It’s Climate Week at the United Nations this week, with dignitaries of all stripes and from all over the world — including the head of the World Bank — in attendance to take stock of the current situation with climate change. You might think, what with Europe recording unprecedented heat waves and Pakistan devastated by Biblical floods that have left more than a half million people homeless, that these august world leaders would have an extra incentive to address the causes of an overheating planet. But you would be wrong.
According to Bloomberg, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the assembled multitude, “We have all seen the appalling images from Pakistan, and this is just at 1.2 degrees of global warming and we are heading for over 3 degrees. I told the assembled leaders that we need direction, their leadership, now.” But Guterres didn’t get what he wanted. French President Macron didn’t even bother to attend the session.
In connection with the Climate Week theme, the New York Times held a press event where it invited world leaders to express their views on what to do about our overheating planet. David Malpass, the head of the World Bank, was asked three times to respond to an accusation by Al Gore that he was a climate denier. Three times, Malpass refused to do so. Asked specifically if he accepted that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have created a crisis that is leading to more extreme weather, Malpass three times hid behind the favorite shibboleth of all climate deniers. “I’m not a scientist,” he said.
Well, science tells us that the world is round. Does that mean for everyone else the shape of the planet is little more than an opinion? Scientists tell us the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Perhaps David Malpass has his doubts about that as well.
So who is David Malpass? The Times says he was picked by the then-president of the United States to head the World Bank in 2019. This would be the same president who picked know-nothing Scott Pruitt to run the EPA and later replaced him with coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. The standard riposte from all these fossil fuel apologists it to say, “I am not a scientist,” Perhaps they believe one needs to be a math professor to know that 1+1 = 2.
Malpass’ obstinacy won him instant condemnation. This is a person who heads the World Bank, created in 1947 to help rebuild Europe and Japan. It is owned by 187 countries, but the US by tradition gets to pick its leader. Today its primary mission is to lend money to poor nations to help them improve their economic conditions and standard of living. Countries like Pakistan, for example. The loan terms are often more favorable than they could get on the commercial market.
Climate Change & The World Bank
Many observers say the World Bank under Malpass is not doing enough to align its lending with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They feel it is moving too slowly to help poor countries deal with rising seas, drought, and other extreme weather events related to a warming planet. The World Bank continues to fund oil and gas projects despite a declaration by the International Energy Agency that countries must stop financing new fossil fuel development if the world has any hope of averting climate catastrophe.
In the resulting furor, there were suggestions from outsiders and World Bank staff that it was time for Malpass to step aside. While the US appoints the head of the bank, he can only be removed by the Board of Governors. One of them is Jochen Flasbarth, a senior economic official in Germany, who said on Twitter, “We are concerned about this confusing signals about scientific evidence of #climatechange from the top of @WorldBank.”
Christiana Figueres, who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement as head of the United Nations climate agency, said on Twitter, “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.” Mark Carney, a prominent UK economist, added this veiled barb, “I’m not a scientist, but I took scientific advice.”
Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute and an expert on energy and climate issues, was more pointed. “There is no place at the top of the World Bank for a climate denier,” he said. “David Malpass needs to step down. The World Bank deserves a passionate leader who fully appreciates the threat that climate change poses to reducing poverty, improving living standards and sustainable growth.”
Like the sports star accused of inappropriate conduct, a chastened David Malpass appeared the very next day to atone for his sin. In an interview on CNN International, Malpass said he accepted the overwhelming scientific conclusion that human activity is warming the planet. “It’s clear that greenhouse gas emissions are coming from man-made sources, including fossil fuels,” he said. “I’m not a denier.” So why couldn’t he say that the day before? Probably because now he is concerned that his cushy job is at stake and will say anything to keep the gravy train chugging along.
More Backsliding At The UN
Among other duties, Mark Carney heads a group known as the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, a coalition of financial firms launched ahead of last year’s COP26. During Climate Week, GFANZ let it be known that its decarbonization guidance would need to be revised in response to unease from several banks who are members of the group.
According to Bloomberg Green, several major lenders, including JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America, are thinking of leaving the group, largely as a result of political pressure from so-called Republicans in the US who consider any deviation from the Gospel According To Oil to be a mortal sin. “What they can’t have is legally binding strictures,” said Carney. Catherine McKenna is a former environment minister for Canada who now chairs a UN group on net zero commitments. “There’s a limit to voluntary initiatives,” she said. “You need some consequences.” But consequences are exactly what those big banks don’t want.
Last week, at a House Oversight Committee hearing examining the disconnect between what the fossil fuel industry says in public and what it says in private, the Washington Post reports that representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana stated that “fossil fuels are the lifeblood of our modern economy.” He’s not wrong. Virtually everything we wear, eat, watch, read, or ride in is powered by fossil fuels. And that’s the problem. We are like junkies. We cannot stop ourselves from indulging more and more in the activities that threaten our very existence.
He shouted at the witness, Raya Salter, founder of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center, a public interest law firm and member of the New York State Climate Action Council, “Everything you have — your clothes, your glasses, the car you got here on, your phone, the table you’re sitting at, the chair, the carpet under your feet — everything you’ve got is petrochemical products. What would you do with that? Tell the world!”
Higgins then proceeded to belittle and demean the witness, calling her “little lady” and “boo.” The latter is derived from an offensive term for people of color that Higgins and his swamp rat pals are well familiar with. His outburst provoked a scathing response from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who apologized to the witness for the “conduct of this committee and what we just witnessed.”
“I just want you to know that in the four years that I’ve sat on this committee, I have never seen members of Congress — Republican or Democrat — disrespect a witness in the way that I have seen them disrespect you today. I do not care what party they are in. I’ve never seen anything like that. For the gentleman of Louisiana and the comfort he felt in yelling at you like that, there’s more than one way to get a point across.”
Then she delivered the coup de grace, “Frankly, men who treat women like that in public, I fear how they treat them in private.” We are inclined to add that men (it’s always men, isn’t it?) who disrespect the Earth like that in public make us fear how they treat our earthly home in private. The thirty pieces of silver they get from their benefactors in the fossil fuel industry will be cold comfort when a warming planet visit its judgment upon them.
Breaking free from the curse of fossil fuels will be hard. More and more, it appears it will be too hard for a majority of the people on Earth. And yet if we continue to do what we have always done, we will reap the whirlwind as our reward. The end of human life on Earth will happen just as surely as the sun rises in the east.
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