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Trump-appointed World Bank president under fire for climate change waffling

The Biden administration is reportedly considering replacing World Bank President David Malpass, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2019, for his reluctance to accept the science of climate change, but Malpass said he won’t resign, setting up a potential showdown over control of the international lending institution.

Concerns about Malpass’s climate convictions date back to the time of his appointment, when critics noted that Malpass — then a Treasury Department official — had in 2007 promoted a claim about historical global warming that has been widely debunked by scientists.

David Malpass
David Malpass, president of the World Bank, at an economic forum in Moran, Wyo., on Aug. 26. (David Paul Morris/BloombergPaul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images) (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But the current kerfuffle began on Wednesday, when former Vice President Al Gore said at a New York Times event, “We need to get a new head of the World Bank. This is ridiculous to have a climate denier as the head of the World Bank.”

At a later event that same day, Times reporter David Gelles asked Malpass onstage to respond to Gore’s comments. But Malpass avoided directly addressing the issue. When Gelles followed up by asking, “Do you accept the scientific consensus that the man-made burning of fossil fuels is rapidly and dangerously warming the planet?”

Malpass gave a response long favored by Republicans: “I don’t even know — I’m not a scientist and that is not a question, so ... what we need to do is move forward with impactful projects,” he said.

Climate activists and diplomats swiftly condemned Malpass’s comments. “It’s simple. If you don’t understand the threat of #climatechange to developing countries, you cannot lead the world’s top international development institution,” tweeted Christiana Figueres, who led negotiations of the 2015 Paris climate agreement as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This is not the first time someone has called for Malpass’s ouster. In October 2021, a coalition of 77 environmentalist groups including Friends of the Earth sent a letter to World Bank governors and executive directors asking for him to be replaced. The activists argued that the World Bank should no longer be lending money for fossil fuel projects.

Al Gore
Former Vice President and environmental activist Al Gore at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

“Since the Paris Agreement, the World Bank has provided $12 billion in direct project finance to fossil fuels, more than any other multilateral development bank,” the groups wrote. “The figure does not include billions more in support to fossil fuels through policy based lending and financial intermediaries.”

Friends of the Earth and other environmental advocacy organizations reiterated their opposition to Malpass on Thursday. “The investments by the World Bank in Africa continue to fuel the impacts of the climate crisis experienced by communities across the continent,” said Dean Bhekumuzi Bhebhe of Power Shift Africa. “There is no time for climate denialism. The World Bank must act now to end all fossil fuel finance and invest in sustainable, renewable energy for all.”

On Thursday, Malpass went on CNN and changed his answer. “It’s clear that greenhouse gas emissions are coming from man-made sources, including fossil fuels, methane, agricultural uses and industrial uses,” he said. “And so we're working hard to change that."

And in a note to World Bank staff that was obtained by Reuters, Malpass said 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.”

On Friday, Malpass told the Wall Street Journal he is not planning to resign. “It’s clear that greenhouse-gas emissions from human activity are adding to, are causing, climate change,” he told the newspaper.

A coal-fired power plant near Niederaussem, Germany
A coal-fired power plant near Niederaussem, Germany. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

A spokesperson for the World Bank told Reuters that the bank has limited financing for coal-fired power plants and oil and gas drilling. But the news service noted that the World Bank “has so far resisted pressure from European board members and climate campaigners to phase out fossil fuel financing entirely.” Last year, the bank invested $620 million in a liquefied natural gas project in Mozambique.

Malpass’s comments acknowledging the human causes of climate change weren’t enough to quiet the controversy. On Friday morning, Axios reported that the White House is considering how it could remove him. As the World Bank’s largest shareholder, the United States appoints the head of the bank. However, the bank president typically serves a five-year term, rather than at the pleasure of the U.S. president. Firing Malpass would be the prerogative of the bank’s board of executive directors, who do not answer to the Biden administration.

Citing unnamed administration sources, Axios reported that the White House has discussed potentially appointing Gore, climate envoy John Kerry or former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg as a replacement for Malpass. Countries in the developing world have also called for the World Bank — which finances development in those nations — to be led by someone from one of them.

“Options include Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian-American economist who now heads the World Trade Organization, and Minouche Shafik, an Egyptian-born British-American economist who is director of the London School of Economics,” Axios reported.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African leader of the World Trade Organization. (Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Malpass may also be tagged with some guilt by association: He was appointed by a president who has falsely described climate change as a “hoax,” and his wife is the president of the Daily Caller News Foundation. The Daily Caller is a right-wing tabloid website that has run stories casting doubt on climate science.

At the time of his appointment, there were widespread fears that he would undermine or dial back the World Bank’s programs lending money for clean energy or climate change adaptation and resilience, but he quickly demonstrated that he had no intention of doing so. Advocates of more aggressive climate action, however, want the World Bank to couple those efforts with a phaseout of lending that creates new greenhouse gas emissions.

Asked about the controversy at the White House on Friday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We disagree with the comments made by President Malpass. We expect the World Bank to be a global leader of climate ambition and mobilization as well.” She would not say whether President Biden still has confidence in Malpass.