U.S. businesses wary of falling behind in climate tech: Don Pittis

As President Donald Trump ponders a final decision on the Paris climate deal, a U.S. about-face on climate change could damage business leadership in innovation.

Growing lobby sees profit in keeping up on science as France bids to steal entrepreneurs

The Chinese company BYD displays its plug-in electric trucks at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in California. China outsells the U.S. in the growing electric vehicle sector. (Andrew Cullen/Reuters)

There is nothing more likely to make you want something than someone trying to take it away.

Maybe that is the psychology Emmanuel Macron, elected French president on Sunday, was using to try to alter the U.S. position on climate change when he made an audacious bid to steal U.S. President Donald Trump's top climate entrepreneurs.

"I do know how your new president now has decided to jeopardize your budgets, your initiatives, as he is extremely skeptical about climate change," said Macron in a video message addressed to U.S. researchers, entrepreneurs and engineers.

'We like innovation'

"Please come to France," said Macron. "We like innovation. We want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technology."

While Trump has made the case that climate change is a myth promoted by the Chinese, there are many economic conservatives who understand the business importance of green technology to the U.S. economy.

Whether one is skeptical of climate change or not, there is business research that shows economies grow richer and more advanced as they use energy more efficiently.

Trump's vocal support for the coal industry won him votes in areas where coal has been in decline, but only a narrow group of experts think coal is the fuel of the future.

Less carbon, more innovation

The number of jobs created by coal is dwarfed by solar jobs.

Even more important to the U.S. economy is the surge of innovation created by the move to use less carbon. 

Perhaps that is one of the reasons for the postponement of a White House meeting scheduled for yesterday to talk about whether the U.S. should withdraw from a global agreement to fight climate change. The president has said he will announce his decision after the G7 summit later this month, after listening to arguments for and against the Paris deal.

The delay may be a symptom of the divisions within the U.S. business community and even within the Trump administration.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly head of the global oil giant Exxon, has said he supports keeping the United States in the global climate deal. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who used to run the oil giant Exxon, has said he wants the U.S. to remain part of the Paris climate deal.

Almost bizarrely, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, wants out, calling it a "bad deal for America." That is not exactly a surprise as Trump appointed Pruitt knowing he was a radical climate change denier who has said he wants to dismantle the EPA. 

That position flies in the face of the vast majority of the globe's scientists, who have demonstrated that the world's temperatures have risen with the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as industrialization released tons of fossil carbon trapped for millions of years within the earth's crust.


There are good reasons for the U.S. to beware of taking a strong anti-green stance.

The first is the damage it could do to a sophisticated group of industries creating technology that will sell around the world. Led by California's strict antipollution measures, the U.S. car industry has become a hub of innovation including a newly announced electric pickup truck created by Ohio's Workhorse Group.

If the U.S. backs off, the rest of the world will not stand still.

Surpassing Tesla

The world's largest seller of cars, Volkswagen, has just announced a multibillion-dollar scheme to build electric cars that CEO Herbert Diess said would be better than those made by U.S. electric car leader Tesla.

"Anything Tesla can do, we can surpass," said Diess this week, promising the company would sell one million electric cars by 2025.

Meanwhile, China has rushed to the lead in the world race to electric cars, selling more than twice as many as the U.S. last year. Although China's electric vehicle star BYD has suffered a setback due to falling government subsidies, the country is insisting it wants 11 per cent of cars to be electric by 2025.
Of course, cars are only one portion of green innovation where the U.S. could lose way. From electric airplanes to battery tech to solar and hydrogen, losing a huge home market motivated by greenhouse gas targets could take the wind out of the sails of U.S. entrepreneurs.

There is another reason for the U.S. to be concerned.

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, there is a danger laggards will become pariahs.

Just as Trump blames other countries for taking trade advantage of the United States, others could accuse the U.S. of making its products cheaper by relieving businesses of the responsibility of reducing greenhouse gases.

Despite a strong stripe of climate skepticism in the Trump administration, many business and government leaders realize the danger of climate change to the economy and to their grandchildren.

Coastal states threatened by rising water and cities overwhelmed by erratic weather are pushed by voters to look for ways to reduce carbon output.

Despite Trump, a large group of U.S. citizens continues to support with their wallets entrepreneurs who are fighting global warming. There is no sign yet that U.S. businesses and scientists are taking up the French president's offer.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

more analysis from Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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