Meet the climate candidate running for Pa.’s sought-after U.S. Senate seat

‘We really are in a climate emergency’: Penn prof Eric Orts, a Democratic hopeful, says

By: - October 3, 2021 6:30 am

University of Pennsylvania professor Eric Orts (Image via Friends of Eric Orts/City & State Pa.).

By Harrison Cann

This University of Pennsylvania professor is running for U.S. Senate with one major campaign focus: climate change.

Eric Orts, professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics, and a professor of management at The Wharton School of Business, is a political outsider with his eyes on outgoing U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s  R-Pa., seat.

“We really are in a climate emergency and that’s the message that I’m trying to get out to people,” Orts told City & State. “I think people are starting to wake up to this fact because the climate emergency really is here, with heat waves and hurricanes hitting. People are starting to understand the seriousness of the issue.”

Orts joined a still-growing group of Democratic nominees in July. He’s going up against candidates including Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia; Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District. He recognizes he’s an underdog but believes his climate message will resonate with many across the commonwealth.

While climate change is an increasingly popular issue, particularly among young voters, it may not be enough to carry a campaign on its own.

“Most Americans say climate change is an important issue and that number is increasing,” Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, told City & State. “The problem from a policy perspective is that it lags behind lots of other issues.” The climate discussion differs among types of voters, he said, and there is no greater signifier than party affiliation.

In his 30 years at Wharton, Orts has taught business ethics, social responsibility and corporate law, among other subjects. He said his time in the classroom has shown him how to lead discussions on divisive issues.

“I think we really do need to come to a place where we are talking to each other and we are listening to each other, and that’s what I have done as a teacher,” Orts said. “You don’t hold a class and try to indoctrinate people. You hold a class to try to discuss issues, to try to bring facts to bear on problems and to come, and to come up with mutually agreeable ways forward. We really need that today and in our politics.”

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Although Orts is taking time away from teaching for his campaign, some of his latest research in business responsibility and environmental sustainability was published in the California Review Management, a peer-reviewed journal on management affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.

A paper titled, “The Climate Imperative for Business,” argues “[b]ecause greenhouse gas emissions from business activity cause climate disruption, business people should concern themselves with the climate-related effects of their behavior. To think that they should not is, ethically speaking, roughly the equivalent of thinking that business people need not incorporate a concern for whether their firm’s activities result in the deadly poisoning of the drinking water of millions of people.”

Opponents of taking drastic climate action say it would result in the loss of thousands of jobs and additional burdens put on the taxpayer. Orts, on the other hand, says reducing carbon emissions and creating jobs don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“You do have to make a transition from oil and gas jobs and coal miner jobs to renewable energy jobs, and people are concerned about that,” Orts said. In August, his campaign released his Green Paper on the Climate Emergency and Jobs, in which he calls out the Senate for “several decades of inaction.” The paper outlines Orts’ ideas to triple President Joe Biden’s proposed funding for climate infrastructure, accelerate goals for phasing out the use of fossil fuels and protect 30% of federal lands and oceans by 2030.

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With such high ambitions, Orts states that making fiscal moves such as taxing financial transactions and adjusting the defense budget can help pay for his proposals.

“We argue for what’s called a just transition. In other words, you have to treat people fairly. You can’t just say, ‘sorry your job has to disappear for the general good,’” Orts said. “What you have to do instead is have a clear plan that provides people for payments, actual monetary payments, to be moving from one job to another, or if one job [you’re] making a little bit less than the previous job … The transition to an energy economy should not just fall on the people who are having to change their jobs.”

Orts also recognized that before the country can address climate change, it must reform the Senate. One of several social media ads the Orts campaign says he will be “the 51st vote for the climate.” He’s joined in with other Democratic candidates calling for an end to the filibuster.

“Most of my business students that I have been teaching, it’s not controversial to them that we need to deal with the climate issue. They can be Republican, they can be Democrat or they can be independent. The younger people see this as an important issue because it is their lives and they see it within their lifetimes,” he said.

Orts’ claims his tenure at Wharton has given him a better perspective of what young voters are searching for, and, he says, almost all agree climate change is a serious problem. Borick said polling tends to agree. A national survey on energy and environment issues conducted by Muhlenberg earlier this year found that 75% of adult Americans believe there is solid evidence that temperatures have risen over the last four decades. Nearly half of those respondents were below 45 years of age.

“You’re hoping to leverage [climate change], certainly among Democratic voters and younger voters,” Borick said. “It’s an important issue, but to rise to the level of some of the other, more well-known and well-funded candidates like Fetterman and Lamb, we haven’t seen it yet.”

Going forward, Orts believes that his climate campaign will capture the attention of those young voters and other Pennsylvanians worried about the future of the commonwealth. No other Senate candidates are prioritizing one issue quite like Orts. Whether or not the issue of climate change is strong enough to put him in line with other big names remains to be seen.

“We’re an underdog, but we believe that once the message gets out and people start to pick up the message that we’re going to have a winning case to be made to the people of Pennsylvania.”

Harrison Cann is a reporter for City & State Pa., where this story first appeared.

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