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Global Vaccine Crisis Sends Ominous Signal for Fighting Climate Change

Brazil’s right-wing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, scorned public health guidance and insisted that lockdowns and mobility restrictions would be a bigger threat to the country’s weak economy. Brazil now has one of the world’s highest death tolls and its economy is in tatters.

India’s right-wing populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, who earlier this year boasted of conquering the virus, allowed large religious and political gatherings. And instead of securing vaccines for India’s 1.4 billion citizens, India began exporting Indian-made doses to other countries. Today, India has become the worst-hit country in the world, with close to 380,000 new infections daily over the past seven days.

The long running global battle over intellectual property rights to medicines has a parallel to climate action, too, with the Paris climate agreement explicitly calling for the transfer of technology to develop clean energy infrastructure. Developing countries have long said they cannot cope with the effects of climate change if the rich world does not share money and technology, and that problem is only made more acute by the economic collapse brought on by the pandemic and the inequitable access to vaccines.

Not least, the consequences of global warming are unequal, hurting the poorest people in poor countries hardest. “The issue of vaccine solidarity is very connected to some of the lessons we should be learning for climate solidarity,” said Tasneem Essop, a former government official from South Africa who is now executive director of Climate Action Network, an advocacy group. Ms. Essop noted that rich countries are “taking care of their own needs, without any idea of looking outwards.”

Money is at the heart of the distrust.

The Biden administration promised to double grants and loans to developing countries to $5.7 billion a year, a target that is widely seen as both insufficient and lagging behind the pledges of other wealthy industrialized nations, notably in Europe. Many low- and middle-income countries are carrying so much debt, they say it leaves them nothing left to retool their economies for the climate era. In addition, the rich world has yet to fulfill its promise to raise $100 billion a year that could be used for green projects, whether solar farms or mangrove restoration.

“In both cases, it’s about a willingness to redistribute resources,” said Rohini Pande, a Yale University economist.

In the case of coronavirus response, it’s about helping vaccine makers around the world manufacture billions of doses in a matter of months. In the case of climate change, huge sums of money are needed to help developing countries retool their energy systems away from dirty sources like coal.

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