World Bank President David Malpass tried to restate his views on climate change on Thursday amid widespread calls for his ouster after he refused to acknowledge that burning fossil fuels is rapidly warming the planet.
In an interview with CNN International on Thursday morning, Mr. Malpass said he accepts 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’m not a denier.
That was a far cry from Tuesday, when during a public event in The New York Times he refused to acknowledge whether burning oil, gas and coal is dangerously warming the Earth.
Speaking on stage during a debate on climate finance, Mr 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”. Thrice pressed, Mr Malpass would not say whether he agreed that man-made greenhouse gas emissions had caused a worsening crisis that was already leading to more extreme weather.
“I’m not a scientist,” he said.
Mr. Malpass’s ambiguity about the basic facts of climate science quickly became a hot topic in New York, where thousands of diplomats, politicians and activists gathered for the UN General Assembly and a series of events known as Climate Week.
Many experts say the World Bank under Mr. 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 sea levels, droughts and other extreme weather due to the warming of the planet. The bank continues to finance oil and gas projects, despite the International Energy Agency’s declaration that countries must stop financing the development of new fossil fuels if the world has any hope of averting climate catastrophe.
“It landed because there’s a very real debate about how to deploy all the capital in the bank more quickly and assertively given the situation the world is in,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, who is due this week participated in climate discussions at the UN. “It’s an open wound and whatever it was from President Malpass was disappointing.
World Bank staff exchanged text messages bemoaning how Mr. Malpass botched his first response on Tuesday and expressed disappointment that he had undermined the bank’s work on climate initiatives, according to people familiar with the matter.
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Some have speculated whether Mr Malpass will leave before his term expires in 2024. He was nominated to the head of the World Bank in 2019, President Donald J. Trump. Although the United States traditionally elects the World Bank’s leader and is its largest shareholder, removing Mr. Malpass before the end of his term would require the support of the board of governors.
One of those governors, Jochen Flasbarth, a senior economic official in Germany, reacted to Mr. Malpass’s appearance on Tuesday with alarm, saying Twitter “Concerned by these confusing signals about #climatechange scientific evidence from the top of the @WorldBank.”
The reaction of many others was even sharper.
“It’s simple,” Christiana Figueres, who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement as head of the UN’s climate agency, he said on Twitter on Wednesday. “If you don’t understand the threat of #climatechange to developing countries, you can’t lead the world’s top international development institution.”
At an event on Wednesday, Mark Carney, who is leading the United Nations effort to get financial institutions to help cut emissions, echoed Mr 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 whether it trusted Mr. Malpass, but stressed that the institution must play a central role in the fight against climate change.
“We expect the World Bank Group to be a global leader in climate ambition and in mobilizing significantly more climate finance for developing countries,” said Michael Kikukawa, Treasury spokesman. “We must – and will continue to – make this expectation clear to World Bank leadership. The World Bank must be a full partner in fulfilling this global agenda.
Climate activists and experts have called for Mr Malpass to be removed.
“There is no place at the top of the World Bank for climate deniers,” said Jules Kortenhorst, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Institute and an expert on energy and climate issues. “David Malpass must resign. The World Bank deserves a passionate leader who fully appreciates the threat climate change poses to poverty reduction, improved living standards and sustainable growth.”
All this followed Mr Gore’s remarks on Tuesday morning which set events in motion. “We need to get a new head of the World Bank,” Mr. Gore said at the New York Times event. “It’s ridiculous to have a climate denier as head of the World Bank.”
Mr. Malpass’s comments on CNN did little to appease his critics.
“It’s clear at this point that they are trying to stick with their work after yesterday’s diplomatic admonition from the US Treasury and other shareholders,” Luísa Abbott Galvão, chief international policy activist for Friends of the Earth. “Malpass has been generating climate denial comments for over a decade. We cannot have a situation where the president of the World Bank says nice things in public but works behind the scenes to block action, and that is exactly what we have seen in the three years he has been president of the World Bank.”
Tasneem Essop, founding director of the Energy Democracy Initiative in South Africa, also continued to call for Mr Malpass to be removed following his comments on CNN.
“If the World Bank’s mandate is to end poverty, it is incompatible with its continued funding of fossil fuels, which is a key driver of the climate crisis, which has the hardest impact on those living in poverty,” she said. “His record does not show he is taking the climate crisis seriously.”
While Mr. Trump was president, Mr. Malpass walked a fine line, treading carefully to meet the bank’s climate commitments without undercutting his former boss. Mr Trump has famously called climate change a “hoax”, pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and supported fossil fuels.
After President Biden took office, Mr. Malpass seemed more willing discuss climate change publicly. On its website, the bank details his 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 cut emissions, invest in adaptation and climate resilience and align their operations with the Paris Agreement.
Mr Malpass is expected to host a town hall for World Bank staff next week, ahead of the annual meetings in Washington in October.