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Delta variant concerns prompt debate over delaying major U.N. climate summit

Both the U.K., the summit's host, and the U.S. have dismissed calls to postpone, with the summit already delayed once from 2020 by the pandemic.

WASHINGTON — With the delta variant surging across the globe, leading nations and environmental groups are locked in an escalating debate over whether to postpone this year's U.N. global climate summit scheduled for November in Scotland.

Already delayed once from 2020 by Covid-19, the Glasgow summit has been billed as the last, best chance for world nations to commit to the dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases needed to avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming. Thousands of government leaders, activists and leading executives are expected to attend.

Yet in an ironic twist, the loudest calls to postpone are coming from climate change activists, who say holding it in the middle of a raging pandemic would shortchange poorer, developing nations that have often been pushed to the sidelines of international efforts on global warming.

The Climate Action Network, which says it represents more than 1,500 organizations in over 130 nations, says no in-person summit should be held this year, pointing out that many developing nations are on the U.K.'s “red list” for Covid-19, which limits travel and imposes stringent quarantine requirements. The group is also arguing that poorer nations, especially those in Africa, have far less access to the vaccine.

Echoing that call are activists like Greta Thunberg, a mainstay at past global climate summits who says she won’t attend this year due to “extremely inequitable vaccine distribution.” Prominent groups such as Greenpeace have also urged a delay for the summit, known as COP or COP26.

Rachel Cleetus, climate policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said delaying an in-person summit due to the public health crisis should not be any excuse for richer nations to put off taking bold action immediately to curb heat-trapping emissions.

“It’s a false choice that we have to have an unsafe and inequitable COP, or we can't get climate progress,” Cleetus said in an interview. “Let's not hide behind a call for postponement to dump that responsibility.”

But most nations planning to attend the summit have insisted it must go on as scheduled, citing the urgency of securing significant action on climate change and the fact the conference was already delayed once. The Climate Vulnerable Forum, which represents 48 nations in Africa, Asia, Central and South America considered most at risk from climate change, says the conference should proceed but with “special support” for developing countries.

“This is the most important meeting for the future of the planet and it cannot wait,” the group said.

Both the U.K., the summit's host, and the United States have stood firm that the summit must take place on schedule. John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate, told The New York Times that delaying again would be a “huge mistake.”

“The show must go on,” Kerry said. “We don’t have time to mess around with reconvening. We're under the gun here.”

Biden, touring damage from Hurricane Ida last week in New York, announced that he plans to attend the Glasgow summit in person.

The United Kingdom has sought to address concerns about poorer nations’ ability to participate by offering to vaccinate any accredited delegates who otherwise can’t get the vaccine. The U.K. also says it will cover the cost of hotel quarantines — five days for the vaccinated, 10 days for the unvaccinated — for delegates, reporters and observers from nations on its red list.

Alok Sharma, the U.K.'s top climate diplomat and president of the COP26 summit, said that although last year’s summit was postponed, “climate change has not taken time off.”

“If we are to deliver for our planet, we need all countries and civil society to bring their ideas and ambition to Glasgow,” Sharma said.

The annual U.N. climate summits build on the Paris global climate accord and other U.N. agreements by forcing the international community to assess whether it is meeting emission-cutting targets. Ahead of this year's summit, nations are expected to pledge how dramatically they will cut greenhouse gases by the year 2030, creating public pressure for them to then follow through.

The Biden administration has vowed to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in half by the decade's end, compared to 2005 levels, while the U.K. and the European Union have gone even further. Other nations have yet to release their pledges — a worrying sign for climate activists who say time is running short.

A blistering U.N. scientific report released in August in advance of the summit declared that climate change is already widespread, irreversible and severe, although it determined humans still have a tiny window left to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, with the original goal of 1.5 degrees essentially out of reach. Scientists found that while more frequent extreme weather events like droughts, hurricanes and heat waves are now inevitable, they will become profoundly worse and more deadly if the planet is allowed to heat up even further.