It’s Climate Week at the UN this week, with high-ranking figures of all stripes and from around the world – including the head of the World Bank – present to take stock of the current climate change situation. You might think, what with Europe experiencing unprecedented heat waves and Pakistan devastated by biblical floods that have left more than half a million people homeless, that these senior world leaders would have an added incentive to address the causes of an overheated planet . But you would be wrong.
According to Bloomberg, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the assembled crowd: “We’ve all seen the harrowing images from Pakistan, and it’s only at 1.2 degrees of global warming and we’re heading for over 3 degrees. I told the assembled leaders, that we need direction, their leadership, now.” But Guterres did not get what he wanted. French President Macron did not 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 voice 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 whether he accepted that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have created a crisis leading to more extreme weather, Malpass hid three times behind every climate denier’s favorite shibboleth. “I’m not a scientist,” he said.
Well, science tells us that the world is round. Does this mean to everyone else that the shape of the planet is nothing more than an opinion? Scientists tell us that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Perhaps David Malpass also has doubts about it.
So who is David Malpass? That Times says he was picked by the then president of the United States to lead the World Bank in 2019. This would be the same president who picked the savvy Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA and later replaced him with coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. The default response from all these fossil fuel apologists is to say, “I’m not a scientist,” Maybe they think you have to be a math professor to know that 1+1 = 2.
Malpass’s obstinacy won him immediate 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 United States, by tradition, can choose its leader. Today, its primary mission is to lend money to poor nations to help them improve their economic conditions and living standards. Countries like Pakistan, for example. The loan terms are often more favorable than they could get on the commercial market.
Climate change and 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, droughts and other extreme weather events related to a warming planet. The World Bank continues to finance oil and gas projects despite a declaration by the International Energy Agency that countries must stop funding the development of new fossil fuels if the world has any hope of averting climate catastrophe.
In the resulting furore, 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. One of them is Jochen Flasbarth, a senior economic official in Germany, who said on Twitter: “We are concerned about these confusing signals about scientific evidence for #climate change from the top of the @WorldBank.”
Christiana Figueres, who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement as head of the UN climate agency, said on Twitter: “It’s simple. If you don’t understand the threat of #climatechange to developing countries, you can’t lead the world’s leading international development institution.” Mark Carney, a prominent British economist, added this veiled barb: “I’m not a scientist, but I took scientific advice.”
Jules Kortenhorst, executive director 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 has to resign. 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 behaviour, 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 come from anthropogenic sources, including fossil fuels,” he said. “I’m not a denier.” So why couldn’t he say it the day before? Probably because he’s now worried his cushy job is on the line and will say anything to keep the gravy train going.
More setbacks at the UN
Among other duties, Mark Carney leads 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 announced that its decarbonisation guidance was to be revised in response to concerns from several banks that are members of the group.
According to Bloomberg Green, several major lenders, including JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America, are considering leaving the group, mainly as a result of political pressure from so-called Republicans in the United States, who consider any deviation from the Gospel according to oil to be a mortal sin. “What they can’t have are legally binding restrictions,” Carney said. Catherine McKenna is a former Canadian environment minister who now chairs a UN group on net zero commitments. “There is a limit to voluntary initiatives,” she said. “You need some consequences.” But the consequences are exactly what the big banks don’t want.
Last week, at a House Oversight Committee hearing examining the disconnect between what the fossil fuel industry says publicly and what it says privately, Washington Post reports that Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana stated that “fossil fuels are the lifeblood of our modern economy.” He is not wrong. Virtually everything we wear, eat, see, read or drive in is fueled 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 existence.
He yelled at the witness, Raya Salter, founder of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center, a public law firm and member of the New York State Climate Action Council: “Everything you have — your clothes, your glasses, the car you’re wearing here, your telephone, the table you sit at, the chair, the carpet under your feet—all you have is petrochemical products. What would you do with it? Tell the world!”
Higgins then continued to belittle and belittle the witness, calling her “little lady” and “boo”. The latter is derived from an offensive term for colored people with which Higgins and his swamp rat friends are well acquainted. His outburst prompted a scathing response from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who apologized to the witness for “the behavior of this committee and what we just witnessed.”
“I just want you to know that in the four years that I’ve been on this committee, I’ve never seen any member of Congress — Republican or Democrat — disrespect a witness the way I’ve seen them disrespect you today. I don’t care what party they’re in. I’ve never seen anything like it. For the gentleman from 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 coup d’état, “Honestly, men who treat women like that in public, I fear how they treat them in private.” We’re inclined to add that men (it’s always men, aren’t they?) who disrespect 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 visits its judgment upon them.
It will be difficult to escape the curse of fossil fuels. More and more it seems that it is becoming too difficult for a majority of 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 as surely as the sun rises in the east.
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