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U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on tackling climate change as White House climate envoy John Kerry and Vice President Kamala Harris listen in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Jan. 27, 2021.

KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

Barely a week into his new job as U.S. President Joe Biden’s point man on climate change, John Kerry took to the world stage (albeit a virtual one) to ring in the return of the world’s biggest economy to the global climate-policy effort that has found new momentum during the pandemic.

“All nations have to raise our sights together or we all fail together,” Mr. Kerry told last week’s Davos economic summit, the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of a who’s-who of global political and business leaders.

“Domestic action cannot possibly be enough, if we don’t together forge an international strategy to galvanize the world, to drive greater ambition from every country, every sector. ... The whole world has to come to this table to solve the problem.”

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These are the kinds of grand aspirational declarations that are pretty common for Davos, an event that every year brings together the world’s most powerful public- and private-sector personalities to a Swiss ski resort to think big thoughts and hope big hopes. That the event took place online this year, with not an Alpine vista or canapé tray in sight, was conspicuous evidence of the pandemic that has shaken the norms since the previous Davos gathering in early 2020.

Notably, the big thoughts in the pandemic version of Davos came with a heaping of social conscience that, in the past, the WEF and its flagship event have been accused of lacking. Green policy was central to that; it was a key thread running throughout the Davos meetings.

Many people had feared the COVID-19 crisis would derail the environmental sustainability agenda as an expensive luxury that an economically strained world could ill afford. Instead, the pandemic seems to have strengthened resolve among world political and business leaders to push forward on tackling climate change.

However, there was another key thread that ran through this A-lister global video conference that is incongruous to this collective sense of environmental resolve: The crisis has also deeply shaken the confidence of many of those same leaders in the stability of the multilateral global economic framework.

Speaker after speaker – from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russian Premier Vladimir Putin – stressed the need for the global community to collaborate and co-ordinate to forge a mutually beneficial postpandemic recovery. The summit was peppered with warnings of the dangers of sliding into isolationism and protectionism.

“The most pressing issues we are facing do not recognize borders. But deep and meaningful global co-operation is not always a given,” WEF president Borge Brende said in the summit’s closing communique.

Only a few years ago, it pretty much was a given. That assuredness eroded significantly over the past several years, led by, but by no means limited to, the Trump administration’s trade protectionism and withdrawal from global institutions.

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The pandemic has in many ways deepened these fractures, as countries have acted unilaterally on such things as travel restrictions, border closings, import safety regulations and vaccine procurements in the name of protecting their citizens. The current global tensions over vaccine supplies, and the growing distrust, veiled threats and me-first diplomacy arising from them, are conspicuous evidence of how fragile the global system has become.

It’s in this fractured landscape that the United States returns to the international climate table, rejoining the Paris Agreement and rededicating itself to the cause. Its presence, unquestionably, gives the effort a better chance. Nevertheless, in an increasingly fragmented global community, a willingness to sit at the same table may not translate into the co-ordinated push that will be needed. And the U.S. may have spent too many years absent from the global conversation to rely on its leadership to drive international consensus, as it has in the past.

Still, there were reminders in the Davos discussions that the world may be in the midst of a “tectonic shift,” as BlackRock Inc. chief executive Larry Fink put it, that has opened an avenue to sustainability progress that’s quite independent of the international political process.

Mr. Fink, who runs the world’s biggest asset-management company, spoke at the summit on the same day he issued a letter to the CEOs of companies in BlackRock’s holdings, calling on them to publicly disclose their formal plan to transition their businesses to a net-zero-emissions economy. In a separate letter to BlackRock’s clients, he pledged companies that don’t show progress aligning themselves with net-zero goals would be targeted for divestment.

Mr. Fink and BlackRock are strong evidence investor behaviour and preferences are quickly changing. That’s a more powerful motivation for business than any number of regulations, targets or international climate agreements. Market forces will compel businesses – regardless of national borders – to green up or perish.

The money is doing the talking now. That may drive the next wave of meaningful momentum on the climate front – even if the damaged global political discussion needs time to find its voice again.

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