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Could vaccine inequality disrupt this year’s climate negotiations?

September 8, 2021, 12:50 PM UTC

Hello from London. This week, the urgency of acting on climate change—and who has access to COVID-19 vaccines—are colliding.

The U.K. is preparing for COP26, which officially begins on November 1st, in Glasgow, Scotland. It was already delayed once because of the pandemic, and now a group of climate groups are calling for it to be delayed again—because of lack of access to vaccines and financial support.

On Monday, the Climate Action Network—which includes Greenpeace and WWF—called for formal negotiations to be postponed, saying that the British government had failed to make sure the conference was safe and inclusive. That’s due to confusion over the U.K.’s own travel restrictions and quarantining and vaccine requirements. Only in rich countries (the very countries who have contributed the most to climate change) have vaccines become widely and freely available, and much of the so-called Global South remains on the U.K.’s travel “Red List,” the organizers point out.

”Our concern is that those countries most deeply affected by the climate crisis and those countries suffering from the lack of support by rich nations in providing vaccines will be left out of the talks and conspicuous in their absence at COP26,” the Action group said. “There has always been an inherent power imbalance within the UN climate talks and this is now compounded by the health crisis.”

The obvious unfairness of this lack of vaccine access is not in doubt. As countries including the U.K. and U.S. gear up for a season of “booster shots” this autumn, more than half of the world’s population is completely unvaccinated, and only 1.9% of people in lower-income countries have received at least one dose, according to the Our World In Data project; the WHO has repeatedly said that further vaccine programs should be held off in favor of boosting vaccine access around the world. If simple fairness isn’t persuasive enough, experts have pointed out that vaccine inequality only increases the risks of mutations that could eventually undermine the vaccine’s efficacy.

Making the inequality even more obvious, a London analytics firm has found that, even if wealthy countries move ahead with booster programs, they will still collectively have an estimated 1.2 billion doses they don’t need by the end of this year—while previous pledges to supply jabs to lower-income countries have gone largely unfulfilled.

The injustice here isn’t hugely inspiring as a forerunner of combined climate action. I’m also guessing it’s leaving exhausted conference organizers distraught, faced as they are with the herculean task of trying to put on a safe event that meets U.K. travel entry standards. (CAN itself points out that the U.K.has pledged to vaccinate any COP26 delegates who are in need, but said there is still a lack of clarity.)

But postponing climate negotiations for a second year running just doesn’t seem feasible, or desirable. The world’s governments don’t have time to waste. The question now is: who will be at the table?

Katherine Dunn


Climate bankruptcy

This evocative New York Times feature traces the fates of a group of small, fading towns, starting with Fair Bluff, N.C. All the towns have been flooded repeatedly, pushing out dwindling residents and wrecking main streets in regions that were already struggling economically. For these towns, two choices loom: either rebuild even with the risk of another flood, or move elsewhere. "The first option is becoming more expensive and less effective as disasters mount. The second option is usually too painful to even consider." New York Times

Another Gulf Spill

An oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, spurred by Hurricane Ida, is highlighting the risks of more than 18,000 unused or abandoned pipelines laid underneath the region and along sea beds. Now, when some of those pipelines break during storms—spewing oil that's been left inside—there's often no clear way to determine who abandoned the pipelines, and who is responsible. “There is so damn much of that hardware in the Gulf,” says John Amos, president of SkyTruth, an NGO that tracks environmental damage. “It’s all kind of a ticking time bomb.” Bloomberg

The end of wild vanilla? 

A wide group of wild relatives of popular crops—from avocados to squashes to ginger and, yes, vanilla—are at risk from climate change and declining biodiversity. While some commercial varieties have been bred to become more heat resistant, the diverse wild varieties key for maintaining genetic diversity are particularly vulnerable, warn researchers. In vanilla's case, there's also an immediate threat: extreme drought in Madagascar. The Guardian

Norway's choice

Norway is gearing up for an election this weekend, and on the ballot is one of the stark contradictions at the heart of the country's economy: Norway is one of the world's most advanced on green technology, renewable energy, and embracing electric cars. It's also built its wealth, including the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, on its oil and gas production. Financial Times


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Clorox reveals new emissions targets that increase supply-chain pressure by Alan Murray

‘An eyesore’: An armada of ghostly cruise ships is clogging the Italian Riviera, and locals are fed up by Eric Lyman



The number of medical journals who published a joint editorial on Tuesday with a plea: a warming climate is the "greatest threat" to public health. The editorial makes the point that climate change needs the same coordination and intensity of focus as the COVID-19 pandemic (the climate activists don't necessarily agree: see above), and individual signees mapped the rising number of patients admitted when suffering from extreme heat, and the migration of tropical diseases. (You can read it in full here.) It wasn't the only plea: the day before, the world's three main Christian leaders, Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, called for prayer for meaningful action at COP26. 

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