Analysis. The clash between Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump stood for a wider conflict between two worlds, both well represented at the Swiss ski resort: billionaires and civil society.

Greta and Goliath meet at Davos, where profits are no longer the only priority

The small Greta Thunberg standing in the path of Trump advancing like a tank—that was the most prominent image in the media coverage that marked the first day of discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos. 

The clash between Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump stood for a wider conflict between two worlds, both well represented at the Swiss ski resort: the world of business, strongly supported behind the scenes by the political world (around 30 heads of state or government and 119 billionaires were in attendance), and, on the other side, the multi-faceted universe of NGOs fighting for the environment, which took the opportunity this week to once again repeat data and figures that have been circulating for some time but have been widely ignored.

At her panel, Thunberg acknowledged the achievements of the young protesters who have created “an alliance of movements” so that “people are more generally aware now. The climate and environment is a hot topic now, thanks to young people pushing.” However, the young Swedish activist stressed that “pretty much nothing has been done. Emissions of CO2 have not reduced and that is what we are trying to achieve.”

Data from the various NGOs who came to Davos also adds to the worrying picture. Greenpeace has reported that 10 big banks represented at Davos—JPMorgan, Citi, Bank of America, Barclays, etc.—have invested no less than $1 trillion in fossil fuels during the period 2015-2018 (the same amount that the EU Commission hopes to spend on the Green Deal in 10 years), which still represent 90% of energy production. 

According to Greenpeace, pension funds are also guilty of the same behavior: the NGO pointed out that major investors such as the Ontario Teacher’s Fund, Canada Pension or PensionDenmark own a total of 26 billion shares in Shell, Exxon or Chevron in their portfolio. “Banks, insurers and pension funds are as culpable for the climate emergency as the fossil fuel industry,” said Jennifer Morgan, the head of Greenpeace.

Thunberg highlighted the figures in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which says that there is a 67% probability that we would be able to keep global warming at no less than 1.5°C, according to the commitments made at the COP21, but that at the pace of today’s emissions, our remaining carbon budget will be exhausted in less than eight years. 

WWF secretary general Marco Lambertini had a more optimistic take, saying that “there is a huge increase in awareness among the big bosses, but the challenge is to translate it to lower levels, within gigantic groups.”

Unfortunately, such optimism finds little support in the data from a PwC survey of 1,600 CEOs from 83 countries, in which climate risk did not come up among the top 10 risks to the economy this year. “My hope is that the dialogue in Davos this week and the business community over the next year will put this issue higher on the agenda and, more importantly, actions will be taken,” said the president of the PwC Institute, Bob Moritz. 

However, we are seeing some signs of change: such as BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s promise to invest $1 trillion (out of the nearly $7 trillion that his company manages) into projects that are compatible with sustainable development (as they have decided to take into account possible “climate risks” to the value of their shares). There was also the IMF’s powerful exhortation to invest in measures to curb climate change.

Now in its 50th edition, the Word Economic Forum has taken a major turn compared to its first editions, when it was aimed exclusively at pushing for economic growth, ignoring social and environmental responsibilities. Today, the WEF is working with the World Bank and the Red Cross and is trying to help fragile economies. In its Social Mobility Report, the WEF argues that higher social mobility represents a boost for the economy (an increase of 10 points in social mobility would lead to 4.4% extra growth by 2030).

Wednesday, it was EC President Ursula van der Leyen’s turn to explain the European Green New Deal project, also in relation to its compatibility with social emancipation. However, there are still internal disagreements to iron out within the EU. On Wednesday, the Industry Committee of the European Parliament voted to approve a list of energy projects eligible to receive European funds that included 32 gas infrastructure projects, which, according to a recent report by the consulting firm Artelys for the European Climate Foundation, are both useless and wasteful. According to Pascal Canfin, the chairman of the Environment Committee, the report shows that “for each euro given to the Just Transition Fund, the Commission would be ready to give €4 to the financing of gas projects.”

The most striking episode of Tuesday was, in the end, the Donald Trump show: a caricature of the certainties of the past, in a campaign-style speech with 10 months to go until the US elections, railing against “the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse,” probably meant to refer to Thunberg herself, and opining that “fear and doubt is not a good thought process.” 

Trump himself has no doubts whatsoever: “There is no better place on earth than the United States,” he said, adding that “the United States is in the midst of an economic boom the likes of which the world has never seen before,” bragging also that the US is now the world’s top oil and gas producer. “Today, I hold up the American model as an example to the world,” he said. He was also keen to highlight that 60,000 factories had closed during the Obama administration while 12,000 had opened under his own. 

Trump claimed on Twitter that the reason he was in Davos (just as his trial for impeachment was beginning in the Senate) was “to meet with World and Business Leaders and bring Good Policy and … Hundreds of Billions of Dollars back to the United States of America,” touting his recent trade agreements with China, Canada and Mexico.

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