Most of Finland was baffled last month when President Trump stood amid the wreckage of the California wildfires and said that unlike Americans, Finns “spend a lot of time on raking” their forests and, therefore, “don’t have any problem” with forest fires. But Finland’s prime minister understood what Trump was talking about.
Juha Sipila was in Washington late last month with a message not only about managing forests but also about climate change and the need for international action to mitigate its effects. He said Trump was referencing a conversation he had with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who was explaining to Trump how Finland takes forest management very seriously.
“He was not wrong, but it’s not ‘raking,’ it’s ‘thinning,’ ” Sipila told me in an interview. “There was lots of discussion actually [in Finland] about what does it mean. But all Finns are so familiar with forestry issues they know the meaning is ‘thinning.’ ”
Like Finland, California spends billions on forest management, and the president’s call for better management only goes so far. The larger issue of climate change — which Trump and his administration focus less on — is where the long-term danger to forests may lie and where Finland is way ahead of the United States.
“My message is that climate change is a real thing and we are very serious in Finland,” Sipila said. “We have to do what we agreed to in the Paris agreement. We need to reduce our consumption, change our behavior.”
Not only has the Trump administration announced the United States is pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, Trump said last month that he doesn’t believe a new report by his own government that warns climate change could have devastating effects on the U.S. economy. This week, the Trump administration joined with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to prevent the COP24 conference from issuing a statement welcoming the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
Sipila’s argument, which he made in meetings with lawmakers and senior administration officials including Vice President Pence, is that the United States and European countries stand to benefit economically from developing the technologies that address climate change. But, first, we have to agree that it’s real.
“If we accept that this is true, I’m sure that we will find solutions together and there will be new business also to prevent climate change,” he said.
Sipila knows about the issue from personal experience. He was a tech entrepreneur before his late-in-life entry into politics, and as prime minister he has pushed for Finnish firms to expand internationally in the field of biofuels. He said Finland has not been harshly affected by Trump’s trade war with Europe so far, but that the United States and Europe need to come together on trade to compete with the rising economic power from China.
“The Western world, I’m really worried about our levels of innovation at the moment,” Sipila said. “One of the key messages from my side is we have to combine our resources in innovation and research work. … China is investing heavily in research and innovation, and we have to be prepared for a totally different world and totally different competition.”
He called on the United States to join with Europe to set future standards for artificial intelligence, 5G information networks and telecom. The United States and Europe face the same challenge from China with regard to trade but don’t have a common approach.
Sipila said Finland is cold to the idea of a European army, a proposal French President Emmanuel Macron made last month that Trump swiftly condemned. But Finland is a partner to NATO and stands with the alliance while also providing a diplomatic bridge to Russia.
“Our position is very clear: We are part of the Western world, member of the E.U., partner for NATO, and we are fully behind the sanctions [on Russia],” he said. “But at the same time, we have said that dialogue with Russia is very important.”
That’s one reason Helsinki was chosen to host the Trump-Putin summit in July, the details of which are still largely a mystery. Given the continued interest in that meeting, I asked Sipila if the Finnish government happens to have a recording of the bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Russian leaders.
“No, we don’t have any other information,” he said.