibility on climate change and human rights. I believe this goes against the values of the Forum. Dialogue cannot be simply about hearing everyone's views — it has to include challenging dangerous views based in discrimination and hatred, even if it comes from the US president.
Secondly, I found the issue of extreme inequality to be largely absent from the agenda, even when talking about economic matters. For example, Trump's tax plan was praised as a huge success, whereas it will amount to an immense transfer of wealth to the very top economic class. Very few even acknowledged the responsibility to change economic paradigms to create an economic order that works for everyone. I found this disappointing.
The author is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Stanford Garduate School of Business.