DAVOS, Switzerland – In the buildup to the World Economic Forum, the focus was all on climate change. On its first day, the forum’s organizers announced an ambitious agenda that would enlist a broad consortium of banks, companies and civic leaders to make this year’s event a “tipping point” for global climate action.
In the hour that preceded an address from President Donald Trump, an envoy from Pope Francis urged the throng of gathered billionaires, corporate executives, politicians and celebrities to recognize their “moral responsibility” to safeguard future generations. Simonetta Sommaruga, the president of the Swiss Confederation, went to the dais and warned of “a world on fire.” She told the crowd, which included figures such as former U.S. vice president Al Gore and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “We need politicians to take action in their own country and internationally to ensure that the ecological balance is ensured and global warming is stopped.”
In the first of two speeches Tuesday, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist, once more scolded political leaders and media elites, accusing them of not making expressly clear the scale of the catastrophe facing the planet. “Without treating it as a real crisis, we cannot solve it,” she said.
But then Trump spoke. He used his plenary moment – the forum’s first speech by a major world leader – to take a victory lap of sorts, celebrating the U.S. economic “boom” under his watch. “America is flourishing, and, yes, America is winning again like never before,” Trump declared in what was essentially a 30-minute campaign stunt, albeit devoid of the familiar xenophobic demagoguery.
In a preview for his domestic battles to come, Trump extolled the supposed success of his “pro-worker, pro-citizen, pro-family” agenda and his efforts to slash regulations. He told his counterparts in Davos to “liberate your citizens from the crushing weight of bureaucracy.”
And what about climate? Trump didn’t directly attack the forum or some of the outspoken climate activists in attendance. But the contempt behind his message was unmistakable.
“We must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse,” he said, then likened those campaigning on the climate to “the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers.” He told European partners that they should consider purchasing U.S. energy – never mind the serious measures being attempted on Europe to wean it off fossil fuels.
It was a conspicuous stance for Trump to take. The herald of “American carnage” and an incessant anti-immigrant rabble-rouser now insisted that “fear and doubt was not a good thought process” and cast himself as an agent of “optimism.”
For many of the Davos set, the message was not all that problematic. “Fun speech, he’s my guy,” a senior European corporate executive quipped to Today’s WorldView, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his company has not authorized him to talk publicly on politics. The executive added that most of his American counterparts convening in Davos would “cheer” Trump’s reelection over “radical leftists” such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., or Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., both of whom want to repeal Trump’s generous tax cuts for the ultrarich.
“A lot of money managers are very happy with what he’s doing and see things the same way,” Tony Fratto, managing partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and former deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush, told Today’s WorldView. “Trump has more supporters here than I think people realize.”
Fratto said climate change was one of the few urgent political issues to break through at Davos because the attendees see its risks and perils in financial terms. “So it’s less about Greta Thunberg than the fact that Mark Carney” – the governor of the Bank of England – “is a climate activist,” he said.
Others in Davos were deeply dismayed. Robert Habeck, co-leader of Germany’s Greens, suggested that Trump had “destroyed the whole concept” of this year’s forum by making a mockery of the threat of climate change and all the private-sector efforts mobilized by the forum to tackle the challenge.
“I hadn’t expected much,” Habeck told a small group of journalists, “but the speech was a disaster for the conference, for the idea of the conference, for the idea of multilateralism, for the approach of Klaus Schwab,” referring to the World Economic Forum’s founder and executive chairman.
Nevertheless, the climate-focused project and conversations go on. “The president’s speech was a total outlier this week in Davos,” Barry Johnston, co-founder of the socially minded consultancy Purpose Union, told Today’s WorldView. “Elsewhere, businesses, governments and civil society have been having practical, urgent discussions about the climate crisis. Trump looks stuck in the last decade as everyone else looks to the next.”
But other leaders may be stuck there with him. In a briefing with reporters, Australian Finance Minister Mathias Cormann seemed to play down the scale of the unprecedented wildfires ravaging his country, saying that only about 2% of the country’s landmass was affected by the blazes.
And at a session on Latin America’s economic prospects, both Paulo Guedes, Brazil’s minister of economy, and Guillermo Nielsen, a special envoy of the Argentine government, suggested they would like to emulate Trump’s approach in capitalizing on their nations’ wealth of untapped fossil fuels.
“In the U.S., everything is permitted until it’s forbidden,” Guedes sighed. “In Brazil, everything is forbidden until it’s permitted.”
One floor away in the forum’s main hall, data experts used satellite images to show on a vast screen what would happen to the world if warming trends continue at their current rate till the end of the century. “Here is Shanghai,” said Angel Hsu, a professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, gesturing toward a time-lapse rendering of the future. “It’s completely erased off the map.”