Early this morning at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, United States Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sneered at Greta Thunberg’s climate activism when she called for governments to divest from fossil fuels, saying, “After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.”
There are many problems with what Mnuchin said, but to start with, Mnuchin’s own government released a National Climate Assessment in 2018 that said that climate change, if left unaddressed, would cost the U.S. economy $500 billion per year. A massive new report by the Bank for International Settlements also has linked climate change to a possible financial crisis. Furthermore, actual economist Gernot Wagner told The Washington Post that Mnuchin is completely wrong about Economics 101. (Everyone should click through to read Wagner’s delightful telling of Arthur Pigou’s 1920 analogy about rabbits on a communal meadow.)
Thunberg also responded on Twitter:
Meanwhile, right-wing media sites were thrilled at Mnuchin’s attack. The Washington Examiner dismissed Thunberg as someone calling for “radical, left-wing policies.” The Washington Times wrote up Mnuchin’s remarks with the headline “Steven Mnuchin puts Greta Thunberg in her place.” Red State suggested that people Thunberg’s age should not be listened to as they have “minds full of mush.” A Daily Caller contributor wrote that children should be seen and not heard. Others aggregated Mnuchin’s remarks as well. Donald Trump Jr. dismissed her and suggested she go to India and China.
Notably, none of the right-wing articles actually addressed the question of what climate action or inaction would mean for our economy. Instead, they just resorted to bullying and name-calling.
Mnuchin, for his part, discussed his comments on CNBC’s Squawk Box. Co-anchor and longtime climate crisis denier Joe Kernen used the interview as an opportunity to suggest that Thunberg’s prominence was driven by climate alarmism and even suggested that all climate science was discredited. Kernen then opened the door for Mnuchin to go all-in on climate denialism, with only light chiding from co-anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin (who used JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon of all people as a counterpoint).
The softball CNBC interview also had Mnuchin throwing out a number of right-wing talking points on climate change and generally showing that he has no understanding of the issue. In fact, the entire conversation seemed to take place in a universe where climate change is not an urgent problem, where Australia is not on fire, where ocean life is not dying, and where the United States is not repeatedly hit with climate-fueled catastrophes like wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding.
In response to a question on climate change, Mnuchin claimed that U.S. “environmental policies are misunderstood.” He then pivoted to saying that President Donald Trump believes in “clean air and clean water.” This pivot from climate change to clean air and water is quite common among administration officials. It’s also wrong. Climate change is the releasing of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, which is an entirely separate issue from clean air and water. Regarding Trump’s propensity to pivot on this, the Washington Post’s Philip Bump points out, “He’s simply pivoting from something on which his record is nonexistent to something on which his record is merely bad. He’s done nothing on climate change but move backward; he has, at least, talked about clean air and water.” And it’s true -- America's air is still not the cleanest, and “recent data suggests that air pollution is ticking back up.” The U.S. is also ranked 29th for water and sanitation issues. Finally, U.S. environmental policies under the Trump administration are extremely well-understood -- we know it is one of the most pro-polluter administrations in history, and at his direction, there have been 95 rollbacks of key environmental issues aimed at safeguarding public health and safety.
In fact, the Trump administration is now finalizing “a rule to strip away environmental protections for streams, wetlands and other water bodies,” making it easier for corporations to dump pollutants into our waterways.
Mnuchin also referenced the Paris climate agreement in his CNBC interview, saying that it is just the United States getting out of a bad deal. The Paris agreement was roundly supported by many in the U.S. business community; 400 city leaders and 25 states and territories also supported the agreement. Additionally, there are also numerous economic costs associated with leaving the Paris agreement, the most important of which is that climate change itself will devastate the economy -- not an agreement that allowed countries to set their own emissions goals had no requirements for how to reduce emissions.
The Paris agreement was also important for another reason that Mnuchin touched upon when he said that countries like China are the real problem when it comes to climate change. This is a common right-wing talking point when confronted with the U.S. role in the climate change debate. It’s also a bad response. As Rick Duke, who helped the Obama administration set U.S. emissions goals and draft the 2013 Climate Action Plan, wrote in the Foreign Policy magazine, the U.S. leaving the Paris Accord would “provide serious cover for major emitters like China and India.” Solutions to climate change require global action. The United States is “historically responsible for more emissions than any other country.” While it’s true that China is now the No. 1 emitter, it “emits far less greenhouse gas per person than Western countries did at the same stage of economic development.” Indeed, the U.S. emits 15 metric tons of carbon per capita, which is more than double that of China. It’s clear that the U.S. bears most of the responsibility for the climate mess that we find ourselves in -- pulling out of the Paris agreement is really just a bad deal for the climate in general and especially for those countries willing to cooperate with the U.S. in order to reduce carbon emissions.
Mnuchin also hit on planting trees as an effective climate solution. While planting trees is a good and noble cause, it’s not even close to being a sufficient climate policy on its own. As climate scientist Zeke Hausfather noted:
BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith also captured this sentiment well, noting, “Planting trees is a nice idea that’s useful mostly because it exposes how little political or real capital the wealthy are willing to spend to fix the world.” You can’t plant trees and call it an effective climate solution -- real cuts in emissions need to occur. It’s telling that Mnuchin didn’t address that.
Mnuchin made several other head-scratching claims that are easily debunked. In true denier fashion, he and Kernen scoffed at the idea of climate alarmism. Mnuchin called it “not the doom and gloom issue … that’s going to impact everybody in the next 10 years.” That’s laughably wrong -- climate change is already here, and unless something is done about it, the crisis will only get worse. Climate scientists, of course, have been right all along on climate change, including the models that are projecting future warming. There is nearly unanimous scientific consensus that we need to act urgently to avoid climate catastrophe.
Mnuchin also claimed that industry has gotten more efficient on carbon reductions. This ignores the fact that methane leaks from natural gas drilling are rising, and just one location in Ohio may have released more methane in 20 days than some developed countries do in an entire year. Additionally, planned new oil and gas extraction “risks locking in enough carbon emissions to push warming beyond 2°C, let alone 1.5°C.” And one study found that just the Gulf Coast and Southwest regions of the U.S. “could generate more than half a billion tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions per year by 2030. That figure is equivalent to 8% of total current annual U.S. emissions.”
It would have been nice to see any of this reality reflected in the CNBC segment with Mnuchin, but alas.
In fact, this wasn’t the only example of Kernen pushing climate denial at Davos. A day earlier, in a truly Herculean feat, he managed to out-do the CEO of BP, Bob Dudley. Watch what happened when BP’s PR stunt collided with Kernen’s environmental revanchism:
And it all happened at a forum where the global economy's capacity to respond to climate risks is the top priority.