Skip to navigationSkip to content

Davos 2020

News, analysis, and gossip from the premier annual gathering of the global elite.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images
On the campaign trail.
PROPHETS OF DOOM

Trump compared climate-change activists to “radical socialists” at Davos

Davos, Switzerland
Isabella Steger
By Isabella Steger

Asia deputy editor

On the same day his impeachment trial begins, US president Donald Trump spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, delivering what essentially amounted to a low-spirited, rambling campaign speech that flew in the face of the event’s theme of sustainability.

Trump devoted almost the entirety of his 40 minutes on stage listing what he said were his economic achievements at home. Those achievements, he said, included adding “$19 trillion in household wealth” to the US economy, signing two “extraordinary trade deals” in the past week, rescuing historically black American colleges, reforming childcare, and bringing factory jobs back to to the country.

He described the current US economy as a “roaring geyser of opportunity.”

His message was one of defiant hubris and optimism. It came amid a perceptible shift in mood at the annual gathering of the wealthy and powerful, which has seen the specter of climate change become a central issue. Just before Trump took the stage, for example, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab and Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga both sounded the alarm on climate change, referencing the recent Australia bushfires. Sommaruga also called out politicians who incite “intolerance, hatred, prejudice, revenge,” which was hard not to interpret as a reference to the kind of world leader Trump represents.

For a brief moment during his otherwise breathless recitation of perceived successes, Trump turned to the climate issue. He said he was “committed to conserving the majesty of god’s creation and the natural beauty of the world.” While there were perceptible bouts of giggling and uncomfortable shifting among the audience throughout Trump’s speech, it was only when the president committed to joining the Davos initiative to planting 1 trillion trees that the audience finally responded with applause.

Just as quickly, however, Trump then appeared to belittle those warning of a climate catastrophe. “We must reject the perennial prophets of doom, they are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers,” he said, adding that those people “want to see us do badly,” and comparing such “alarmists” to the Cassandras of earlier decades who warned of over-population, “mass starvation,” and the “end of oil.”

“We will never let radical socialists… eradicate our liberty,” he said.

Trump’s speech came shortly after teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg appeared on a panel where she castigated global leaders for doing almost nothing to reduce carbon emissions.

Almost everything in Trump’s speech felt like it had been written for a crowd of his supporters in West Virginia or Missouri, rather than for a conference hall in Western Europe packed with global business leaders, politicians, religious figures, and activists, including former US vice president Al Gore.

In one small gesture to Europe, however, Trump invoked the continent’s rich history and its development of wealthy commercial centers before launching into a long-winded tangent about last year’s fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Trump used it as an example of how Europe once had “unbridled ambitions,” and said that the church would one day be “restored magnificently” to once again be “giving glory to god.”

The message ran counter to the zeitgeist at Davos this year, which focused on more sustainable forms of growth. Giant corporations like Salesforce, for example, are lining up to show off their green credentials. After Trump’s speech, Schwab closed off the session by thanking the president for “injecting optimism” into this year’s discussions.