A Tale of Two Planet Earths: Trump vs. Thunberg at Davos

In some ways, it hardly seems like a fair fight: the leader of the free world and the ultimate alpha male, Donald J. Trump, versus a slim, awkward 17-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg. Even so, they both swaggered into the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland with unassailable self-confidence. Their messages, however, could not have been more distinct.

Thunberg delivered her usual tirade to the assembled business and political luminaries. The “world . . . is currently on fire,” she declared, and it is well beyond time to “panic” because of the looming “climate chaos.”

What’s more, the grandees of global capitalism, who had gathered to congratulate themselves for taking climate change so seriously, are, in fact, according to Thunberg, part of the problem. Their much-ballyhooed targets for achieving “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2030, or 2040, or 2050, are mere number-fiddling. Only an immediate cessation in all fossil fuel investment would mollify Greta, and she isn’t holding her breath.

“Act as if you loved your children above all else,” Thunberg intoned icily—strongly implying that the Davos elite loves money a great deal more.

President Trump struck a very different tone. Instead of berating his listeners and scaring the wits out of them, Trump cataloged a long list of indicators in the United States that are pointing in a positive direction. A 50 percent gain in the stock market since November 2016 and rising wealth for low-income families. Rising wages, especially for those without college degrees. Eight burdensome federal regulations scrapped for each one added. The cleanest and healthiest air and water in decades. Energy independence. A quarter of all foreign direct investment is pouring into the United States. Twelve-thousand new factories. Millions of Americans are now liberated from food stamps and welfare. And, just recently, two important new trade agreements were signed with China and our North American partners.

Trump, in short, painted a picture of a world in which living standards are rising, free enterprise is thriving, and technology is breaking through old boundaries and solving entrenched problems—including environmental ones. The sky’s the limit if one buys the Trumpian view. These are the best of times, and they’re about to get even better.

The truth is that because of humankind’s unprecedented prosperity and technological prowess, fewer and fewer people are suffering and dying at the mercy of the weather than ever before in history.

What are we to make of these alternate realities, presented to the captains of industry, economic experts, and political opinion leaders gathered in the Swiss Alps?

First, it’s worth observing that Trump’s version of Planet Earth, as opposed to the Earth-Hellscape that Thunberg inhabits, is rooted in reality. The economic, environmental, and technological gains that Trump cited were, without exception, historically and statistically verifiable, even if they won’t make the evening news because, well, good news is no news at all.

People really are living “longer, happier, healthier” lives on a global scale, and standards of living have never been higher. Natural causes of famine have been virtually abolished (though political causes are another matter). The upward trends also show no sign of dissipating, except insofar as they are self-inflicted wounds, like depression and drug addiction, taking a toll in the West. But humanity, in terms of its objective, material circumstances, has never had less reason to complain.

Trump also rightly points out the abysmal record that radical environmental activists—the “perennial prophets of doom”—have accumulated in terms of accurately predicting future environmental challenges. They are constantly declaring that “time is running out” and only extreme, massively expensive, bureaucratic, anti-market reforms can save us.

How many times will the gullible swallow this bill of goods?

It’s instructive how devoid of any factual or scientific basis Thunberg’s remarks were. Her appeals to mass hysteria invariably take the imminence of doom as a given. Like so many environmental extremists, she posits a hypothetical global temperature increase of anything more than 1.5 degrees Celsius as the harbinger of the apocalypse. Why? Presumably, because the old figure, 2 C, wasn’t approaching fast enough. The 1.5 degree figure allows Thunberg and her allies to argue that we have only 12, or 10, or eight (do I hear six?) years left before—pow!—the world will explode, or implode, or turn into molten lava, or something similarly bad.

In the meantime, credulous minds can be won over with brazen emotional manipulation (why not weaponize the children?) combined with the cynical exploitation of every negative weather-related news story. The goal? To create the impression that every time it rains, or doesn’t rain enough, or every time the sun shines, or doesn’t shine enough, “climate change” is coming to kill us. Even many committed climate activists balk at this armchair meteorological soothsaying, but no matter.

The truth is that because of humankind’s unprecedented prosperity and technological prowess, fewer and fewer people are suffering and dying at the mercy of the weather than ever before in history. The only rational perspective on humanity’s relationship with our ever-changing climate, therefore, would be one infused with quiet satisfaction because of the tremendous progress already made—but don’t tell Greta Thunberg or her handlers, who surely would be apoplectic at the good news.

Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg came to Davos to promote two wildly divergent impressions of the state of the planet and its human denizens—one was positive, and one was negative; one was affirming, and one was accusatory; and one was true, while the other was a dark and sinister fantasy.

As usual, it was Donald Trump who summoned the courage to tell the world’s elite what much of it didn’t want to hear: that capitalism, freedom, and good old Yankee ingenuity, which have brought us so very far, are still the answer to our problems and the path to a better world.

About Nicholas L. Waddy

Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.

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