When I flew to Bali in 2007 for the United Nations’ annual climate change conference, representatives from more than 180 countries were under tremendous pressure to plan for a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The United States had pulled back its engagement after that agreement, but I relayed to the delegates my confidence that the most likely major-party nominees in the next presidential election—especially my Senate colleagues Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama—would return the United States to a position of enthusiastic leadership on climate change.

Thirteen years later, the issue is only more urgent and domestic politics are only more bewildering to allies and partners hoping for U.S. engagement. The 2020 elections will be a hinge point in determining whether the United States steps up as a capable actor on climate, remains on the sidelines, or becomes a bigger obstacle.

The 2020 elections will be a hinge point in determining whether the United States steps up as a capable actor.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, most major nations were already on track to increase emissions in 2020. The world has less than a decade left to avert the most disastrous consequences, according to the 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Time is running out.

As an issue at the ballot box, climate is becoming politically existential. An explosion of youth voting in the United States in 2018 and the rise of the Green Party in the 2019 European Union elections both highlight this deepening sense of urgency. But, just as often, countervailing movements have distorted reality to deny scientific consensus and exploit images of climate refugees for political theater, turning the imperiled natural environment into a political and economic weapon.

What would responsible climate leadership look like in the United States? It would prove that good governing is good economics and that we can advance global goals while creating much-needed domestic jobs.

Committed leadership will also reflect urgency. A responsible U.S. administration would immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement and insist at the next major conference that the world ratchet up its emissions reductions. Paris itself was a goal, not a guarantee. The United States will need to demonstrate that, despite current economic headwinds, climate will not wait on the back burner. Now is the time to rally the world around a clean energy revolution.

Despite current economic headwinds, climate will not wait on the back burner.

One of the quickest ways to renew U.S. credibility on climate would be to reengage with China and the EU. As the world’s top three emitters, China, the EU, and the United States account for over 50 percent of emissions. The United States could also lead the major emitters in the G20 to pledge reductions in excess of the Paris goals, signaling a shared commitment to rebuilding stronger after the pandemic. Such a move would assure the 130 countries that collectively produce less than 1 percent of global emissions that the big countries most responsible for climate change will walk the walk.

Success will require leadership from every country, but the United States could provide a critical boost by reclaiming the role it so callously and counterproductively abandoned—and by proving that the United States is not just back but fully prepared for the hard work ahead to address the greatest threat facing humanity.

  • John Kerry