How COVID-19 Vaccination Became a Climate Metaphor

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For years, climate policy experts have watched as the issue has been pushed off the stage at global summits to make way for the geopolitical conflict dujour. That trend has long frustrated climate advocates who sought to make leaders understand that the scientific reality of climate change is just as urgent—if not more so—than other flavor-of-the-month topics.

With this in mind, it was notable when many of these same climate advocates sharply criticized last week’s G7 leaders summit hosted by the United Kingdom for failing to adequately address another issue: the COVID-19 pandemic. In statement after statement, climate watchers homed in on what they often characterized as inadequate support from the world’s wealthy nations to address the pandemic in their poorer counterparts. Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network, described the pandemic and climate change as “twin crises” and said the summit did “not measure up” to them. Nick Mabey, head of the E3G climate group, called out the G7 for failing to offer “enough financial firepower to tackle the global COVID, economic and climate crises.” And Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, called for a vaccine patent waiver.

It’s a remarkable turnaround. When COVID-19 first emerged, many in the climate world feared efforts to address the pandemic would distract from efforts to address climate change. Today, climate advocates are arguing that the two need to be addressed hand in hand. This change is in part practical: leaders in many developing countries will understandably remain focused on the pandemic rather than climate change if their on-the-ground situation doesn’t improve. And, with the November UN climate summit in Glasgow fast approaching, the situation on the ground may need to change quickly to give officials adequate time to prepare.

But, in some sense, the rhetorical shift among climate activists may be just as symbolic as it is practical: climate advocates fear that failure to muster a strong response to COVID-19 will send a signal to developing countries that wealthy nations will leave them high and dry as the impacts of climate change start to mount. That, many believe, would hamper the motivation to take on mitigation efforts in the developing world—just as the needs grow more urgent. “In some ways, the vaccine issue is a metaphor for the larger climate issue,” says Alden Meyer, a longtime international climate policy expert who serves as senior associate at E3G.

When you look closely, there are a number of issues related to fighting COVID-19 that map directly onto fighting climate change. Patent waivers have become a point of contention, as some argue that freeing the intellectual property surrounding vaccines would enable poorer countries to manufacture vaccines locally. In the climate fight, developing countries have for years called for their wealthier counterparts to share the technological know-how to allow them to reduce emissions—even if that meant companies losing out on potential revenue.

Ponying up the money has also been a key point of contention in both COVID-19 and climate conversations. Ahead of the Paris Agreement, a group of rich countries committed to sending some $100 billion annually to the developing world to help finance climate efforts. Wealthy countries have repeatedly reaffirmed that promise—including at the G7 last week—but the money has yet to materialize at that scale. (You can read my colleague Ciara Nugent’s piece on climate finance and the G7 here). The fact that many poor countries facing pandemic-related budget crunches haven’t gotten much assistance from their wealthier counterparts doesn’t inspire much confidence in how things will play out when it comes to climate change.

Events like the upcoming UN climate conference in Glasgow typically draw tens of thousands of participants from all across the globe. And, unlike many geopolitical settings, delegates from poorer countries, particularly those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, often hold significant sway. What happens if those countries don’t have adequate access to vaccines by then? The U.K. has promised vaccines to “accredited delegations who would be unable to get them otherwise,” but the optics aren’t great. Will climate negotiators from developing countries get vaccinated while the elderly at vulnerable at home remain at risk? Even if they do show up, will those government leaders fear making aggressive climate commitments as their people suffer from a pandemic?

Time will tell. Ultimately, though, there is one inescapable conclusion: tackling the pandemic will help the world tackle climate change.

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