At Davos, Trump touts US economy, but dismisses climate 'prophets of doom'

The World
A man speaks into a microphone in front of a blue wall.

US President Donald Trump touted the success of the US economy in Davos, Switzerland, dismissing "perennial prophets of doom" on climate change to an audience that included Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg.

With his impeachment trial beginning in Washington, Trump largely shied away from environmental issues, which are top of the agenda at the gathering of business leaders for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in a Swiss ski resort.

Related: Activist Greta Thunberg takes protest to climate-change denier Trump 

Trump said the US would join an initiative to plant a trillion trees, but spent several minutes of his speech hailing the economic importance of the oil and gas industries.

After days of uncertainty over whether Trump would actually attend the meeting in Davos, especially considering his impeachment trial in the US is underway, the US president landed in the Swiss Alps on Tuesday.

Related: Impeachment trial in the Senate: What’s happening?

"We are here meeting with world leaders — the biggest, most important people in the world and we are bringing back tremendous business to the United States. And they're all here to see. I'll be making a speech and then will be leaving shortly. But I think it's very important. The other is just a hoax, it's a witch hunt that's been going on for years. And it's frankly, it's disgraceful," Trump told the media in Davos on Tuesday when asked why he wasn't in Washington, DC.

It was the second time Trump has taken the stage at the WEF meeting. Two years ago, he urged companies to invest in America after passing the first tax cuts to encourage business spending.

This year, he stuck to the same theme in his a wide-ranging address pitched to appeal to the Davos crowd, touting the achievements of his administration despite his unorthodox approach.

The World’s host Marco Werman spoke to Anne McElvoy, a senior editor at The Economist and host of a weekly podcast called The Economist Asks, about how Trump's Davos speech was received.

Marco Werman: Anne McElvoy, why was Davos seemingly a priority for Trump this year, this week?

Anne McElvoy: Well, I think Donald Trump has a funny relationship with Davos. On the face of it, it represents the very international liberal elite that he most scorns. The other thing is, he likes an event, he's someone who likes to be on the front foot in terms of the international stage. It's glitzy, everyone else is here, it's a party.

Trump is present in Davos, absent in Washington. What message do you think that sends to the world and to the Senate? Could it possibly impact the trial?

I think the message that it's sending is that he thinks that if he keeps saying that impeachment is just something that's been cooked up against him by his enemies for years and continues with business as usual, that that will cut through to the electorate. I think he's thinking, how does this look to people who catch me on the television? Do I look confident? Do I look my best? So you could argue that rather perversely, Davos has ended up as a positive backdrop, a sort of marketing opportunity for a president who's under more pressure at home.

Related: GAO report says Trump administration violated the law in withholding aid to Ukraine 

There's also this Twitter quarrel that could play out in real life: Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump. There were speculations about a face-off of sorts. Did we see anything like that play out today?

Oh, yes, Greta Thunberg versus Donald Trump was definitely a theme of the day. I'm sure when I head out this evening Swiss time, it'll be the talk of all the soirees.

Related: How did teen climate activist Greta Thunberg rise to fame so quickly? 

So Anne, the theme of this year's meeting is Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World. Considering this Davos theme, is it surprising that President Trump gave a 30-minute speech and did not mention climate change?

I think from Donald Trump's perspective, climate change is a subject where he doesn't feel particularly engaged or interested in it. What he wants to talk about is that kind of boom mentality. I thought the tone was very interesting. I think he was trying to sound like the grown-up in the room. He's saying, look, follow me on this, let the doomsters get on with climate change over there in the other rooms.

That's not to say that he didn't address the environment at all. He spoke about a 1 trillion trees initiative that the US is now joining. And soon after his speech, it was then Greta Thunberg's turn to speak and she seemed to respond directly to this 1 trillion trees announcement: "Planting trees is good, of course, but it's nowhere near enough of what is needed, and it cannot replace real mitigation and rewilding nature," she said. Anne, how did the room react to Thunberg's speech?

It's quite interesting that she often says one thing that you feel everyone's nodding along with. Then, she says something else and you could see brows furrowing. Rewilding, really? I mean, do we have to have that as well as the mitigation? But if you say, did she get the respect of the room and was the room packed to the rafters, as it would be for an Angela Merkel? Absolutely. This is a very great, focused event. It is the World Economic Forum, it's not the World anti-Economic Forum.

Related: Why 2020 is a key year for climate action 

There is an inherent tension there in Davos. It's not a typical conference — world leaders and celebrities are ferried in by private jets — but the people who go, they say the goal is to improve the state of the world and yet they're behaving unsustainably. So what is the point of all of this?

I think the question that you're driving me towards is, does Davos man or woman do more harm than good or the other way round? And I think that they [are] all having their consciousness pricked, even though they're doing so high altitude in terms of the life around them this week at a pretty high level.

This interview was lightly condensed and edited for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report.

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