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The World Bank Is NOT Coming After Our Ice Cream Cones

Dan Lashof

Posted February 2, 2013

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Last week, World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim came out with a powerful, laudable statement supporting urgent action on climate change. “If there is no action soon,” he wrote in the Washington Post, in a January 24th op-ed, “the future will become bleak.”

Now, though, Dr. Kim is facing pushback, and that pushback should be confronted at every level. The World Bank’s mission, to alleviate poverty, compels it to help reduce climate change and support sustainable development.

In his op-ed, Dr. Kim discussed just how urgent the situation is, citing a World Bank report that found a 7.2 degree temperature rise by 2100 “would mean that storms dubbed ‘once in a century’ would become common, perhaps occurring every year,” he wrote. Summer could become “an unbearable oven.” And besides that, his sons are ages 12 and 3. “That thought alone,” he wrote, “makes me want to be part of a global movement that acts now.”

Dr. Kim has the ability to help lead that movement. Under his direction, the World Bank and its subsidiary lenders, the world’s largest financiers of international development, can employ smart investment policies that will lead to the creation of a clean energy sector in the world’s poorest countries. Indeed, in recent years, the World Bank has finally begun, with more than half of 2011’s $8.2 billion in energy financing going to low-carbon projects in poor and middle-income countries.

Dr. Kim deserves praise for focusing on climate change and the role of the World Bank in addressing it. Washington Post blogger Ed Rogers, an influential Republican operative, doesn’t think so. Rather, Rogers wrote in response to Dr. Kim, “America’s way of life is being threatened by global warming zealots.” Opinions like his have blocked effective action on global warming for far too long.

Rogers objected to Dr. Kim’s call to put “a predictable price on carbon that accurately reflects real environmental costs,” an approach that has near-universal support among economists of all stripes. Dr. Kim also called for an end to the more than $1 trillion in fossil fuel and otherwise environmentally harmful subsidies that governments around the world dole out annually. “That trillion dollars could be put to better use for the jobs of the future, social safety nets and vaccines,” he wrote. Sounds like what Steven Colbert called a “radical survival agenda.”


For Rogers, though, this is an opening to foment paranoia about a world government seizing our ice cream cones and bottled water. “If you don’t call for a ban or a giant new tax on those two discretionary items that, pound-for-pound, produce as much greenhouse gases as just about anything else,” he wrote, addressing “Hollywood dilettantes and mega-wealthy Learjet liberals” who favor action on climate change, “then you are a phony and only pretending to believe what you are trying to peddle to the rest of us.”

Gee whiz, if solving global warming really means a ban on ice cream I might have to reconsider my position. The World Bank goons will have to pry my Coffee Heath Bar Crunch from my cold dead hands. But seriously, I had hoped that this kind of fact-free ideological rhetoric might be on the wane after reality-based candidates trounced the ideologues in Senate races across the country last November, not to mention the presidential contest. Truth be told, policies to curb global warming pollution might raise the cost of ice cream a bit to reflect the pollution produced in the supply chain—a few cents a pint is my back of the envelope estimate—which I would gladly pay to help protect my kids and kids around the world from more climate disasters like Superstorm Sandy.

Ed Rogers, while influential, is not the biggest obstacle to the changes Dr. Kim can make through the World Bank, however. Those obstacles may be the bureaucratic inertia of the Bank itself, and the entrenched belief that fossil fuels are a necessary evil. In widely quoted remarks two days after his Washington Post op-ed, he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “We want to do everything we can to lower the use of coal. But we can’t turn our backs when poor countries need coal.”

This quote certainly raises questions about what Dr. Kim’s commitment to respond to climate change will mean in practice at the World Bank, but after watching a video of an interview he gave in Davos I don’t doubt that commitment. No one is turning their backs on the poor by prioritizing renewable energy and energy efficiency over coal. Instead, project after project demonstrates that renewable energy can help cost-effectively fulfill the World Bank’s mission, lifting many of the world’s poorest residents out of poverty. (You can read about some of these projects here and here.) And it’s the best technology for supplying power to the 1.2 billion people who live in rural areas lacking electricity.

In addition, meeting poor countries’ energy needs with renewable energy instead of coal will help improve the often-threatened health of the world’s lowest-income residents by protecting them from coal-plant pollution and other coal-related pollution that contributes to two million deaths each year.

As a physician, Dr. Kim knows you can’t cure a patient while continuing to poison him. He also knows, first hand, from his work in developing countries, that environmental problems exact their highest toll on the poor.

For all these reasons, the World Bank should accelerate its move away from coal. “What are we waiting for?” Dr. Kim asked in his Washington Post op-ed. Prioritizing clean energy and sustainable development will help the World Bank fulfill its mission in a changing world.

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