World Bank head under pressure to quit over climate change doubts

World Bank president David Malpass is facing mounting pressure to resign and criticism from German and US officials as well as environmental groups over his refusal to say whether he believes in human-caused global warming and the bank’s record on climate-related finance.

Malpass avoided giving a clear answer three times during a New York climate week event on Tuesday when asked whether he accepted the reality of human-driven climate change, saying finally that he was “not a scientist”.

On Thursday, Malpass attempted to reverse course, telling CNN that it was “clear that greenhouse gas emissions are coming from man-made sources”, and that he was “not a denier”.

This turnround followed a barrage of criticism of Malpass, who has come under sustained attack for World Bank’s record under his leadership.

The bank provides loans and grants to poorer countries and is seen as crucial to distributing money to the developing world to help limit global warming as its economies grow.

It is the largest provider of multilateral climate-related finance, according to OECD data. But it did not join the numerous countries and other development banks that pledged last year to end public financing for coal, oil and gas overseas by the end of 2022, and its climate plan does not include a deadline for phasing out direct and indirect fossil fuel financing.

Jochen Flasbarth, the state secretary in the German federal ministry for economic co-operation and development, pointed to the UN scientific body of evidence about global warming. “We are concerned about [these] confusing signals about scientific evidence of climate change from the top of the World Bank,” he wrote on Twitter.

The bank is “not using its institutional position to lead the global efforts on climate change”, said Sonia Dunlop, a multilateral development banks expert at independent think-tank E3G. “They have the ability to really lead global efforts and to change the global financial system to help us implement the Paris Agreement. They’re just not leading that charge.” 

The rising discontent will probably pile pressure on the bank’s shareholders, the member countries, in the run-up to the COP27 UN climate summit in November. The US is the largest shareholder and traditionally appoints the World Bank president.

Malpass, 66, was appointed by former US president Donald Trump. His term is due to end in April 2024.

The US Treasury said on Thursday that it expected the bank to be “a global leader of climate ambition,” something that it said it would “make clear” to the group’s leadership.

Other countries will probably follow the lead of the US, said Dunlop. “If the Treasury and White House were waiting for an excuse [to replace Malpass], they now have it.” 

US climate envoy John Kerry would not be drawn on the position of Malpass this week, but called for wider reform of multilateral development banks. He had been “pushing for months”, he said, for an overhaul of the international financial institutions established as a result of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944, including the IMF and what became the World Bank Group.

With just weeks to go before COP27, the World Bank has been making it difficult for the major development banks to craft a joint statement on the climate to present at November’s summit, according to two people familiar with the matter. This follows a push by the World Bank last year for a joint development bank statement to be shortened and weakened, as reported by the Financial Times.

The annual joint report by development banks on climate finance, typically published during the middle of the year, is also yet to be published.

The World Bank Group reported this month that it had delivered a record $31.7bn in 2022 to help countries address climate change, up 19 per cent from the year before.

“Under the leadership of David Malpass, the World Bank Group doubled its climate finance, published an ambitious Climate Change Action Plan, and initiated country level diagnostics to support countries’ climate and development goals,” it said on Thursday.

However, the level of funding fell far short of what experts believe is needed.

Former vice-president Al Gore, who has long called for Malpass to quit, labelled him a “climate denier” this week. Gore said the bank was not adequately stepping in to help finance the clean energy transition in developing economies.

“Since almost 90 per cent of the increased emissions going forward are coming from developing countries, we have to take the top layers of risk off the access to capital in these developing countries,” said Gore.

“That’s the job of the World Bank, to co-ordinate the other multilateral development banks, and they’re simply not doing it.”

For FT coverage on New York climate week go to Climate Capital and Moral Money.

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