No Paris, no problem? The case for a conservative climate strategy. 

A chronicle of Donald Trump's Crimes or Allegations

No Paris, no problem? The case for a conservative climate strategy. 

If it wasn’t clear before Thursday night’s debate, a second Trump presidency would bring an unsanctimonious end to U.S. inclusion in the current international framework for tackling climate change. Yet for all the planning around another exit from the Paris agreement by former President Donald Trump, his campaign owes America more than prose on clean air and water. 

By articulating a counterstrategy that positions the U.S. at the forefront of efforts to slash global emissions, a future Trump administration would be set to reap massive economic and national security benefits. 

Precedent shows that Trump’s willingness to “break glass” in international diplomacy may not be a misguided approach. Not every international institution is effectively managed and some, arguably, do not align with U.S. interests. In those instances, sudden exits or threatened exits from international frameworks can serve as an empowering diplomatic tactic. 

For example, the Obama administration successfully drove consensus on the South Pacific Tuna Treaty by abruptly announcing a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty altogether. The Trump administration made similar progress by giving the Universal Postal Union an ultimatum requiring it to modernize a fee system that unfairly advantaged Beijing.

But even at times when disrupting the global status quo has upsides, these measures benefit from a complementary strategy for how to navigate the wake of such bold policy action — a plan for the days after.  

Fashioning an international climate strategy isn’t just a means of contributing to global sustainability goals. It’s also a critical component of retaining America’s competitiveness across all sectors of the U.S. economy. In today’s world, far more so than during the first Trump administration, the failure to develop such an approach would empower U.S. adversaries and produce unnecessary headwinds for many other U.S. foreign policy priorities — not the least of which is to counter Chinese influence.  

Global dynamics have changed dramatically since Trump stood in the Rose Garden in June 2017 and announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Russia’s flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty has since rewritten the script of European security. Europe is no longer balking at U.S. natural gas but embracing it as a central pillar of its strategy to stabilize and grow its economy. The continent, under a flood of Chinese electric vehicles, is also awakening to the risk of overreliance on Beijing. 

Through all of this, however, a prevailing majority of Europeans still see climate change as a serious threat. Given these developments, a major shift in the U.S. government’s global climate policy without a well-articulated plan to replace the existing framework may unnecessarily ignite the ire of U.S. allies at the exact moment when they’re predisposed to firmly enter America’s orbit.  

This point should not be mistaken for a plea to remain in the Paris agreement. It is, rather, an acknowledgement that U.S. climate and clean energy policy will still be critical in fostering international partnerships that are essential to advancing long-standing elements of the Republican foreign policy and economic agenda.

Today, for example, the European Union is exploring ways to strengthen its own defense-industrial base — a precursor to a more stable path future for NATO. A second Trump administration may very well be in position to take that policy win over the line. Why jeopardize impending success for the sake of scoring short-term political points on jettisoning U.S. climate leadership? 

Notably, these perspectives aren’t unique to Europe. In Dubai last year, the UAE marshalled a global commitment to accelerate paths towards “net zero emission energy systems.” This international milestone illustrates that Trump’s economic ambitions require more than “dominance” over oil and gas alone. China, for its part, has embraced this outlook, actively establishing a firm grasp over clean energy supply chains. Overcoming Beijing’s head start should be a priority for any U.S. administration.  

Trump’s decision to exit the Paris pact in 2017 may have checked the box on a campaign promise, but the absence of a cohesive counterstrategy to a growing and global effort to transform the world’s energy system left a policy vacuum that was quickly filled by competing international voices. Climate activist Greta Thunberg led the charge on a “green wave” that swept across Europe while Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on a climate charm offensive despite his country simultaneously supporting the construction of nearly two new coal-fired power plants every week.

Most of all, the U.S. decision to leave Paris did not change the trajectory of the global energy mix, which continues to decarbonize even as oil and gas remain the anchor of the global economy.  

A potential second Trump administration, therefore, would be wise to fixate less on a symbolic exit from the Paris agreement and more on articulating a credible international climate strategy that embraces the energy transition in a manner that empowers U.S. economic growth and national security. Such a strategy is an opportunity to emphasize longstanding conservative policy.

That includes accelerating the deployment of breakthrough technology where China has yet to gain a foothold and configuring global supply chains to ensure long-term U.S. leadership across all energy sectors — oil, gas, nuclear and renewable energy alike. 

Landon Derentz is the Atlantic Council’s Morningstar Chair for Global Energy Security and senior director of the Global Energy Center. He was director for energy at the White House from April 2018 to November 2019.