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Trump and the teenager: A climate showdown at Davos

The 73-year-old president and 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg dominated the first full day of the gathering, painting starkly different visions of the future

By Mark Landler and Somini Sengupta
Published: Jan 22, 2020

Trump and the teenager: A climate showdown at DavosSwedish clima­te activ­ist Greta Thunb­erg, 17, leaves an auditorium after watching President Donald Trump deliver opening remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020
Image: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

DAVOS, Switzerland — Neither uttered the other’s name. But President Donald Trump and Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg took unmistakable aim at each other Tuesday at this conference of business and government figures, reprising their roles as antagonists on the global stage.

The 73-year-old president and 17-year-old activist dominated the first full day of the gathering, painting starkly different visions of the future, and staking out opposite poles on the signature theme of this year’s forum: how best to manage a world of increasing temperatures, rising seas and catastrophic wildfires.

Trump implicitly criticized Thunberg and other activists, saying they peddled warnings of doom at a time when his policies had ushered in a bright new era of economic prosperity for Americans.

“They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortunetellers,” the president said. “They predicted an overpopulation crisis in the 1960s, a mass starvation in the 70s, and an end of oil in the 1990s.”

“This is not a time for pessimism,” Trump declared, adding, “Fear and doubt is not a good thought process.”

Thunberg listened, sitting with three other climate activists in the sixth row.

An hour later, Thunberg, addressing another Davos audience, rebuked leaders for failing to fix a problem of their own making. She said they had ignored pleas for the world to act on climate change. And she flatly rejected Trump’s assertion that there was much to be optimistic about.

“You say children shouldn’t worry,” Thunberg said. “You say, ‘Just leave this to us. We will fix this. We promise we won’t let you down.’ ”

Then, a line that did not appear in her prepared remarks: “‘Don’t be so pessimistic.’”

The last time the two encountered each other, at the United Nations in September, she glared as she watched him pass before her in the General Assembly building. Photos and video of her expression spread widely, only to be followed by what was widely seen as a sarcastic Twitter message from the president.

“She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future,” he wrote. “So nice to see!”

Thunberg struck back immediately with her nearly 2 million Twitter followers, briefly changing her bio: “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future,” she wrote.

There was nothing so direct Tuesday, when Trump and Thunberg spoke to separate audiences.

Trump celebrated his deregulatory agenda, which he said had unshackled the American economy, allowing the United States to build profitable new energy businesses and to wean itself from energy dependence on what he labeled hostile countries.

Trump’s impact on environmental protections has been wide-ranging. He has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, rolled back a wide range of emissions regulations and empowered a bureaucracy that has sought to undermine the science of climate change.

The United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in history.

The closest Trump’s speech at Davos came to environmental issues was his claim that the United States had the cleanest air and drinking water on Earth. In fact, the Trump administration has pushed through a plan to weaken clean-water regulations. And air pollution in the United States has worsened since 2016, reversing decades of improvements, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Trump dismissed the activists as advocating a form of “radical socialism” that Americans would reject. While he got only perfunctory applause, his message resonated with some in the business-heavy audience.

Critics pointed to a contradiction that they said the corporate world had been unable to resolve: how to assuage the appetite for economic growth, based on gross domestic product, with the urgent need to check carbon emissions.

“It’s truly a contradiction,” said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “It’s difficult to see if the current GDP-based model of economic growth can go hand-in-hand with rapid cutting of emissions,” he said.

Thunberg, for her part, largely repeated the warning she issued at the United Nations last year and for which she has drawn widespread global attention.

She spent several weeks in the United States, joining school climate strikes, visiting Native American activists at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which covers parts of North and South Dakota, and testifying in Congress. There, when asked to submit her remarks, she opted instead to submit a report issued in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spelling out the threats of global temperature rise.

Thunberg has always maintained that she has no interest in meeting Trump and suggested that he consult climate scientists if he wants to learn the facts. While the audience warmly greeted her call for action, she, too, was not without her critics.

“We have to be a little bit between optimism and outrage,” said Oliver Bäte, the chief executive of the German insurance giant Allianz. “I cannot get up every day outraged. We have to do something.”

Earlier in the day, Thunberg, speaking on another panel, brushed off criticism, saying it was more important to pay attention to the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has warned how dangerously close the world is to overspending its carbon budget and triggering irreversible climate effects.

Though Trump barely mentioned climate change, he did commit the United States to a World Economic Forum initiative to plant a trillion new trees as a way to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. The president pledged that the United States would work to manage and preserve its forests.

On this, Thunberg withheld her praise, warning that such initiatives were often an excuse for inaction.

“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,” she said.

“Planting trees is good, of course,” Thunberg said. “But it’s nowhere near enough of what is needed, and it cannot replace real mitigation or rewilding nature.”

©2019 New York Times News Service