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Trump’s Davos speech sought to appease business leaders. On climate change, it isolated them

Trump’s Davos speech sought to appease business leaders. On climate change, it isolated them

When President Donald Trump took to the lectern at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland on Tuesday and derided “the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse,” there was little doubt of whom he spoke. Just an hour before Trump delivered his stump speech touting his economic bonafides, 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg had gone off-script at a panel at the same event, reciting figures that indicate the world is on track to blow past dubious global warning levels in less than eight years.

“I know you don’t want to talk about this,” she said. “I assure you I will continue to repeat these numbers until you do.”

Trump’s speech recalled the criticism he’d waged at Thunberg when she was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Trump, who belittles climate concerns and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, said the teen needed to chill out.

But there’s been no dialing down of Thunberg’s message in Davos, nor does it represent a fringe or alarmist view among attendees. In fact, her cry for action has picked up steam at the annual mountaintop summit, reverberating around the crowd of top government and business leaders, many of whom are newly converted to the climate crisis.

The annual meeting’s theme alone, “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World,” points to climate change’s steady climb up executives’ risk assessments.

Greta Thunberg seemed to be the target of President Donald Trump’s criticism of climate change activists at the WEF 2020 annual meeting in Davos on Tuesday.
FABRICE COFFRINI—AFP via Getty Images

Last week, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink issued a letter to fellow chief executives in which he said his firm would weigh environmental sustainability in making investment decisions. “It’s very clear, we in the capital markets, we bring risks forward,” he said at a Bloomberg event in Davos on Tuesday. “We don’t wait until the risk is in front of us.” In explaining the timing of his decision, he cited a barrage of client questions about framing a portfolio around climate change considerations. “[M]ore and more people are believing in some form of the [climate change] science if not all the science,” he said.

Likewise, Microsoft last week pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 as part of a wider sustainability push.

Questions remain about the feasibility of both commitments, but nevertheless they’re indicative of business’s speedy pivot to align itself with action on climate change. The economic implications of environmental catastrophes and pressure from younger generations of employees are accelerating the trend, KPMG CEO Lynne Doughtie told Fortune.

But as business examines its role in climate change, as well as possible solutions, it’s also coming to the realization that unilateral action isn’t enough.

“I take a lot of blame as a private company, but I can’t do it alone,” Zurich Insurance CEO Mario Greco said in a panel discussion in Davos. He said insurance firms had the “tough job” of deciding what to underwrite “based on ethical standards” and “compliance with the Paris agreement.”

“We don’t know exactly how the [insurance] industry should restructure itself; we’re not supposed to do that,” Greco said. Insurers are left to stop funding—a “brutal reaction to a market displacement,” he said. A global agreement on such matters is a potential solution, Greco added, but “a global agreement, if anything these days, is almost unthinkable.”

Fink also expressed skepticism that governments would intervene in meaningful ways.

“[G]overnments are so focused on electioneering and two-year election cycles, four-year election cycles, that we’re not seeing any true long-term planning,” he said. Climate change, Fink said, “requires real planning…climate change is not something that the Federal Reserve and all the central banks are going to be able to fix.” Rather, he said, “[I]t’s going to be fixed by a combination of public and private…and it’s going to require a great dialogue on moving this forward.”

On Tuesday, that kind of cooperation seemed a long way off—at least as far as the U.S. is concerned. In addition to ridiculing those who fear the climate crisis, Trump didn’t mention the words “climate change” at all—or, for that matter, how his government might help business address it.

For more coverage of the 2020 World Economic Forum annual meeting, click here.

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Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily digest on the business of tech.

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