Credibility Questions Dog World Bank President at Climate Summit

Follow our live coverage of the COP27 Climate Summit in Egypt.

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — David Malpass, the president of the World Bank, arrived at the United Nations climate summit on a mission to prove he and his institution are fully engaged in efforts to curb global warming and assist poor nations battered by increasingly severe droughts, fires and storms.

“We are approaching the climate crisis with action and impact,” he said in an address to finance ministers from around the globe on Wednesday morning. “We want to dramatically increase the number and size of projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

But shortly after that speech, Mr. Malpass was on the defensive.

After making the remarks at the World Bank pavilion inside the sprawling conference center that is hosting the summit, known as COP27, Mr. Malpass was confronted by a reporter for The Guardian who repeatedly asked, “Are you a climate denier?”

Mr. Malpass turned heel. “You know I’m not,” he said, before being escorted away by World Bank staff members.

Three years after being nominated to lead the World Bank by President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Malpass is performing a high-wire act.

He is the face of an institution that provides billions of dollars a year to finance projects aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change and helping poor countries adapt to a warmer planet. Yet he is dogged by questions about his own views on the science of climate change, as well as accusations that the World Bank is not doing nearly enough.

“I don’t have any personal beef with him as an individual,” former Vice President Al Gore, who has been an ardent critic of Mr. Malpass and has called him a “climate denier,” said in an interview before the summit.

But, Mr. Gore added, “his approach has really fallen way short of what the world needs.”

Scientists and policy experts have been saying for years that the World Bank is not acting swiftly enough to tackle climate change under Mr. Malpass. They point to high interest rates for developing countries, insufficient climate funds and continued financing for fossil fuel projects as evidence that the bank lacks a cohesive climate strategy.

Then, in a live interview with The New York Times in September, Mr. Malpass declined to say whether he accepted the scientific consensus that the burning of oil, gas and coal was rapidly warming the planet.

“I’m not a scientist,” he said at the time, repeating a talking point often used by climate change deniers.

Many leading voices in the climate movement called for his resignation, and some of the bank’s top shareholders expressed concerns about his leadership.

“We disagree with the comments made by President Malpass,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said in September. “We expect the World Bank to be a global leader of climate ambition and mobilization.”

Mr. Malpass held on to his job. But in the weeks that followed, two independent reports raised questions about the World Bank’s climate strategy.

Last month, Oxfam issued a report that called into doubt the bank’s claims about the extent of its climate work. After conducting an independent audit of what the bank said was its $17.2 billion climate portfolio in 2020, Oxfam said that figure could be off by as much as $7 billion.

“The public really knows very little about what the bank is counting as climate financing,” Christian Donaldson, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam, said. “Its reporting is very inadequate.”

Another report from a group of advocacy organizations found that since the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which world leaders pledged to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels, the World Bank has spent $14.8 billion supporting fossil fuel projects. The planet, meanwhile, has warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius.

“Each time the World Bank invests in another fossil fuel project, it fuels more climate disaster,” Sophie Richmond, one of the group’s organizers, said. “There is no justification for using taxpayers’ money to exacerbate the climate crisis.”

Mr. Malpass and other World Bank executives have defended their record, pointing to specific projects and the scale of their funding for climate efforts as evidence of their commitment to the issue.

The World Bank is the largest global provider of financing for climate projects, spending some $68 billion on such efforts over the past five years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Just before arriving in Egypt, Mr. Malpass was in South Africa visiting the Komati Power Station, a former coal-fired power plant that is being repurposed to use solar and wind power with funding from the World Bank. (Mr. Malpass’s flight out of South Africa was hit by lightning, delaying his arrival in Egypt.)

In an interview before the conference, Axel van Trotsenburg, the World Bank’s managing director of operations, suggested that wealthy nations, including the bank’s top shareholders, were treating the bank as a scapegoat because they were moving too slowly on climate action themselves.

“There is an effort to distract the inaction by many of the other actors by focusing on the actions of the bank,” Mr. Trotsenburg said.

Plenty of international leaders are standing by Mr. Malpass and the World Bank.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director-general of the World Trade Organization, said Mr. Malpass still had her support.

“I’ve been working with David for quite some time, and we really collaborate,” she said at a New York Times event on the sidelines of the U.N. climate summit on Tuesday. “What we should do is support and encourage the World Bank ahead to finish the job that he’s doing and then help him to mobilize the financing.”

António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, said the World Bank’s shortcomings went beyond any individual.

“The problem is not the president of the bank,” he said in an interview late last month. “The problem is sometimes the board and sometimes the bureaucracy. The board must give a clear orientation for the World Bank, for the other international financial institutions. They need to do more for climate.”

The World Bank is governed by its major shareholders, which include the United States, Germany, France and Japan, and it follows the direction of those countries.

“I think the leaders of the I.M.F., the World Bank, the regional development banks are doing what they can,” Ms. Okonjo-Iweala said, referring to the International Monetary Fund. “But there’s a limit. The shareholders have to take the decision to support them. They need more capital, for instance. They need to relax some of their stringent criteria. Do I see that happening? I think momentum is building.”

At COP27, several world leaders indicated their support for fundamental reforms of the World Bank and the I.M.F., which were formed nearly 80 years ago toward the end of World War II.

But bureaucracy may hamper efforts to enact swift and radical change.

“I’m not overly optimistic that there is an irreversible process of institutional change taking place, but I think there’s heightened awareness of need for that,” said Ashvin Dayal, who leads the power and climate program at the Rockefeller Foundation. “These institutions are ultimately the ones that are going to make or break the battles to confront climate change in the developing world, and the clock has never been ticking more than it is now.”

Raymond Zhong contributed reporting from New York, and Max Bearak contributed reporting from Sharm el Sheikh.

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