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Climate crisis: A teen and a president face off in Davos — but around them the world is changing


Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

It was surely one of the most bizarre non-confrontational confrontations in history. A 17-year-old Swedish girl. A president of the United States. Yet, they went toe-to-toe, without mentioning each other’s names, without a meeting, and without any overt acknowledgement of each others’ argument. Together they symbolise the distance between climate activists and the bastions of political power.

US President Donald Trump spent most of his opening address at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday trumpeting the US’s economic achievements. But there was one little diversion from an otherwise stump-ish speech.

“We must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse,” he told a Davos audience that included environment activist Greta Thunberg.

He tried to frame the argument as one between optimists and pessimists. “Fear and doubt is not a good thought process because this is a time for tremendous hope and joy and optimism and action.” He dismissed climate activists as fearmongering “prophets of doom” who will cripple global economies and strip away individual liberties in what he described as a misguided mission to save the planet.

He compared today’s climate activists to people who predicted an overpopulation crisis in the 1960s, mass starvation in the ’70s, and an end of oil in the ’90s.

And then the thundering, acerbic tailpiece:

“These alarmists always demand the same thing: absolute power to dominate, transform and control every aspect of our lives. We will never let radical socialists destroy our economy, wreck our country or eradicate our liberty.”

But Thunberg was up to the challenge. In a different panel, she said:

“The facts are clear, but they are still too uncomfortable. You just leave it because you think it’s too depressing and they will give up.

“But people will not give up. You are the ones who are giving up.”

“I wonder what will you tell your children was the reason to fail and leaving them facing climate chaos that you knowingly brought upon them. That it seemed so bad for the economy that we decided to resist the idea of securing future living conditions without even trying?”

“Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour, and we are telling you to act as if you love your children above all else.”

Her speech was peppered with the exclamations of diatribe. Planting trees is a good thing but insufficient. Forget about net-zero emissions; we need real zero emissions.

And it’s not about politics.

“We couldn’t care less about your party politics. From a sustainability perspective, the right, the left and the centre have all failed”.

And as for ideology:

“No political ideology or economic structure has been able to tackle the environmental and climate emergency and create a cohesive and sustainable world.”

And then her coup.

“You say, children shouldn’t worry. You say, just leave this to us. We will fix this. We promise we won’t let you down. Don’t be so pessimistic. And then, nothing, silence. Or something worse than silence. Empty words.”

Seeing these two statements next to each other leaves you with a sense of a huge dichotomy; a totally unbridgeable gap. The distance that each would have to travel to meet the other is just immense. 

Trump’s arguments were designed to play on the public’s hopes that it won’t turn out so badly. It’s a politicians trick; no problem that has effects beyond the politician’s term is, in fact, a problem at all. 

Thunberg is so devotional to her belief set and dismissive of all and everyone that you feel as if it is a confrontational put-on rather than a call to action. By taunting the world for its supposed inaction, she makes the huge actions taken already seem redundant. 

It’s the devotee’s trap: action reduces the need for devotion, so by definition, no action is possible.

Yet, the concerns about the world’s climate are palpable. In an interview on Bloomberg Television, the Chief Executive Officer of the world’s largest investor, BlackRock’s Larry Fink, said the “biggest risk” on the path to a carbon-neutral economy is being too dependent on governments to take action since they’re not equipped to handle the task on their own.

“Climate change is now becoming an investment risk,” Fink said. The transition to a carbon-free economy will take more than 50 years, and “the key thing that we need to do is find ways to mitigate those risks while we are dependent on carbon”, he said. Other executives were falling over themselves in agreement.

Despite Trump’s facile dismissiveness and Thunberg’s grandiose thunderings, the world is changing. BM


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