Donald Trump has sought to defuse growing criticism of his approach to the climate crisis by hailing his support for an initiative to plant a trillion trees in the next 10 years as a sign of his green credentials.
In a thinly veiled attack on the activist Greta Thunberg, he used a keynote address at the World Economic Forum to reject the “perennial prophets of doom” and “predictors of the apocalypse”.
The US president said he was “a big believer in the environment” in a speech that listed his achievements since entering the White House three years ago.
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.
“The environment to me is very important,” Trump said after a 30-minute speech aimed more at a domestic audience than the business leaders and policymakers gathered in Switzerland.
He made no mention of the climate emergency but backed the initiative – launched in Davos – to capture carbon by planting trees on a mass scale in the coming years. “What I want is the cleanest water and the cleanest air,” he said.
Environmentalists were unimpressed by a speech in which Trump boasted that this support for the coal and oil industries meant the US was self-sufficient in energy.
Thunberg said: “Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough, and it cannot replace real mitigation and re-wilding nature. We don’t need to lower emissions. Emissions need to stop.”
Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace’s executive director, said: “The 1tn trees initiative didn’t make up for the lack of a wider attack on the climate emergency, and Trump had failed to appreciate the scale of the crisis.
“To assume you can have a great, profitable America, and happy Americans without understanding the risk to Americans from climate change is astounding. It just demonstrates the level of denial, and the capture of this government by the coal, oil and gas industries.”
Trump’s visit to Switzerland – his second to Davos – ensured he was out of Washington as impeachment hearings against him began on Capitol Hill.
He said the American dream was back, “bigger, better and stronger” than before, adding that the benefits of growth were going primarily to low-income workers rather than the better off. Turmp added that 7m jobs had been created and 12,000 factories opened during his presidency.
The president’s claims were rejected by the Columbia University economics professor Joseph Stiglitz. “Research shows that Trump normally tells five or six lies a day. He far exceeded that today”, Stiglitz said, noting that growth had been faster under Obama and that life expectancy had fallen every year of Trump’s presidency.
Although the US economy grew far more rapidly in previous decades than it has since he was elected in November 2016, Trump said: “I’m proud to say that the US is in an economic boom, the likes of which the world has never seen before.
“This is not a time for pessimism. This is a time for optimism. The time for scepticism is over. People are flowing back,” he said, thanking business leaders who had moved factories into the US.
“I hold up the American model as an example to the world,” Trump said, contrasting his record with that of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The US was “thriving, flourishing and winning” unprecedentedly, the president added, citing trade deals signed last week with China and Mexico-Canada as models for the 21st century,
“I am looking forward to a tremendous new trade deal with the UK,” Trump said, noting that Britain had a “wonderful new prime minister” in Boris Johnson, who was keen on a deal.
The president said the economic boom had happened despite the US Federal Reserve, which “raised rates too fast and cut them too slowly”.