John Kerry, the United States special presidential envoy for climate, signaled last Tuesday that the Biden administration is working behind the scenes to remove the president of the World Bank, Trump appointee David Malpass. Kerry’s comments came hours after Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president and longtime climate activist, called Malpass “a climate denier” and called on President Joe Biden “to get rid of” him and “put new leadership in” at the world’s largest development bank.
Kerry and Gore were speaking at an event hosted by The New York Times as part of Climate Week NYC, an annual series of public events coinciding with the United Nations General Assembly that aims to galvanize climate action. Malpass, appearing separately from Kerry and Gore at the event, called Gore’s call for his removal “very odd.” On stage, Malpass was asked three times whether he “accepted the scientific consensus that the man-made burning of fossil fuels is rapidly and dangerously warming the planet.” Each time, the World Bank president declined to answer before finally saying, “I don’t even know, and I’m not a scientist.”
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Climate journalist David Gelles documented that exchange, prompting former UN climate secretary Christiana Figueres to respond: “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.”
“We need to get a new head of the World Bank, for god’s sake,” Gore told the live audience while answering questions from Somini Sengupta, the Times’ international climate correspondent. In a heated tone, Gore said that “it’s ridiculous to have a climate denier at the head of the World Bank” at a time when poorer countries need affordable loans to install solar and wind facilities rather than burning more coal and other fossil fuels.
“If you’re in Nigeria and you want to privately finance a new solar farm,” Gore explained, “you have to pay an interest rate seven times higher than what the OECD [i.e. wealthy] countries pay. If you want to build a wind farm in Brazil, you have to pay interest three times higher than what the U.S. pays.” With 90% of future heat-trapping emissions projected to come from developing countries, such unaffordable interest rates imperil the Paris agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C, as scientists say is imperative to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Providing loans at more favourable interest rates is “the job of the World Bank, and they’re simply not doing it,” Gore said. “We need to get rid of that leadership and put new leadership in, and I hope President Biden will take that initial step.”
“We will hear from the World Bank president later [today],” Sengupta said.
“Good! Tell him I said hello,” Gore replied, provoking chuckles from the audience.
“Actually, tell him I said goodbye,” Gore added as the chuckles turned into laughter.
Appearing hours later on the same stage, Kerry made it clear the Biden administration shares Gore’s displeasure with Malpass, whom Trump nominated to head the World Bank in 2019. Formerly the chief economist at Bear Stearns, an investment bank that collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis, Malpass was an economic adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and later served as President Trump’s undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury.
Posing a question from the audience, this reporter told Kerry that his former Senate colleague Gore had called on the Biden administration to get Malpass removed before asking Kerry, “Does the administration have confidence in David Malpass as the head of the World Bank?”
“I can’t comment on what the status is of an individual, that is the president’s decision,” Kerry replied. “I will tell you this, though. I have been pushing for months, along with others in the administration, and it’s an open door, not pushing against a shut door…. Earlier today in a meeting we had with a big group of nations talking about development, we made it crystal clear that we need to have major reform and a major restructuring with respect to the multinational development banks.”
Kerry added that the African Development Bank now allocates about 67% of its lending to climate, and that the Asia Development Bank is “doing pretty well,” as is the European Development Bank. Notably missing from his list was the World Bank, an absence Kerry alluded to when he added, “If I keep going, you will get a feel for where I am.” Again, laughter rippled through the crowd.
The United States cannot unilaterally remove Malpass; the World Bank’s governing board has the sole authority to select and remove the bank’s president. But Kerry pointed out that the U.S. is the World Bank’s “largest shareholder,” and historically the U.S. has exercised decisive influence over the governing board’s decisions. Citing “the Europeans, our friends, the Germans, the French, the Brits,” Kerry said, “It is up to us to pull people together and get that reform. And [there is] a lot of discussion about doing that right now.”