A Few Thoughts On A Path Forward For U.S. Energy And Climate Policy

Tearing up the Paris Agreement does not constitute a policy.

There is great concern about the direction the Trump Administration and Republican Congress will take on climate policy. Its first consequential decision on the international front could be what to do about the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The Administration’s pronouncements about Paris have been ambiguous, but many fear it will scuttle the treaty.

We saw this movie 16 years ago. In the first 60 days of his Administration, President George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol. This proved to be a mistake. Not because Kyoto was a good agreement. In fact, as I have written extensively, Kyoto was a bad deal for the United States. But rather than identifying many of the objectionable parts of the agreement and suggesting alternatives, the Bush Administration sent a terse letter to the U.S. Senate stating its intent to pull out of the treaty.

This decision irritated numerous U.S. partners around the globe and damaged many of our security relationships. Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s National Security Adviser, indicated in an MSNBC interview in November of 2016 that there were adverse impacts from the Bush Administration’s decision to rip up the Kyoto agreement without having anything to put in its place. These decisions have great consequences. The U.S. cannot expect its allies’ cooperation when we refuse to work with them on their issues of concern.

The U.S. cannot expect its allies’ cooperation when we refuse to work with them on their issues of concern.


The Trump Administration should avoid repeating this mistake. It should not pull out of the Paris treaty. In fact, the Paris treaty is consistent with the Administration’s worldview. At its core, the accord is a bottom-up agreement that recognizes the sovereignty of each nation to establish its own emission reduction commitment and to develop a strategy to achieve it. Ripping up the agreement may make some feel good for a short time, but it would adversely impact U.S. economic and national security interests over the longer term, in addition to being a disaster for the climate.

Tearing up the Paris Agreement does not constitute a policy; nor does simply undoing the prior Administration’s rules. These actions only increase uncertainty for the private sector and makes its investment decisions more difficult. So, what should the Trump Administration do?

Simply put, it should support policies to continue the development of a low-emitting portfolio of energy technologies that will achieve multiple objectives. These include: creating jobs, and improving national competitiveness, while reducing emissions that cause climate change and contribute to air quality and public health problems.

This portfolio has a minimum of the components that follow.

Renewables. The U.S. has made great progress over the last decade in increasing its use of renewable energy technologies, thanks to government-funded R&D and complementary tax and regulatory policies. Renewable portfolio standards put in place by approximately 30 states have also made a significant contribution. This should be continued so we can meet our energy needs and improve our environment while ensuring that U.S. companies can compete to supply these technologies in the growing global market.

Coal. The U.S. has hundreds of years of coal reserves. It makes sense to use them to meet our energy requirements and create jobs, but only if it can be done in a way that does not contribute to climate change and air quality problems. Increased R & D, tax incentives, and predictable regulation increase the possibility that the U.S. can develop carbon capture and storage technologies necessary to enable the use of coal.

Regardless of campaign promises, the U.S. is not going to dramatically increase coal use with available technologies given the costs of natural gas and the need to maintain public health. Republican attempts to do so by weakening popular environmental safeguards will damage the party, as it found in 1995, when Republicans became the majority in Congress. Clean air is not abstract when your child has asthma.

Nuclear. Climate change cannot be addressed without the large-scale deployment of nuclear power. In the U.S., the focus is on maintaining the existing fleet, but elsewhere around the world new nuclear plants are being planned and built. A greater role for nuclear power means more nuclear facilities and materials with attendant risks. The U.S. must be a leader in the development of the rules and norms to ensure that nuclear safety and security receive the attention they deserve in this new era while allowing U.S. companies to compete in these growing markets. And the nuclear industry must work with civil society and the public to address the real concerns with nuclear technology.

Efficiency. Energy efficiency has been an unsung hero, contributing to the achievement of multiple public policy objectives. Continued advances in efficiency free up capital for investment elsewhere, make the U.S. less dependent on the resources of others, and reduce pollution. Once again gains have occurred because of federal R & D, mandates, regulations, and state policies. This progress should be continued.

As all administrations recognize, turning campaign promises into workable policy is hard. Simply dismantling policies put in place by prior governments may make some people feel good briefly, but it comes at a cost. Good policy solutions can strengthen the economy, create jobs, and improve the U.S.’ energy position while achieving clean air and water and protecting the climate.

Richard Rosenzweig is an Adjunct Professor, American University, Senior Associate at the Partnership for Global Security, and member of the Global Nexus Initiative working group. Rosenzweig is the author of the recently published book, Global Climate Change Policy and Carbon Markets: Transition To A New Era.