DAVOS, Switzerland—While domestic woes sidelined major figures like U.S. President Donald Trump, this year’s gathering of the global elites in the Swiss ski resort of Davos showcased divisions on pressing issues like trade and the environment.

In the end, a spunky 16-year-old Swedish climate activist all but stole the show.

The World Economic Forum, which wrapped up Friday, was characterized by discord over momentous issues like Brexit and world trade. Many of the leaders closest to those questions — from Trump to Britain’s Theresa May and China’s Xi Jinping — did not show up as they had in past years.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, howled about alleged hypocrisy after reports that a record number of flights by carbon-spewing private jets would ferry rich corporate bigwigs to talk at the event this year — including about global warming.

As the adults deliberated, Greta Thunberg, an environmentalist teenager, sounded the alarm.

“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” said the student, who got a waiver from school to travel 32 hours from her home in Sweden — by train, to keep her carbon footprint down.

Since founder Klaus Schwab first gathered European business executives back in 1971, the World Economic Forum has defended globalization as a force for good that improves lives and boosts prosperity.

Now, advocates of closer economic and cultural ties are on the defensive. Trump’s “America First” sloganeering, the Brexit-style self-interest, populist politics and the rise of “strongman” leaders in countries from the Philippines to Brazil have shaken confidence in the international rules and organizations set up since World War II.

The conference center in Davos still bustled with business executives, presidents and prime ministers, heads of non-governmental organizations, scientists, and artists. They met privately or sat on publicly broadcast discussions about world issues: Poverty, climate change, the rise of machines, diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, and trade disputes among them.

Organizers of the event trumpeted some achievements and commitments made in Davos.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan will push for global data governance when it hosts the Group of 20 leading industrialized and developing nations this year. Leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia held talks toward ending the long-standing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Britain’s health secretary unveiled a five-year plan to tackle the global threat of antimicrobial resistance.

“If it didn’t exist, someone would have had to create it, because we cannot solve the most pressing global challenges without a unique partnership between governments, business and civil society,” WEF President Borge Brende said Friday of the gathering.

Still, the WEF has struggled to shake off the impression that it hosts champagne-swilling executives more interested in their bottom line and power-hungry politicians more interested in polishing their global image than in the state of the world.

Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, pledged to work “in harmony with the world” to cut carbon emissions. The nationalist leader has faced international concerns that his country could allow far more aggressive deforestation in the oxygen-rich Amazon. But he provided no details and was asked no probing questions by the WEF organizers about his policies.

Several hundred environmentalists and political activists waved green and red flags as they demonstrated their opposition to the WEF and capitalism in Davos’ snow-and ice-covered streets Thursday. One sign read: “Let them eat money.”

The forum’s organizers were already on the defensive after a charter-flight company cited estimates that a record number of private jet flights headed to Davos this year. They published a rebuttal, insisting they issue carbon offsets and labelled flying by private jet as “the worst way to travel to Davos,” which is merely two hours from Zurich by car. Christoph Kohler, who heads a company that tracks the aviation industry, said precise figures on business jet flights from the area weren’t yet available.

Thunberg, the teenager whose speech to a climate conference in December had gone viral and gave another to the World Economic Forum on Friday, did not mince her words amid concerns that nations won’t meet their target of keeping global warming below 1.5-degrees Celsius (2.7-Fahrenheit).

“We owe it to the young people, to give them hope,” she said. “I want you to act … as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”


Ivana Bzganovic, Ben Jary, Theodora Tongas and Paul Wiseman in Davos contributed to this report.

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