Paul Hofheinz

About half way through their tense, first meeting in Geneva, held at the height of the cold war in the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan looked at Mikhail Gorbachev and told him, “You know, if our planet was ever attacked by space aliens, our countries would fight on the same side.”

“That’s true,” Mr. Gorbachev replied, a bit nonplussed with this unorthodox appeal. “But I hope in the meantime we can find ways of collaborating on concrete problems that confront our people today.”

The odd thing is, both men were right. Faced with an external threat, mankind should see its mutual interest in uniting to fight a common enemy. And yet, as we ponder the historic challenge of reversing nearly two centuries of anthropogenic climate change, we are confronted with the political equivalent of the prisoner’s dilemma: Most countries (and the voters within them) understand the threat climate change poses to their borders, their way of life, their economic well-being. But no one wants to make sacrifices unless they know the others are sticking to the deal as well. And their instinct is right: because only a global solution can solve a problem whose very nature transcends national borders and threatens the balance of the planet itself.

Solving the problem of climate change will involve several things. First and foremost, it will take leadership. Someone, somewhere — and Europe can surely play a part in this — must step up and strike a global deal where all parties know their fellow prisoners will vouchsafe their interests. This is key, but it won’t be easy. And apart from the global leadership it will require, the real effort will lie in domestic politics. Many of today’s vested interests will cry foul at the prospect of having to retool the economy around dramatically different energy and taxation systems.

And therein rests our real dilemma: for the challenge will not simply lie in how well we manage global change, but in whether we manage domestic change well enough to make global change possible. The state is far from powerless in this battle. The state controls the tools — taxation, regulation — which can provide the incentives. But it also controls the public purse from which much investment must come — not just to mitigate economic problems that will arise from the transition to a low-carbon economy, but to encourage companies, local authorities, research institutes and universities to build new businesses around highly effective, energy-efficient technologies.

The bottom line is we must lead on all fronts. As a priority, we must integrate our development strategy and climate-change efforts through the World Bank and UNFCCC. And we must create a development strategy for ourselves, too, using our resources to encourage change in our own economy that will be no less profound than what we expect from the developing world. There’s no room for opt outs or double standards in this debate. Indeed, hypocrisy is our common enemy. 

Paul Hofheinz is president of the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based think tank.

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