Calls to oust Trump-appointed World Bank chief after vague answers on climate change

David Malpass dodged questions on climate change and the effect of burning fossil fuels

David Malpass, president of the World Bank, was nominated to his five-year term in 2019 by US president Donald Trump. Reuters
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Pressure to oust World Bank president David Malpass is increasing after he dodged questions on climate change and the effects of burning fossil fuels.

The controversy kicked off on Tuesday when former US vice president Al Gore labelled him a climate denier and called for a change of leadership.

Asked about the criticism during the same event in New York, Mr Malpass, installed three years ago by president Donald Trump, avoided questions on the effects of man-made emissions on climate change before saying: “I don’t know. I’m not a scientist.”

Activists and Wall Street were already calling on the World Bank and other multilateral lenders, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to do more to accelerate clean energy ventures and halt funding for fossil fuel projects, because burning oil, gas and coal unleashes heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.

“You don’t need to be a scientist to understand climate science — the facts are clear, and there’s no alternative but to act,” said Sonia Dunlop, who is with E3G, an environmental research group.

“The World Bank is critical to the global fight against climate change.”

Mr Malpass’s comments contrast with a stronger climate stance from President Joe Biden’s administration. The US is the World Bank’s biggest shareholder and most influential voice when it comes to choosing the bank’s leadership.

“We expect the World Bank Group to be a global leader of climate ambition and the mobilisation of significantly more climate finance for developing countries,” the Treasury Department said in a statement on Wednesday.

“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.”

We expect the World Bank Group to be a global leader of climate ambition and the mobilisation of significantly more climate finance for developing countries
US Treasury Department

A senior administration official on Wednesday night said reports of Mr Malpass’s climate change stance raised eyebrows in the White House and that the administration was planning to look more closely at the matter.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has labelled climate change an “existential threat” and called on US regulators to address the risk it poses to financial markets.

She has championed the newly enacted climate law signed by Mr Biden last month, saying it will help the US meet its emissions reduction goals. Earlier this year, Ms Yellen called on the World Bank to step up its efforts to fight climate change.

Tensions between the Biden administration and Mr Malpass come down to politics as much as climate science. Mr Malpass, a former Treasury official and World Bank critic, was nominated to his five-year term in 2019 by Mr Trump.

By tradition, the US chooses the head of the World Bank, while Europe selects the head of the IMF, a custom dating to the origins of the twin Bretton Woods institutions.

The World Bank on Tuesday released a statement defending Mr Malpass’s record. The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For Mr Malpass to be dismissed before his term ends in 2024, he would either need to be removed by the board, which has never happened, or he could potentially be forced to step down if his position became untenable.

“Having a climate denier at the helm of one of the world’s most powerful international financial institutions is unconscionable,” said Luisa Abbott Galvao, a senior international policy campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

The group, along with other activists, said they plan to unveil a banner calling for Mr Malpass to be replaced at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington.

“President Biden and other shareholders must push the board to fire him immediately,” she said.

Updated: September 22, 2022, 6:37 AM