In Davos, world leaders confront climate change without Trump

At the World Economic Forum, world leaders stressed the need for global cooperation on climate change while the United States remained silent.

US President Donald Trump watches a band leaving the stage before delivering his speech during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 26, 2018 in Davos. (CREDIT: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump watches a band leaving the stage before delivering his speech during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 26, 2018 in Davos. (CREDIT: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

A week after NASA declared that 2017 was the second warmest year on record, world leaders gathered at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss problems facing the global community, including climate change. French President Emmanuel Macron called for his country to become a “model in the fight against climate change.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of global cooperation in dealing with the climate crisis. And Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi called climate change the “greatest threat to the survival and human civilization as we know it.”

One voice, however, was conspicuously silent on the issue: the United States.

That’s hardly surprising, given President Donald Trump’s persistent climate denial (which was the subject of a joke by French President Macron during his speech at the forum). As president, Trump has worked to systematically undermine climate regulations and initiatives set up by his predecessors — from pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement to ordering the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which would have placed emissions limits on power plants.

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But experts noted that the fervor with which other world leaders spoke about the issue of climate change signaled that, even without Trump, the world is set to move forward with climate action.

What was striking was the degree to which they emphasized climate,” David Waskow, director of World Resource Institute’s International Climate Initiative, told ThinkProgress. “They made sure that climate was clearly highlighted in their remarks, and international cooperation is very much a central part of the way in which they see action going forward. All of that came through quite strongly.”

Modi, the world leader who perhaps spoke most strongly about climate action, called the failure to address global warming an “alarming glimpse of our own selfishness.” He also called on rich nations to help fund climate mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries — something that Trump has vehemently opposed since the presidential campaign.

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“Everyone talks about reducing carbon emissions but there are very few people or countries who back their words with their resources to help developing countries to adopt appropriate technology,” Modi said.

This was hardly the first time that climate change became a major theme at the World Economic Forum. At last year’s summit in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jingping grabbed headlines when he called the Paris Agreement “a hard-won achievement” that “all signatories should stick to it rather than walk away.” Jingping did not speak at this year’s forum, but, according to the New York Times, world leaders expressed hope that China would become a major leader on global climate action, especially given the absent strong leadership from the United States.

But major gaps remain between rhetoric and action. China, for instance, has seen its greenhouse gas emissions rise in the last year, fueled by a spike in demand for electricity that was largely met by burning coal. France missed its target for cutting emissions in 2016, emitting 3.6 percent more greenhouse gases than its goal. Germany remains tied to coal, with 40 percent of its energy coming from coal-fired power plants. The country is also on track to miss its climate goals. The German environment ministry estimates that 2020 levels of carbon emissions will likely be only 31 percent below 1990 levels, rather than the official target of a 40 percent cut. India, too, remains deeply dependent on coal, which supplies 70 percent of the country’s energy. And despite Modi’s pledge to produce 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, India’s state-run utility plans to invest $10 billion in new coal-fired power plants over the next five years.

Still, Waskow said that he was heartened to hear world leaders focus on the need for global cooperation to deal with climate change, regardless of what the United States does.

Countries are clearly ready to work together and do so with or without national leadership from the United States and Trump,” Waskow said. “It’s like Trump is trying to run down an up escalator. He might make some headway, but at the end of the day, the escalator is going up.”