Donald Trump’s treasury secretary has clashed with Greta Thunberg after responding to the activist’s call for immediate fossil fuel divestment by telling the 17-year-old to go to college and study economics.
In an attempt to slap down the climate emergency movement, Steven Mnuchin pretended not to know who Thunberg was, before dismissing her concerns as ill-informed.
Asked whether calls for public and private-sector divestment from fossil fuel companies would threaten US growth, Mnuchin jibed: “Is she the chief economist? Who is she, I’m confused” – before clarifying that he was joking.
“After she goes and studies economics in college she can come back and explain that to us,” Mnuchin added, at a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Davos is a Swiss ski resort now more famous for hosting the annual four-day conference for the World Economic Forum. For participants it is a festival of networking. Getting an invitation is a sign you have made it – and the elaborate system of badges reveals your place in the Davos hierarchy. The meeting is sponsored by a huge number of international banks and corporations.
For critics, “Davos man” is shorthand for the globe-trotting elite, disconnected from their home countries after spending too much time in the club-class lounge. Others just wonder if it is all a big waste of time.
The 2020 meeting is being advertised as focusing on seven themes: Fairer economies, better business, healthy futures, future of work, tech for good, beyond geopolitics and how to save the planet. Young climate activists and school strikers from around the world will be present at the event to put pressure on world leaders over that last theme.
Thunberg, 17, responded by tweeting a graph from a UN report showing how the world’s remaining carbon budget will be used up by 2027 unless global emissions are curbed.
“My gap year ends in August, but it doesn’t take a college degree in economics to realise that our remaining 1,5° carbon budget and ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and investments don’t add up,” she pointed out.
My gap year ends in August, but it doesn’t take a college degree in economics to realise that our remaining 1,5° carbon budget and ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and investments don’t add up. 1/3 pic.twitter.com/1virpuOyYG— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) January 23, 2020
Mnuchin’s comments expose the huge gulf that still exists between climate activists and the White House. Pressed on the climate emergency, Mnuchin insisted that environmental issues are “clearly complicated”.
He said: “When I was allowed to drive I had a Tesla. I drove in California. I liked it.
“But nobody focuses on how that electricity is made and what happens to the storage and the environmental issues on all these batteries.”
He also claimed the US was showing leadership in tackling emissions – but through its private sector rather than government. President Trump believes in clean air and water, and a clean environment, Mnuchin insisted, but also believes that more attention should be paid to the environmental damage caused by China and India.
People who call for divestment should remember there are “significant economic issues, issues with jobs”, he continued. “Many economies are transitioning to more efficient and cleaner energy. That doesn’t have to be all renewables.”
Angela Merkel, though, spoke warmly about the work of the new generation of climate activists.
“The impatience of our young people is something that we should tap,” the German chancellor said. In a special address to the WEF, Merkel called for more international cooperation to tackle climate change.
“I am totally convinced that the price of inaction will be far higher than the price of action,” she declared.
Thunberg has used this week’s gathering in Davos to push for radical change on the climate emergency.
She called for an immediate exit from fossil fuel investment, an end to subsidies for the industry and a halt to investment in fossil fuel exploration and extraction by companies, banks, institutions and governments.
“You might think we’re naive but if you won’t do it, you must explain to your children why you’ve given up on the Paris agreement goals and knowingly created a climate crisis,” she told delegates on Tuesday.
Mnuchin’s comments clearly show the White House has yet to heed the call.
The US labour secretary, Eugene Scalia, called for a balanced approach. The energy sector has been an important source of jobs and fully divesting from fossil fuels would also harm US pensioners, he said.
On Tuesday, Trump told Davos that delegates should be optimistic.
“To embrace the possibilities of tomorrow, we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse. They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers,” he said.