David Malpass, president of the World Bank, faces an uncertain future this week, after the White House joined a chorus of influential figures in condemning his apparent climate denialism.
Malpass remains in post for now but under severe pressure, despite issuing an apology and trying to explain his refusal last week to publicly acknowledge the human role in the climate crisis.
The Biden administration stepped into the row on Friday evening, when the press secretary for the US president told journalists: “We disagree with the comments made by president Malpass. We expect the World Bank to be a global leader of climate ambition and mobilisation, as well as significantly more finance for developing countries… We condemn the words of the president.”
Such strong words from the White House come as a major blow to Malpass, who was appointed to the role in 2019 by Donald Trump, under a longstanding convention by which the World Bank chief is chosen by the US president. Biden’s spokesperson left open the possibility that Malpass could be removed, if other countries agree.
Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations, former administrator of the UN Development Programme and deputy secretary-general of the UN, told the Observer: “We are relieved to see World Bank president David Malpass apologise for his statements. But a real apology would be much greater action by the World Bank to tackle climate change. The Bank is being far too conservative in its approach to financing, and far too unambitious in its leadership in addressing this existential crisis.”
The World Bank holds its annual meetings in three weeks, where Malpass can expect a further barrage of criticism, if he is still in post.
Talk had circulated for years that Malpass, like many Trump supporters, was a dismisser of climate science. He had already lost the confidence of many key figures in climate diplomacy, because of the World Bank’s failure in the last few years to mobilise the billions of dollars needed to help developing countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of global heating.
The open row began on Tuesday, when former US vice-president Al Gore publicly complained at a New York Times event on the fringes of the UN General Assembly in New York that it was “ridiculous to have a climate denier as head of the World Bank”. Malpass was then confronted at a later event that day by New York Times journalist David Gelles, who asked him whether he accepted climate science.
Malpass tried to bat away Gelles’ questions, but eventually answered: “I don’t even know, I am not a scientist and that is not a question.”
Concerns over the direction of the World Bank have sprung from its repeated failures to adopt a strong action plan on the climate crisis, despite pleas from the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres for the Bank to lead on climate finance.
Hundreds of billions of dollars in investment are needed to shift the world to a low-carbon footing, but these investments could also transform the fortunes of developing countries by improving their infrastructure and economies, as well as people’s health and wellbeing. Most development economists and developing nations see the World Bank as the prime institution for leading such investment, a position embraced by the previous president Jim Yong Kim, appointed by Barack Obama.
Under Malpass, many felt the Bank seemed to step back from this role, and continued to fund fossil fuels.
Privately, staff at the Bank are understood to be dismayed at the distraction, and the lack of support and leadership they feel from the top.
A spokesperson for the World Bank told the Observer: “The World Bank Group is the largest multilateral funder of climate investments in developing countries. Under the leadership of David Malpass, the World Bank Group more than doubled its climate finance, published an ambitious Climate Change Action Plan, and initiated country level diagnostics to support countries’ climate and development goals.”