The World Bank, for all the criticism it faces for financing controversial building projects in developing countries, is a big, important cog in the global machine of climate action. In 2021, the Bank invested $31.7 billion in climate-related projects, it reported, helping to develop water management plans for drought-stressed Nigeria and climate-proofed infrastructure in India.
So it was a surprising when David Malpass, the Bank’s president, struggled to answer a very basic question during a panel discussion hosted on Sept. 20 by the New York Times. “Do you accept,” he was asked, “the scientific consensus that the man-made burning of fossil fuels is rapidly and dangerously warming the planet?”
After some dithering, Malpass reached for a talking point that was once a favorite of climate change-denying Republicans in the US Congress: “I’m not a scientist.”
One needn’t be a scientist to answer this question, because thousands of scientists from around the world have provided tens of thousands of pages of detailed evidence to show that the answer is an unequivocal “Yes.”
If climate change isn’t real, why is the World Bank spending billions on it?
Malpass’s answer is a form of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that is familiar and even understandable coming from, say, an oil company lobbyist, who has a clear interest is sowing doubt about the scientific consensus on climate. But it makes little sense coming from Malpass. For one thing, surely an executive of his stature does not require a Ph.D. in every matter his institution addresses. (For what it’s worth, Malpass does have a bachelors degree in physics. You would think he’d have learned something about the scientific method there). Moreover, if Malpass isn’t sure that man-made climate change is real, and a serious danger, why is the World Bank spending tens of billions of dollars to address it?
The Bank does also spend billions of dollars per year on direct and indirect support for fossil fuel projects, so perhaps Malpass is hedging his bets. But it’s costing him support from important figures. The original question at the panel was prompted by an assertion the same morning by Al Gore, the former US vice president, who said that “we need to get a new head of the World Bank” and called Malpass “climate denier.” The day before, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, also said that it’s time to “change the charters of the [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank” because they’re moving too slowly on climate.
“This is a step too far. It is time for the White House and governments all over the world to think hard as to who they want at the helm of the World Bank,” Sonia Dunlop, development bank expert at the environmental think tank E3G, said in a statement following Malpass’s remark.
Whenever Malpass prepares the Bank’s next budget, he might want to take five minutes to brush up on climate science. The financing of climate adaptation efforts in developing countries depends on it. And there are plenty of real scientists who would be more than happy to help him out.