World Bank President David Malpass tried on Thursday to restore his views on climate change amid widespread calls for his impeachment after refusing to acknowledge that burning fossil fuels is rapidly warming the planet.
In an interview on CNN International Thursday morning, Malpass said he accepted the overwhelming scientific conclusion that human activity is warming the planet.
“It is clear that greenhouse gas emissions come from man-made sources, including fossil fuels,” he said. “I am not a denier.”
He also sent a memo to World Bank staff, which was obtained by The New York Times, in which he wrote: “It is 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 a far cry from Tuesday, when he refused to acknowledge during a public event in The New York Times whether burning oil, gas and coal was dangerously warming the Earth.
Speaking onstage during a discussion on climate finance, Mr. Malpass was asked to respond to a comment 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 accepts that man-made greenhouse gas emissions have created a worsening crisis that is already causing 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. Loan terms are more favorable than those countries could obtain in the commercial market, often at little or no cost. The bank, which is owned by 187 countries, finances a wide range of projects, from energy to education to public health.
Mr Malpass’s equivocation on the basic facts of climate science quickly became a hot topic in New York, where thousands of diplomats, politicians and activists had gathered for the United Nations 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 cut greenhouse gas emissions, and is moving too slowly to help poor countries deal with with sea level rise, drought and other extreme weather events resulting from global warming. of the planet The bank continues to finance oil and gas projects, despite a statement by the International Energy Agency that countries must stop financing the development of new fossil fuels if the world has any hope of averting climate catastrophe.
Understand the controversy surrounding David Malpass
“This landed because there is a very real debate about how all the capital that sits in the bank can be deployed more quickly and more assertively given the situation the world is in,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School of Tufts University, who has been participating in climate discussions at the United Nations this week. “This is an open wound, and whatever became of President Malpass was disappointing.”
World Bank staff members exchanged text messages lamenting how Malpass botched his initial response Tuesday and expressing disappointment that he undermined the bank’s work on climate initiatives, according to people familiar with the matter.
Some speculated that Malpass would leave before his term expires in 2024. He was nominated to lead the World Bank in 2019 by President Donald J. Trump. Although the United States traditionally chooses the World Bank’s leader 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 top economic official in Germany, reacted with alarm to Mr. Malpass’s actions on Tuesday, saying in Twitter “We are concerned about these mixed signals about the scientific evidence of #climatechange from the top of @WorldBank.”
The reaction of many others was even more acute.
“It’s simple,” Christiana Figueres, who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement as head of the United Nations climate agency, said on Twitter on Wednesday. “If you don’t understand the threat of #climatechange to developing countries, you can’t lead the world’s leading international development institution.”
Speaking at an event on Wednesday, Mark Carney, who is leading a United Nations effort to get financial institutions to help cut emissions, echoed Malpass’s comments, but with a different twist. “I’m not a scientist,” he said. “But I followed the scientific advice.”
The Biden administration did not say Wednesday whether it trusted Malpass, but emphasized that the institution must play a central role in combating climate change.
“We look forward to the World Bank Group being a global leader in climate ambition and mobilizing significantly more climate finance for developing countries,” said Michael Kikukawa, spokesman for the Treasury Department. “We have, and will continue to, make that expectation clear to the leadership of the World Bank. 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, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Institute and an expert on energy and climate issues. “David Malpass needs to resign. 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 Mr. Gore’s comments on Tuesday morning, which set events in motion. “We need to have a new head of the World Bank,” Gore said at the New York Times event. “It’s ridiculous to have a climate change denier at the helm of the World Bank.”
Malpass’s comments on CNN did little to take his critics for granted.
“At this point, it’s clear he’s trying to keep his job after the diplomatic admonishment from the US Treasury Department and other shareholders yesterday,” Luísa Abbott Galvão, Friends of the Earth senior international policy activist. “Malpass has been making climate change denying comments for over a decade. We can’t have a situation where a World Bank president is saying nice things in public but working behind the scenes to block action, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen in his three years as World Bank president.”
Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network International, also continued to call for Malpass’ removal after his comments on CNN.
“If the World Bank’s mandate is to end poverty, it is incompatible with its continued financing of fossil fuels, which is a key driver of the climate crisis that hits those living in poverty the hardest,” he said. “His track record does not show that he is taking the climate crisis seriously.”
Before taking over the World Bank, Mr. Malpass was a Treasury Department official during the Trump administration. He said little publicly about climate change in that role, although comments in 2007 suggesting that he did not believe there was a link between carbon emissions and global warming concerned environmental activists. His wife, Adele Malpass, is President of the Daily Caller News Foundationa non-profit organization closely associated with the conservative media group that often publishes articles and op-eds questioning climate science.
While Trump was president, Malpass walked a fine line, treading carefully to meet the bank’s climate obligations without classifying his boss. Trump has called climate change “a hoax,” pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and promoted fossil fuels.
After President Biden took office, Malpass seemed more willing to speak publicly about climate change. On his website, the bank details your efforts invest in renewable energy projects and fund efforts to make poor countries more resilient to extreme weather.
The Treasury Department oversees the US relationship with the World Bank. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has repeatedly urged Mr. Malpass and the heads of other multilateral development banks to do more to help countries reduce emissions, invest in climate adaptation and resilience, and align their operations with the Paris Agreement.
Mr. Malpass is expected to host a town hall for World Bank staff members next week, ahead of the annual meetings in October in Washington.