President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate agreement has been called “disgraceful,” “unconscionable and fatuous” and “a devastating failure of historic proportions.”
But according to Pete Grannis, the former state Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner and longtime environmentalist who now serves as the state’s first deputy comptroller, the hysteria is misplaced. In a Q&A with City & State Editor-in-Chief Jon Lentz, Grannis argued that business incentives would still propel the world along a path toward lower greenhouse gases, even without the White House’s support.
C&S: What’s your reaction to Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris climate agreement?
PG: This had to be expected because of the commitment that the president made during the campaign. This is what he was going to do. We obviously had been hopeful the the pope and the world leaders and the business community, which weighed very heavily with the administration urging the president not to withdraw, would have prevailed. I guess it was a disappointment that that wasn’t the outcome. Here we are joining Syria and Nicaragua as the three countries that haven’t signed onto the climate pledge.
C&S: What will the impact be?
PG: It’s an unfortunate decision by the president for a host of reasons. Clearly the rest of the world’s survival is front and center on all this, but on the positive side there are huge business opportunities associated with a changing economy because of the concerns that have come out of the Paris accord and these other concerns that have led up to the agreement. Other countries are going to take advantage of these, and we will be on the outside. Our companies are still moving ahead, because the president taking out of the accord does not stop this train that has been moving toward the green economy.
C&S: What business opportunities are you talking about?
PG: Clearly, meeting the challenges of trying to produce things more sustainably and with fewer greenhouse gas emissions associated with them and destructive elements on where the products come from that make some of these things that have been associated with climate change, I think the business community – even Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state and former head of Exxon, where we had a very big victory with a shareholder action, he urged the president, we have heard, not to withdraw from the Paris agreement. Because they want everybody to be on a playing field and looking at this the same way, and the Paris agreement obviously committed us moving forward to a path to reducing our overall greenhouse gas contributions on a very substantial scale, and that’s where obviously Tillerson saw this as something that would in the interest of his former company when he was still there, and now as secretary of state that would be in the interest of the American economy to stay and be a participant in the climate agreement negotiated in Paris.
C&S: Even with other countries and business executives reiterating their support for the pact, will Trump’s move harm the environment?
PG: The federal government’s efforts that were started under President Obama to limit our greenhouse gasses on a more global scale – the Clean Power Plan, the car emissions standards, things like that – clearly can have an impact. But again, the business community has seen the light in a very substantial way, in many different industries. … That’s what the public wants. They want cleaner cars, they want cars that go further on a gallon of gas, and preferably not on gas at all in the future. Wind turbines, solar panels, if we’re not going to be producing these things, or part of a global agreement to produce them or buy them, we’re going to lose out as China is poised to move into these areas in a big way – and I think will be followed by the European economies, and even India in the not too distant future is going to take a very much active role in meeting the world’s needs for these cleaner energy alternatives that we are not going to be at the forefront of producing.
C&S: You helped organize the first Earth Day in New York in 1970. What has been the trajectory of the environmental movement since then, and where does this latest development fit in that context?
PG: The trendline has been very strongly up since 1970. The waters are cleaner, the air is cleaner, there’s a much greater sensitivity to land use planning and dealing with issues of past environmental degradation of properties. On a whole host of areas, the trend has been solidly up. There have been little blips here and there: Republican presidents, Democratic administrations have been pretty much on board on improving car efficiencies, trying to reduce greenhouse gasses.
C&S: What has the state comptroller’s office been doing on this front?
PG: Our shareholder initiatives have been successful, with this big victory we had Wednesday with Exxon Mobil. We have got billions of dollars dedicated to investment in clean energy intiatives. Finding those is not so easy. There’s a lot of people, a lot of cash chasing these things from other pension funds and other economies. We have a low-carbon index that we’re very proud of, a $2 billion commitment that the comptroller announced in Paris, where we’ve taken stocks from our public equity portfolio whose products and business practices produce less greenhouse gasses. It’s a tailored index of a thousand companies … in which greenhouse gases are 70 percent below our normal benchmark.