Global divisions over Covid a 'warm-up' for climate struggle

Portuguese former minister expresses concern over social and political rifts

Leaders are under pressure from scientists and activists, here in Bristol, England, to take decisive action at Cop26. PA
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The world’s lack of unity in tackling Covid-19 is a bad omen for its looming struggle with climate change, a former diplomatic official has said.

Bruno Macaes, who was Portugal’s European affairs minister from 2013 to 2015, said pandemics were once seen as an area where countries were sure to co-operate.

But he was disappointed by how little this happened, with countries instead seeking self-reliance and squabbling over vaccine supplies.

Speaking on a Chatham House panel, he said similar tensions could soon unfold over tackling the climate crisis.

“I see Covid as a sort of warm-up to a very similar process,” said Mr Macaes, who was previously an adviser to Portugal’s prime minister.

“I think the climate emergency will soon look similar to Covid in the reactions that it will force us to take; in the public measures that we’ll be forced to take; in the conflict, social and political, that it will bring about.

“We don’t talk enough about that. But that was a surprise with Covid, that people didn’t come together, they actually in many places broke apart and social and political conflict became more acute.”

Scientists are urging global co-operation to tackle climate change, with the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November regarded as a key moment.

Preparations have been hampered by the pandemic, with one official involved in the talks expressing concern that “Zoom diplomacy” has slowed progress.

Britain has offered to provide vaccines for Cop26 delegates from poorer countries, who faced a months-long struggle to get supplies of Covid shots.

Mr Macaes said that far from encouraging more co-operation, the pandemic had exacerbated competition between global rivals.

“I remember when I was drafting, back in my days as a politician and a foreign policy official, documents about global co-operation,” he said.

“When we were struggling with all issues, pandemics [were] an example of when global co-operation would inevitably happen. But that was not the case at all.”

Thomas Wright, an international politics expert at the Brookings Institution, said unequal access to vaccines could have long-term consequences.

He told the panel that world leaders should use an upcoming G20 summit to promise more investment in vaccinating the world.

“I do really worry that the effects of a two-tier vaccine approach will turbo-charge global inequality,” he said.

“We’ll have safe zones and unsafe zones. If you come from the unsafe zone, you’re not allowed to travel to the United States or Europe or elsewhere.

“We’ll justify that on public health grounds, but it will cut across socio-economic, geopolitical and even ethnic lines, and I think be very destabilising.”

Updated: September 29, 2021, 8:03 AM