President Donald Trump’s speech in Davos was not what many attendees wanted to hear.
At a conference dedicated to multilateralism and earnest discussion of the world’s most pressing problems, the American president used his keynote address to reel off a laundry list of his domestic accomplishments, promote the US economy and dismiss climate activists as “prophets of doom.”
He didn’t take questions from his host, World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, or the elite audience of leading executives, bankers and politicians.
This year’s Davos meeting is focusing heavily on how business and the economy must change to save the planet. But taking the stage just hours after Greta Thunberg admonished world leaders for doing “basically nothing” to reduce carbon emissions, Trump touted America’s role as the world’s biggest oil and gas producer and dismissed climate activists as prophets of doom.
The US economy was instead the focus of Trump’s speech. The president touted his record on jobs, wages, growth and the stock market.
What was missing was even a perfunctory nod to the interests or priorities of other countries. Instead, Trump touted American exceptionalism and his preference for unilateral action in what many in the crowd may have mistaken for a campaign speech.
Robin Niblett, the director of London think tank Chatham House, said he wasn’t surprised by the president’s defiant attitude. “I don’t think anyone would ever expect Donald Trump to take a step toward you,” he said. “He expects the world to take a step toward him on everything.”
Trump has long denied the science of climate change and one of his first acts as president was to announce the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris accord aimed at limiting the rise in global temperatures.
Nevertheless, Niblett said he was taken aback by Trump’s aggressive rebuke of climate activists. In the most pointed remarks of his speech, Trump said the world should ignore environmentalists, arguing that alarmist warnings of global destruction from decades past never materialized.
“To embrace the possibilities of tomorrow, we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse,” said Trump. “They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers.”
The president instead urged attendees to embrace the potential for technology and innovation to solve many of the world’s problems, saying that breakthroughs that result from the dynamism of market economies are able to solve any problem.
The message represents a sharp departure from the official playbook at the World Economic Forum, where this year’s theme is “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.”
Every company represented at Davos is being asked to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and many have come to the conference armed with talking points on what they’re doing to combat the climate crisis. Some, like Microsoft (MSFT), have gone much further.
Thunberg quickly shot back at Trump, whom she has criticized for abandoning the Paris agreement.
“All the solutions are obviously not available within today’s societies, nor do we have the time to wait for new technological solutions to become available to start drastically reducing our emissions,” said the teenage activist.
Khalid Abdulla-Janahi, chairman of Vision 3, said he found the panel discussion featuring Thunberg to be refreshing, and a blueprint for how the World Economic Forum could move forward. Then came Trump.
“A lot of us are investing in renewables,” said the Davos veteran. “It’s not an easy thing to make money on, but it’s the only way we’re going to sustain our future. To get nothing from the president on that aspect, that was a problem for me.”
Trump did, however, attract another a huge crowd during his second trip to Davos, with attendees and the media packing into the venue’s biggest conference hall to hear his address. For now, Davos and Trump may have to learn to co-exist.
“The idea that Trump is somehow anti-Davos is ludicrous,” Ian Bremmer, the president of risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said on Twitter. “He loves the event. Loves the attention. Loves the concentration of wealth and power.”