Candidate for President of the World Bank, David Malpass, speaks at the White House with Donald Trump

David Malpass, an economist and candidate for the presidency of the World Bank, with US President Donald Trump.Credit: Jim Young/Reuters

Just a few days into 2019, the international development community received a shock. Jim Yong Kim announced that he was resigning as president of the World Bank 3 years before his contract expired — leaving a crucial leadership role vacant. The decision about who fills it is important for researchers and for the planet.

The 75-year-old bank is the world’s largest publicly owned lender. With a mandate to end poverty and promote sustainability, it provides loans and grants for infrastructure projects, with by far its biggest footprint being in developing countries. In 2018, it spent US$67 billion, which includes funding for climate-change mitigation, forest conservation, public health and universities. The bank is a major employer of researchers, and around one-quarter of its 9,200 professional staff have doctoral degrees.

Its record on environmental challenges, however, is mixed. Although it has a long history of supporting carbon-intensive infrastructure projects such as fossil-fuel power, at the end of 2018 it agreed to double its climate-change spending to $200 billion between 2021 and 2025, extending commitments made at the Paris climate accords to become a greener bank. This welcome decision was a collective effort of the world’s governments, the bank’s staff and Kim, a physician and leader in international health policy. Kim’s departure has put the bank’s leadership and future direction in jeopardy — and, crucially, left the bank’s climate policy vulnerable.

The role of World Bank president traditionally goes to a US citizen. That is a legacy of the post-war carving up of big jobs between Europe and the United States (in exchange, a European tends to lead the International Monetary Fund). At the beginning of this month, Trump nominated David Malpass, an economist at the US Treasury, to become the next World Bank president. Nominations close on 14 March, and the successful candidate is expected to be named in time for the bank’s annual meeting on 12 April.

With the United States out of the Paris agreement, Malpass is already advocating taking the bank back to its post-war roots: financing energy and infrastructure projects regardless of their environmental impact. Outlining his agenda in The Financial Times, Malpass said the bank needs to revert to its “core mission”. Climate change did not get a mention.

Given the high stakes, the rest of the world must determine whether Malpass is worth backing. Meeting the Paris target to keep temperatures within 2 ºC of pre-industrial levels needs serious international financial commitment: $320 billion by 2030 on top of that already pledged, according to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.

The United States is the bank’s largest shareholder (with nearly 16% of votes) and traditionally, European nations back the US candidate. But as Trump has shredded the usual rules of US–European Union cooperation, the EU (with its combined voting shares of nearly 26.5%) should consider carefully whether it is worth abiding by this agreement. France, for one, will not immediately wish to endorse a candidate with little regard for climate-friendly energy.

If most of Europe does support Malpass, however, that leaves Japan (which has nearly 7% of World Bank votes) and China (which has nearly 4.5%) with the biggest individual say in his election. Japan will not defy Trump, and China’s position is hard to read. China was one of the architects of the Paris accords, but talks between Beijing and Washington to avert a trade war are at a delicate stage, and China’s priority is to keep those talks on track.

The nations of Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America need to think seriously about unifying around a different candidate, and there is no shortage of credible names. High on the list are the bank’s chief executive Kristalina Georgieva from Bulgaria, who is standing in as acting president, and the respected British economist Jim O’Neill.

Trump’s decision to nominate Malpass presents the world’s leaders with a dilemma, but one that they cannot shirk. Even if the Trump administration does not recognize it, an alternative candidate with more determination to tackle climate change is also in the United States’ long-term interests. Malpass might have stellar economic credentials, but an unwillingness to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change — the world’s biggest threat — cannot be acceptable in the leader of an international organization with unrivalled power to tackle it.