The president of the World Bank, David Malpass, on Thursday tried to restate his views on climate change amid widespread calls for his dismissal after he refused to acknowledge that the burning of fossil fuels is rapidly warming the planet.
In an interview on CNN International on Thursday morning, Malpass said he accepted the overwhelming scientific conclusion that human activity is warming the planet.
“It’s clear that greenhouse gas emissions are coming from man-made sources, including fossil fuels,” he said. “I’m not a denier.”
He also sent a memo to World Bank staff, which was obtained by The New York Times, in which he wrote that “it’s clear that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are causing climate change, and that the sharp increase in the use of coal, diesel, and heavy fuel oil in both advanced economies and developing countries is creating another wave of the climate crisis.”
That was much different from Tuesday, when he refused to acknowledge during a public event at the Times whether the burning of oil, gas, and coal was dangerously heating the Earth.
Speaking onstage during a discussion about climate finance, Malpass was asked to respond to a remark made earlier in the day by former vice president Al Gore, who called the World Bank president a “climate denier.” Pressed three times, Malpass would not say whether he accepted that human-made greenhouse gas emissions had created a worsening crisis that is already leading to more extreme weather.
“I’m not a scientist,” he said.
The World Bank’s mission is to reduce poverty by lending money to poor nations to improve their economies and living standards. The loan terms are more favorable than those countries could get on the commercial market, often at low cost or no cost. The bank, which is owned by 187 countries, finances a wide range of projects from energy to education to public health.
Malpass’s equivocation concerning the basic facts of climate science quickly became a hot topic in New York, where thousands of diplomats, policymakers and activists had gathered for the UN General Assembly and a series of events known as Climate Week.
Many experts say the World Bank under Malpass is not doing enough to align its lending with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and is moving too slowly to help poor countries deal with rising seas, drought, and other extreme weather resulting from the warming of the planet. The bank continues to fund oil and gas projects, despite a declaration by the International Energy Agency that countries must stop financing new fossil fuel development if the world has any hope of averting climate catastrophe.
“This landed because there is a very real debate about how all the capital sitting in the bank can be deployed more quickly and assertively given the situation the world is in,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, who has been participating in climate discussions at the United Nations this week. “This is an open wound, and whatever that was from President Malpass was disappointing.”
World Bank staff members exchanged text messages lamenting how Malpass bungled his initial response Tuesday and expressing disappointment that he had undercut the bank’s work on climate initiatives, according to people familiar with the matter.
Some speculated about whether Malpass would leave before his term expires in 2024. He was nominated to lead the World Bank in 2019 by former president Donald Trump. Although the United States traditionally picks the leader of the World Bank and is its largest shareholder, removing Malpass before the end of his term would require the backing of the board of governors.
One of those governors, Jochen Flasbarth, a senior economic official in Germany, reacted to Malpass’s Tuesday performance with alarm, saying on Twitter, “We are concerned about this confusing signals about scientific evidence of #climatechange from the top of @WorldBank.”
The reaction from many others was even sharper.
“It’s simple,” Christiana Figueres, who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement as head of the UN climate agency, said on Twitter on Wednesday. “If you don’t understand the threat of #climatechange to developing countries you cannot lead the world’s top international development institution.”
Speaking at an event Wednesday, Mark Carney, who is leading a UN effort to get financial institutions to help reduce emissions, echoed Malpass’s comments — but with a distinct twist. “I’m not a scientist,” he said. “But I took scientific advice.”
The Biden administration would not say Wednesday if it had confidence in Malpass but emphasized that the institution must play a central role in combating climate change.
“We expect the World Bank Group to be a global leader of climate ambition and the mobilization of significantly more climate finance for developing countries,” said Michael Kikukawa, a Treasury Department spokesperson. “We have — and will continue — to make that expectation clear to World Bank leadership. The World Bank must be a full partner in delivering on this global agenda.”
Activists and climate experts called for Malpass to be removed.
“There is no place at the top of the World Bank for a climate denier,” said Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute and an expert on energy and climate issues. “David Malpass needs to step down. The World Bank deserves a passionate leader who fully appreciates the threat that climate change poses to reducing poverty, improving living standards and sustainable growth.”
All of that followed Gore’s remarks Tuesday morning, which set events in motion. “We need to get a new head of the World Bank,” Gore said at the Times event. “This is ridiculous to have a climate denier as the head of the World Bank.”
Malpass’s comments on CNN did little to assuage his critics.
“At this point, it’s clear he’s trying to hang on to his job after the diplomatic admonishment from the U.S. Treasury Department and other shareholders yesterday,” said Luísa Abbott Galvão, senior international policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “Malpass has been making climate-denying comments for over a decade. We cannot have a situation where a World Bank president is saying nice things publicly but working behind the scenes to block action, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen in his three years as World Bank president.”
After President Biden took office, Malpass appeared more willing to discuss climate change publicly. On its website, the bank details its efforts to invest in renewable energy projects and fund efforts to make poor countries more resilient to extreme weather.
The Treasury Department oversees the U.S. relationship with the World Bank. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has several times urged Malpass, and the heads of other multilateral development banks, to do more to help countries cut emissions, invest in adaptation and climate resilience and align their operations with the Paris Agreement.
Malpass is expected to host a town hall for World Bank staff members next week, before annual meetings in October in Washington.