The World of International Organizations Explained

Worlds collide: Trump, Thunberg at Davos

World Economic Forum participants watching U.S. President Donald J. Trump speak on Jan. 21, 2020 (ARÊTE/Benedikt Von Loebell)

U.S. President Donald Trump and 17-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg seemed to be talking about two entirely different planets on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort town of Davos.

Trump fumed about the “prophets of doom” that he said repeatedly warn the world is about to end from global warming. An hour later, Thunberg told the same elite gathering the world is “on fire,” and only an immediate end to fossil fuel burning can save it from a “climate and environmental emergency.”

Many of WEF’s 3,000 participants represent the political and financial status quo; a new survey of CEOs by financial firm PwC showed they rank the climate crisis as only the 11th most serious risk to their businesses’ growth.

Yet with its emphasis on supranational cooperation among governments and all stakeholders, WEF and many of its participants favor globalism, liberalism and sustainable development, making it more Thunberg’s kind of place. One of its major themes this year was a dire need to save the planet.

“The Earth is getting hotter, the ice is melting, the oceans are rising, and they’re filling up with plastic. We’re losing species, building up greenhouse gases, and running out of time. It’s easy to feel downhearted,” the international organization for public-private cooperation said in its program notes.

“And yet there are so many reasons to be cheerful: the watchword is ‘sustainable’ and it’s being applied to every area of human activity — energy, food, clothing, travel, cities — you name it,” it said. “But even if everything was 100 percent sustainable there’d still be work to do to repair the damage we’ve done. Where to start?”

Klaus Schwab, a German engineer and economist who became WEF’s founder and executive chairman, has framed the agenda as a call to put considerations about our planet and society on par with profit motives: a choice between stakeholder-driven or traditional shareholder-driven capitalism.

“The first model only cares about shareholder profit,” the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, told the opening ceremony at Davos. “The second one, the one you always believed in,” she said in a reference to Schwab, “is about social responsibility. Responsibility towards workers and their families. Responsibility towards our environment. Responsibility towards society as a whole.”

Collision of world views

Against that background, Trump’s “America First” policies were anathema to the Davos globalist mindset; he is, in particular, an outlier to WEF’s prevailing views towards the climate crisis.

And in a further collision of world views, Trump’s speech focusing on a “great American comeback” economically defied the forces of multilateralism, multiculturalism and inclusivity, climate activism and, in Washington, impeachment proceedings. He heaped credit upon himself for a surging stock market, low unemployment and new international trade rules during his first three years in office.

“America is thriving; America is flourishing and yes, America is winning again like never before,” Trump told the gathering of political and business leaders, academics, artists and a few celebrities.

Trump, who considers climate change a hoax and regularly campaigns against energy efficient products, took aim at what he called “the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse.” But, in an apparent effort to convey concern for the environment, he came prepared to join WEF’s initiative to plant 1 trillion trees worldwide to capture carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere.

By contrast, Thunberg took direct aim at the elite crowd, demanding on behalf of her own and future generations an immediate end to global investment in energy sources that depend on gas and oil.

She called out the Trump administration for exiting the 2015 Paris Agreement that committed the world to preventing average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible.

She cited a 2018 report from the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, that found a half-degree less warming would cause fewer deaths and illnesses and 0.1 meters less sea rise, and would halve the number of people who lacked fresh water. Substantially fewer heatwaves and droughts would result, it said, and the world’s coral reefs might survive.

“Let’s be clear. We don’t need a ‘low carbon economy.’ We don’t need to ‘lower emissions.’ Our emissions have to stop if we are to have a chance to stay below the 1.5-degree target,” said Thunberg, adding the United States’ departure from the Paris treaty should spark outrage and worry in everyone.

“Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour,” she said. “And we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.”

But she also criticized the rest of the world for not keeping to the Paris targets. “My generation will not give up without a fight,” Thunberg told the Davos gathering.

The world of international organizations explained.

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