Davos 2020: Worlds of Trump and Thunberg collide on a Swiss mountainside

Jet-setting globalists understand all too well conflict between search for economic growth and climate change control

The organisers may have made sure that they wouldn't bump into each other but the worlds of Swedish teen eco-warrior Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump, the world's most famous climate sceptic, were always going to clash this week at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) conference in Davos.

A year after making headlines by staging a protest in a tent outside the convention – before being invited into the fold to attend a lunch of Davos luvvies including U2 frontman Bono and addressing a closing panel – Thunberg was invited to back to headline the event in 2020.

She arrived at the Swiss mountainside town after a 32-hour journey with a tough message for global business and political leaders.

“You say children shouldn’t worry. You say: ‘Leave it to us. We will fix this. We promise we won’t let you down’,” the 17-year-old told her audience. “And then, nothing. Silence. Or worse than silence. Empty words and promises which give the impression that sufficient action is being taken.


"We are not telling you to keep talking about reaching 'net zero emissions' or 'carbon neutrality' by cheating and fiddling with numbers. We are not telling you to offset your emissions by just paying someone else to plant trees in places like Africa while at the same time forests like the Amazon are being slaughtered at an infinitely higher rate. Our emissions have to stop."

A perennial sidebar topic for the global elite at the world's biggest talk shop, climate change has topped the agenda this year. It follows mass protests in the past year worldwide against global warming, a spike in deforestation in Brazil in 2019, and bushfires sweeping Australia since September which have razed an area greater than the size of Ireland.

Hand-wringing on discussion panels about the apocalyptic effects of global warming may have been the order of the week. But the archetypal Davos Man – a jet-setting, billionaire globalist – and political leaders that flock to the WEF know all too well about the inherent conflict between their perpetual search for economic growth, which underpins their positions, and controlling climate change.

Environmental risks

The WEF’s latest annual risks report, published ahead of the conference, found, for the first time in 15 editions, that environmental risks – from extreme weather events to businesses and governments failing to mitigate and adapt to climate change – filled the top five places on a list of concerns likely to have a major impact over the next decade.

It was all enough to get Trump a bit hot under the collar as he spent most of his own 30-minute address at Davos on Tuesday expounding on how he had taken the US economy from a “rather dismal state” to the greatest “we’ve ever had in the history of our country”.

“We must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse,” the 73-year-old president said, in a thinly-veiled swipe at Thunberg, who was glowering at him from the audience. “They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers.”

The pair, who have locked horns on several occasions on social media in the past year but have yet to meet, came close to an encounter last September at the United Nations building in New York when she fixed an icy glare at Trump as he passed before her.

Corporate heavy-hitters – from Larry Fink, the head of investment giant BlackRock, to Marc Benioff, co-founder of software group Salesforce – joined Thunberg in Europe's highest town to press businesses for action on global warming.

The WEF itself took efforts to run the four-day conference on a climate-neutral basis by offering more eco-friendly transport and taking part in projects to offset emissions from air travel by attendees – many of whom have come by private jet. It also urged all companies attending the forum to sign up to achieving net zero carbon emissions 2050.

Bank of America chief executive Brian Moynihan has spearheaded an initiative with the WEF's International Business Council, to standardise how companies report metrics on environmental, social and governance issues. It's designed to tackle the growing phenomenon of greenwashing, where companies mislead customers and investors about their eco-credentials.

The WEF also launched a global initiative this week to grow, restore and conserve one trillion trees worldwide. Trump secured his only mid-speech applause on Tuesday when he said his country will join the effort.

For Britain’s Prince Charles, attending Davos for the first time in almost 30 years after being dismissed by many in the interim as an eccentric tree-hugger who banged on about biodiversity, it felt like the world had finally caught up.

“Quite frankly, it has been a bit of an uphill struggle,” the 71-year-old prince said in a special address to the conference. “But now it’s time to take it to the next level. In order to secure our future and prosper, we need to evolve our economic model.

"We need nothing sort of a paradigm shift," he added as he outlined a 10-point plan to make the global economy more sustainable, including identifying policies and regulations that need to change as well as emerging game-changing environmental-friendly technologies that could help stem global warming.

It was a more thoughtful injection of ideas than many others turned up to the conference with.

Former US presidential candidate Al Gore, who has campaigned on environmental issues since losing out to George W Bush in the 2000 race to the White House, also spotted his moment.

“This is Thermopylae. This is Agincourt. This is the Battle of the Bulge. This is Dunkirk. This is 9/11,” he thundered, as he told the Davos crowd on Wednesday that the climate emergency is much worse than people understand. “We have to rise to this occasion.”

Gore said world leaders currently lack the necessary drive to truly effect change, but he added that “political will itself is a renewable resource”.


Still, despite the pontificating by business leaders on Davos panels and fireside chats about the climate, the issue appears to be well down the list of immediate concerns for companies. That’s if the results of a PwC survey of 1,581 business leaders, published on the eve of the conference, is anything to go by.

Global warming ranked outside the top-10 threats to companies’ own growth outlook for 2020, as trade conflicts, the hardy perennial bugbear of over-regulation, and growing fears over growth took precedence among boardrooms’ immediate concerns.

"The conversations I've had have been dominated by economic issues, not climate issues," US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday, when asked about the main talking points in his meetings at the conference.

The Davos lot are as downbeat about growth as they have been at any stage in the past decade, according to the PwC report. More than half those surveyed believe global expansion will decline this year – compared to a reading of just 5 per cent among executives two years ago.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) used the gathering to downgrade its economic forecasts for the second year running. It shaved its 2020 gross domestic product growth prediction back to 3.3 per cent from 3.4 per cent and cut its 2021 projection to 3.4 per cent from 3.6 per cent, mainly due to a sharper-than-expected slowdown in emerging markets, even as an initial US-China trade deal, diffusing an 18-month trade war, has reduced uncertainty.

It estimates the world economy expanded by 2.9 per cent last year, the slowest pace since the financial crisis, despite a near synchronised move by banks to ease monetary policy adding half a percentage point to growth.

"We have not reached a turning point yet," said IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva. "The reality is that global growth remains sluggish. Just in the very first weeks of the new year, we have witnessed increased geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and we have seen the dramatic impact that climate shocks could have. We have seen them in Australia as well as parts of Africa."

Fossil fuel investment

Greenpeace International published a report during the week saying that 24 global banks have invested $1.4 trillion (€1.2 trillion) in the fossil fuel industry since the striking of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

"The banks, insurers and pension funds here at Davos are culpable for the climate emergency," said Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan. "Despite environmental and economic warnings, they're fuelling another global financial crisis by propping up the fossil fuel industry.

“These money men at Davos are nothing short of hypocrites as they say they want to save the planet but are actually killing it for short-term profit.”

Thunberg noted on Tuesday that the US move in 2017 to pull out of the Paris Agreement “seemed to outrage everyone”.

“But we are all about to fail on the commitments that you have signed up to and that doesn’t’ seem to bother people in power even the least,” she told her audience as she called for an immediate exit from fossil fuel investment and exploration, and an end to subsidies for the industry.

The chasm between the Swede and Trump’s administration widened further on Thursday when Mnuchin was asked at a press conference about Thunberg’s calls for immediate divestment from fossil fuels.

“Is she the chief economist? Or who is she? I’m confused,” he said, before adding that he was joking. “After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.”

Economic growth

While the economic effects of climate events are increasingly being felt in countries worldwide, there continues to be an as-yet-unresolved clash between the insatiable appetite of corporates and governments for GDP expansion and the impact that is having on emissions.

This was touched on in a report written by analysts at Deutsche Bank ahead of Davos, which charts economic growth beginning with the first industrial revolution in the late 1700s.

"The vast majority of the world's population lived [before then] in a bleak world," said the report, co-written by strategist Jim Reid. "The economic growth that was then kick-started by the first industrial revolution provided the necessary conditions for the improvements in sanitation and medicine in the second industrial revolution a century later. That was a game changer for health and living standards."

Since then, dramatic improvements in child mortality rates, life spans, education, and personal security have occurred while, more recently, globalisation has helped pull billions out of poverty, the report said.

However, in recent years there has been a growing awareness of the negative effects of economic growth, including an explosion in debt and widening inequality.

“The most pressing side effect has been the damage to the environment,” it said, noting that 21 of the planet’s hottest years on record have been seen over the last 23 years.

There has been no shortage of voices on panels in recent days saying that the world is reaching a tipping point in terms of public awareness of the impact that humans are having on the planet and that action needs to be taken.

“We think we will soon enter a stage where there will be a realisation of the immense economic and personal trade-offs we will collectively have to make in order to hit climate targets,” the Deutsche Bank report said.

“Such sacrifices may shock citizens and be difficult to administer in democracies. Will human progress be stalled or reversed if we decide that tackling the environment is the priority over growth?”