Activists call on United Nations to postpone Glasgow climate change conference

The global Climate Action Network (CAN) issued a call Tuesday to postpone the upcoming United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, citing concerns over safety due to the COVID-19 pandemic and global inequality in access to vaccination.

Coming at the end of a summer that has seen dramatic extreme weather events such as heat waves, drought-induced famine, raging wildfires and drenching hurricanes, the two-week conference, which is scheduled to begin on Nov. 1, has come to be seen as humanity’s last best chance to strike a global agreement to try to avert catastrophic climate change.

Originally scheduled to occur last year, but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the meeting will rely heavily on the findings of an alarming August report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that makes the case that time is running out for humankind to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The leading global climate activism network, which coordinates the international climate advocacy efforts of some 1,500 member organizations, CAN is worried that many delegates, activists and journalists from developing countries, where vaccines remain scarce, may not be able to safely attend. And they argue that since climate change is falling hardest on poorer countries, negotiations that exclude any of their representatives will lead to an unjust agreement.

“With just two months to go, it is evident that a safe, inclusive and just global climate conference is impossible given the failure to support the access to vaccines to millions of people in poor countries, the rising costs of travel and accommodation, and the uncertainty in the course of the Covid19 pandemic,” CAN, which includes member organizations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, said in its statement.

The government of the United Kingdom, which is hosting the summit, countered with a statement insisting the event could be held safely.

The SSE Hydro
The SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland, one of the scheduled venues for the U.N. Climate Change Conference. (Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We are working tirelessly with all our partners, including the Scottish government and the U.N., to ensure an inclusive, accessible and safe summit in Glasgow with a comprehensive set of COVID-mitigation measures,” said Alok Sharma, the president-designate of COP26, the official name for this year’s U.N. climate negotiations.

While a majority of Americans and residents of Western European countries have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, many developing nations have been able to administer doses to as little as 2 percent of their population. The U.K. has promised to provide vaccination to any registered attendee, but hasn’t actually distributed the vaccines yet.

While some member organizations privately hope the conference is not delayed, they are united in their effort to pressure the British government to make good on its promises of access.

“You’re up against the clock, it’s the last minute for people to get vaccinated in time,” said a source from an organization that belongs to CAN who requested anonymity. “The goal of this is to really push hard for the U.K. to do what they said they would to make it possible for people to attend equitably.”

That effort may already be producing results. The British government’s response to CAN’s statement included a previously unannounced plan that “delegates who have registered for a vaccine through the accreditation process are set to begin receiving their first dose this week.”

But CAN said that that alone won’t be enough, noting that there are other challenges for attendees from developing countries, even if they are able to be vaccinated.

“It’s incredibly challenging for some of our colleagues to be there regardless,” Natalie Lucas, a spokesperson for the U.S. Climate Action Network, CAN’s American affiliate, told Yahoo News. “People from the Pacific Islands, who are some of the most in danger from climate change, have to travel through New Zealand and Australia, which have some of the strictest COVID rules in the world. ... A lot of people have just said, We can’t. The logistical challenges are too many.”

A COVID-19 vaccine is administered
A COVID-19 vaccine is administered on a vaccine bus in Glasgow, Scotland, in July. (Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Lucas also argued that global travel at this time could increase the risk of viral transmission, even among the vaccinated, which can in turn lead to more dangerous infections among the unvaccinated. “Some of these countries that people are going home to don’t have significant vaccine distribution,” she said.

Holding the event virtually isn’t a good option either, according to Lucas, since the groundwork for making all the various meetings accessible hasn’t been laid. “Because we’ve been so focused on in-person, there is no plan to reinforce the virtual setting,” she said. “We’ve heard from developing nations that they don’t want it to be virtual.”

If the climate negotiations aren’t delayed, CAN still plans to send staffers to lobby for an ambitious and equitable agreement.

Still, CAN hopes that a large majority of residents of every country will have been vaccinated by sometime next year and that the negotiations would occur then. But if the pandemic has taught us anything so far, it’s that no one can predict what the world will look like just a few months from now.


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