SA received an icy warning of its global dip from The Money Show host Bruce Whitfield, reporting from the World Economic Forum (WEF) shindig. “Davos is depressing — SA is barely here,” he lamented across the airwaves, contrasting the current invisibility with our golden yesteryears when “we used to have a very dominant position”.

At one level, our off-piste downhill run is entirely self-created: we cannot guarantee continuous electricity, and we are firing up coal power stations in a world that regards fossil fuels with the same anathema as it once did apartheid. Together with our recent growth downgrade from the World Bank, neither is likely to get investor pulses racing.

Still, our relative invisibility this week also owes a lot to the outsize presence at Davos of two polar opposites duking it out there. The age and ideological chasms separating US President Donald Trump, 73, and eco-warrior and media sensation Greta Thunberg, 17, are as wide as the Alps.

Trump, doubtless enjoying an Alpine respite from his impeachment trial in Washington, went after the environmental “prophets of perennial doom”. “We must reject their predictions of apocalypse. They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers,” he said.

I would have thought that with Australia on fire and the Amazon rain forests disappearing, it did not require clairvoyance to see the need for urgent action.

But Trump, like Gwede Mantashe here, has a big constituency of coal miners. For both men, it’s politics first, environment last.

Thunberg, dubbed “Saint Greta” by some, did not respond to the US president by name. But her target could hardly be clearer.

“Global inaction on climate change is fuelling the flames by the hour,” she said. And since the US, alongside China, is the leading carbon emission culprit and has withdrawn from the Paris climate accords, she intended to hit Trump hard.

While others were freezing in the Alps this week, I have been travelling in the warmer climes of Brazil. The country’s president, Jair Bolsanaro, who styles himself the “Trump of the Tropics”, has also been in the cross-hairs of environmentalists.

He too tangled with Thunberg last year, and promptly labelled her a pirallha, Portuguese for a brat. Like Trump, Bolsanaro regards climate activism as the work of “socialists” and “alarmists”. Our guide to the beautiful botanical gardens in Rio de Janeiro this week was a firm supporter of the hardline Brazilian president, but still lamented the alarming deforestation of his own country. Even its national tree, the Pau-Brazil, which once covered the vast country, is on the edge of extinction.

But the real horror show is the Amazon, where Australia-like fires, though these were man-made, raged until recently. It accounts for 40% of the world’s rainforests and nearly one-fifth of the globe’s terrestrial species.

While Bolsanaro derided as “colonial” the idea that the Amazon is “the heritage of mankind”, he is taking an axe, literally, to the rules and regulations that previously protected this sanctuary. According to an estimate by The Economist, since Bolsanaro’s election in late 2018 “trees in the Amazon have been disappearing at the rate of two Manhattans a week”.

Illegal logging and other destructive activities that Bolsanaro has ignored mean a barrier to global warming is disappearing — the forests have hitherto absorbed 2-billion tons of CO a year.

The problem with climate activists is that they can be preachy and self-righteous, even hypocritical. The satire emanating from Davos and repeated in Rio focused on the carbon-belching private jets clogging the airport. That might be fuel for the populists, but it doesn’t make the problem any less real.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

Featured in The Sunday Times