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Multilateralism or Bust

Summary:
Crises such as climate change and COVID-19 require multilateral responses, and a critical mass of countries can alter the course of events, for better or worse. Despite current geopolitical tensions, leaders must not lose sight of major global threats – and of the need to find common ground. MADRID – In early 1981, a few days before Jimmy Carter handed over the US presidency to Ronald Reagan, a short story on page 13 of The New YorkTimes mentioned a report from the Council on Environmental Quality. This body, tasked with advising the US president, sounded the alarm about the link between the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and global warming. “Efforts should be begun immediately to develop and examine

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Crises such as climate change and COVID-19 require multilateral responses, and a critical mass of countries can alter the course of events, for better or worse. Despite current geopolitical tensions, leaders must not lose sight of major global threats – and of the need to find common ground.

MADRID – In early 1981, a few days before Jimmy Carter handed over the US presidency to Ronald Reagan, a short story on page 13 of The New YorkTimes mentioned a report from the Council on Environmental Quality. This body, tasked with advising the US president, sounded the alarm about the link between the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and global warming. “Efforts should be begun immediately to develop and examine alternative global energy futures,” the report stated, also emphasizing that “international collaboration in assessing the CO2 problem is particularly important.”

Despite this and many other warnings dating back to the 1960s, Reagan distanced himself from the Carter administration’s environmentalist agenda. In a symbolic gesture, the new president even removed the solar panels that his predecessor had installed on the White House.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, intergovernmental cooperation on climate change only took its first concrete steps in the late 1980s. And not until the 2015 Paris agreement did the world finally establish a binding framework mobilizing all countries in a determined quest to mitigate global warming.

Reaching such a consensus was not easy. How to distribute responsibilities adequately has always been a thorny question in multilateral negotiations on climate action. But no obstacle or aspiration – no matter how legitimate – justifies the many years of international discord and neglect regarding this issue.

The threat that already disturbed scientists a half-century ago has steadily grown since then. Between 1991 and 2019 alone, the world emitted more CO2 into the atmosphere than between 1751 and 1990. Faced with this reality, global climate summits such as this November’s United Nations COP26 gathering in Glasgow are vitally important. We simply cannot afford more time-wasting and failures.

Fortunately, there are reasons for hope. Many who previously regarded international...

Javier Solana
President of @ESADEgeo - Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics. Distinguished Fellow at @BrookingsInst.

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