Rapid Response Interview: Eric Orts on the Climate Agreement

Interview with Dr. Eric Orts, Profesor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics and Management and the Director of the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership at the Wharton School

Interview conducted by Laurie Jensen, PWH Program Coordinator, on Thursday, June 1, 2017.

Q: On Thursday, June 1, President Trump announced that the United States will formally withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, following through on promises he had made throughout his campaign. Given that the climate agreement is nonbinding and there are no consequences for countries who do not meet their reduced emissions goals, how do you understand President Trump’s rationale for exiting the agreement?

A (Orts): President Trump seems to feel committed to his campaign promise to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.  He believes that the Paris Agreement is a “bad deal” for the United States, but in fact he’s wrong – as a great many business interests have pointed out.  Unfortunately, this is probably the most anti-business decision that President Trump has made.  And he’s shown himself unwilling to listen to reason based on strong economic arguments.  It is a low point so far for his Presidency.

Q: Several American companies, including Apple, Google, Exxon Mobil, BP and Shell, were in favor of remaining in the agreement. Why would fossil fuel-based companies want the US to stay in the agreement? Do you foresee these companies taking steps to reduce their carbon emissions independently?

A (Orts): This is true.  Even the major big oil companies, and you can add Chevron to the list – as well as 30 CEOs who wrote an open letter to the Wall Street Journal – were in favor of the Paris Agreement.  In contrast to the Kyoto approach, Paris offers a flexible bottom-up structure that many companies preferred.  Business leaders argued that Paris supported a market-based approach, encouraged investment in clean energy technologies (solar, wind, etc.), supported a rational long-term investment approach, and provided for a greater degree of certainty.  Many of these companies are already taking independent steps to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute solutions to the overall problem. 

Q: Does President Trump’s decision open a door for China to take a greater leadership role within the global climate change movement, and within international institutions more generally?

A (Orts): Yes. China and the European Union are now set to take over a leadership role.  I frankly don’t anticipate other countries following President Trump on this issue.  U.S. states such as California and cities such as New York will also push back and move forward with Paris commitments.  In my estimation, this will prove a deeply unpopular decision not only for citizens in other parts of the world who will begin to look down on the United States, but also citizens here.  I believe that it will backfire politically on the President.

Q: Does the Paris Agreement stand a better or worse chance of success without US involvement? 

A (Orts): I believe that the United States will eventually join back into the Agreement – and in fact probably will not fully leave it.  Paradoxically, Trump’s rejection of Paris may well galvanize opposition to his policies.  Only a minority of Americans support this move – and it will hurt the economy of the United States rather helping.  It is not good:  from a leader in President Obama the United States has now transitioned to a backslider in President Trump.  But I don’t believe other countries will follow – except maybe Russia.