Future Tense

It’s Become Dangerous to Piss Off Al Gore

Al Gore speaking and raising his right hand
Cross this guy and you’ll come to regret it. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Al Gore, long one of the world’s foremost advocates for climate action, appears to be running out of fucks to give. Case in point: On Tuesday, during a series of climate-themed, investment bank–sponsored “fireside chats” hosted by the New York Times, the former vice president went off on the World Bank and its president, David Malpass. “For God’s sake, this is ridiculous to have a climate denier as the head of the World Bank,” Gore scoffed.

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Getting increasingly amped as he went on, Gore noted that if you’re, say, a Brazilian wind-farm developer who wants to finance a new domestic project with the help of a World Bank loan, “you have to pay back interest three times higher than what the U.S.” would pay for a similar loan. This totally belies the purported mission of World Bank, the ex-veep bellowed—i.e., to support poor nations with money they need for essential investments, such as renewable energy: “We need to get rid of that leadership, put new leadership in, and I hope President Biden will take that initiative.” Gore’s comments kicked off a multiday press cycle that is continuing even as I write this.

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Some background about the man at the center of it all: Malpass is a longtime Republican insider who worked in the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations and ran a Senate campaign in 2010, during which he denied that carbon dioxide emissions were warming the planet. (He was beaten in the New York GOP primary that year by Joe DioGuardi, who said he “believed” in climate change. DioGuardi then lost to Kirsten Gillibrand.) Malpass is also notorious in the financial world—he was chief economist at Bear Stearns until the investment firm was leveled by the Great Recession, then pivoted to punditry and gained a reputation for being wrong about economics basically all of the time. Donald Trump took Malpass on as his 2016 campaign’s economic adviser; as president, he appointed Malpass to a Treasury position before naming him head of the World Bank. (The World Bank, one of the biggest institutions to emerge from the postwar Bretton Woods negotiations, is basically understood to be America’s baby; an agreement between the U.S. and Europe ensured that the former would be all but in charge of the World Bank, while the latter would lead the soon-to-be-controversial International Monetary Fund.)

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Back to this week’s happenings. On Tuesday, at a later Times chat, Malpass was asked right up top to address Gore’s harangue. “He may present himself as a climate person, but I don’t know the impact that’s having,” the World Bank head responded. When pressed on whether he buys in to the broad scientific consensus on climate change, Malpass dodged the question before offering a classic response that has been a favorite of climate skeptics for years: “I’m not a scientist.”

Per the Times (which reported on news stemming from one of its own events), World Bank staffers bristled after the remarks and wondered whether Malpass would get pushed out soon. At yet another fireside chat that day, the United States’ climate envoy, John Kerry, said he’s been “pushing for months, along with others in the [Biden] administration … to have a major restructuring with respect to the multinational development banks.” About as diplomatic a way of saying that guy’s got to go.

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Soon after climate activists and officials from Germany to France reiterated Gore’s calls for Malpass’ ousting, the World Bank leader went on CNN International Thursday to claim he’s “not a denier,” clarifying that he doesn’t “always do the best job in answering the questions or hearing what the questions are.” (Seems like a pretty basic requirement for the globe’s most influential financier, but OK!) That same day, again per the Times, he sent a memo to his staff stating in part, “it’s clear that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are causing climate change.” Yet the blowback, remarkably, has not abated, both inside and outside the house. Axios reported Friday that the Biden administration is indeed seeking viable ways to expel Malpass, who that same day told a Politico reporter he will not leave his post and that he “should’ve said no” when the Times asked whether he was a climate denier. He further resolved to “accept training from climate scientists to improve his knowledge of the science behind climate change,” according to Politico, leaving free the implication that he knows jack all about the century’s most pressing crisis.

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Shortly after Joe Biden took office in 2021, Malpass had gone from speaking cagily on climate change to explicitly incorporating it into his leadership style, speaking to concepts such as “green growth” and a just transition while also launching a Climate Change Action Plan. Yet environmentalist critics attacked the plan as unambitious and pointed out that the World Bank has not agreed to halt funding of fossil fuel projects. Throughout Biden’s term, climate officials have accused the bank of being nontransparent about its loans, deliberately fudging financing labels to make its climate investments seem larger than they really are, and failing to disburse anywhere near enough money to the countries that need it most for mitigating climate effects.

Perhaps part of the reason Malpass has escaped large-scale censure of the kind he’s facing now is that World Bank presidents have not historically been the most distinguished bunch; one particularly infamous example is Paul Wolfowitz, the former Iraq war architect who was forced out of bank leadership after just two years following a corruption scandal.

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But now that Malpass has really stepped in it, it’s worth reflecting on what we’ve learned here. One: When climate change–magnified disasters are near-weekly occurrences, dithering on the science of it all just doesn’t cut it. Two: It’s just not acceptable anymore, on the global stage, to publicly profess any form of climate skepticism (though actions are a different matter). Three: If you’re the head of a massive international institution and have a somewhat sketchy record on, well, just about everything, maybe don’t bring more attention upon yourself by fumbling an interview question about our world’s most urgent issue. Four: Don’t piss off Al Gore, who knows a thing or two about dealing with climate deniers. When it comes to Malpass, especially, Gore has a point: Even if he doesn’t identify as a climate denier, if you look at his record, he functionally is one. And right now, action is far more important than belief.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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