5 climate themes from Davos

Source: Benjamin Hulac and Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, January 26, 2018

Before he called the White House home, President Trump often sought to hobnob with the world’s wealthy and powerful at exclusive events like the economic summit underway in Davos, Switzerland.

He was never before invited to the World Economic Forum talks held there annually. Now that he’s president, he’s about to get his chance. But based on the not-so-subtle comments coming from the summit ahead of Trump’s expected speech, he won’t be getting the warm reception he probably hopes for.

While Trump won’t take the stage until Friday — when he’s expected to speak in favor of hard-line economic nationalism — the differences between his policies and those of other foreign leaders are already on display. Heads of state delivered withering rebukes of Trump and his administration’s “America First” agenda, declared climate change to be a devastating world threat and denounced retreats from global trade, cooperation and engagement. Meanwhile, the United States sent a delegation led by seven Cabinet secretaries, who have been forcefully defending Trump’s policies on everything from solar tariffs to coal.

President Clinton attended Davos at the end of his term; then-Vice President Joe Biden went when President Obama was in office. But U.S. presidents have traditionally avoided the talks for fear they would seem out of touch with voters. Trump appears to have no such qualms.

Still, there’s a contrast presented by Trump, who ran a populist presidential campaign but will rub shoulders with billionaires in a city where, according to Canada’s Global News, one restaurant charges $75 per hamburger, and at a conference famously called a place “where billionaires tell millionaires what the middle class feels.”

Here are five climate and energy themes from the Davos summit so far:

Heads of state set the tone

World leaders who preceded Trump to the podium Tuesday and yesterday lobbed veiled criticisms at him, fretting about threats to globalization and to solidarity needed to address problems like climate change.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said a move away from collective responsibility would complicate efforts to confront challenges like global warming, which he called the “greatest threat to the survival of human civilization as we know it.”

Said Modi, “It is a matter of concern that the divisions between us, the rifts, the fault lines between us, they have made these challenges and mankind’s struggle against them all the more complex and much harder.”

He touted India’s plans to achieve its nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement, a pledge global advocates say is ambitious but may not be reached.

India pledged two years ago in Paris to increase renewable power capacity to 175 gigawatts by 2022 — a fivefold increase that Modi reminded participants in Davos was a “very big target for a country like India.”

Most analyses show India is behind in its progress toward that goal. But here, India returned to a message it has often floated at U.N. climate summits and in other venues, challenging rich nations to help it meet targets by providing free technology.

“Everyone talks about reducing carbon emissions,” he said. “But there are very few countries that back their words with their resources to help developing countries to adopt appropriate technology.”

He did praise France for working with India to convene the International Solar Alliance to expand solar power utilization in the wake of the Paris summit.

Modi’s words came a year after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Davos to claim China’s place as a leader on both globalization and climate change.

European leaders also directed fire at Trump, referring obliquely to his nationalist agenda.

“Let us not be naive. Globalization is going through a major crisis, and this challenge needs to be collectively fought by states and civil society in order to find and implement global solutions,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, one of Trump’s sharpest critics over leaving the Paris deal.

Macron pledged to phase out coal-fired power in France by 2021.

And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has struggled to meet her nation’s greenhouse gas commitments, took a similar approach.

“We think that shutting [ourselves] off against the rest of the world, isolating ourselves, will not lead us into the future,” she said. “Protectionism is not the proper answer.”

Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, said remarks on climate change by other leaders are likely aimed more at the finance and business leaders gathered in the Swiss Alps than at the current White House occupant. They’re the ones who must transform and decarbonize the world economy, preferably by diverting money to the speaker’s home country, he said.

But they’re talking to Trump, too, Light said.

“Given where the United States has positioned itself, there’s no way any leader can talk about climate change without at least implicitly criticizing the U.S. position right now, and they all know that,” he said.

Trump Cabinet hits back

U.S. officials set out to defend Trump’s economic and environmental policies.

In response to questions about the United States’ decision this week to slap 30 percent tariffs on imported solar equipment and washing machines, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the move was expected, and he criticized the landscape of global trade.

“I can’t imagine that the washing machine event or the solar panel event came as a big shock to anybody,” said Ross, adding that modern trade relations are broken. “It’s an old system.”

And as Energy Secretary Rick Perry has done when challenged about his policies to prop up coal power, Ross questioned whether free trade is real.

“Is there really free trade, or is it a unicorn in the garden?” he asked.

Speaking on a panel with Khalid al-Falih, the energy minister of Saudi Arabia, Perry shared his thinking on the “America First” idea.

“I can tell you in one word — it’s competition,” said Perry, who then took on the role of salesman. “When your country is looking for a place to purchase LNG,” he said, “think about America … first.”

Also in Davos, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said attendees who don’t care for Trump’s views can get out. “Those who don’t want to listen to him can leave,” she said.

Oil pitched as ‘clean fuel’

Not only is oil not going anywhere, but it’s going to be a “clean” energy option for years to come, said al-Falih of Saudi Arabia.

“We in the kingdom have been working through the climate change community,” said al-Falih, the former CEO of Saudi Aramco, adding that fossil fuels, including oil and gas, will be “part of the clean fuel menu” sold for generations to come.

In response to a lawsuit New York City recently filed against five oil majors, in which the city accused the firms of contributing to climate change damages, the minister called the suit hypocritical.

The editorial board of The New York Times said there is merit to the suit, “not least in spotlighting evidence” that the companies have known about climate change for decades.

“I’m sure whoever’s suing would probably cry foul if they couldn’t get to their gas station,” al-Falih said. “There is a lot of hypocrisy in some quarters.”

Perry chimed in. “Certainly the legal profession is always looking for a new and interesting angle; this looks like a new one and interesting one, and I’ll be one of the last people in this room to defend The New York Times,” he said.

Climate change looms large

Past conferences placed a heavy focus on climate change, but this year’s Davos talks seem to have ratcheted it up even more.

For the third year in a row, a World Economic Forum survey ranked threats related to climate change and natural disasters as the most severe risks to society.

“Extreme weather events were ranked as a top global risk by likelihood and impact,” said Alison Martin, group chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance Group. “Environmental risks, together with a growing vulnerability to other risks, are now seriously threatening the foundation of most of our commons.”

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the world’s wealthy nations are debating climate science while the poor are being wiped out.

“In our generation, there will be a few countries that will no longer exist,” O’Neill said. “Through no fault of their own,” he said, people in Africa, on Pacific island nations and throughout the Caribbean are in danger of disappearing.

“The rest of the world is continuously debating about whether climate change is real or not,” he said.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, sitting in the next seat, said disasters aggravated by climate change are killing at a frantic pace.

“Every night on the news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation,” Gore said, describing mudslides that killed more than 1,000 people in the West African nation of Sierra Leone.

Private sector speaks up

In the early 2000s, BP PLC was in the solar energy business. It made solar panels and sold them.

Speaking at the forum to Bloomberg about BP’s recent $200 million investment in a solar company Lightsource, BP CEO Bob Dudley said the company wants to be a leader in the industry.

“We’ve got lots of experience in solar,” Dudley said. “We haven’t made really big bets, but we’re scanning and screening everything,” he said. “We’re not going to be behind in this.”

When asked if the solar tariffs would prevent BP from undertaking projects in the United States, Dudley said no. “We’ve still got some plans in the United States,” he said.

Elsewhere in Davos, Philipp Hildebrand, vice chairman of BlackRock Inc., said companies can no longer sidestep climate change.

“I think it’s time that we recognize, that corporations recognize, this can no longer be ignored,” Hildebrand said.

Clients are demanding investment strategies that consider global warming and its effects, he said. But he lamented the sluggish global response to the threat. “Unfortunately, we’ve wasted precious time.”