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A Wharton professor is running for Senate in Pennsylvania as the climate change candidate

Eric Orts, a political newcomer who has taught for 30 years at Penn's Wharton school, hopes his candidacy will make climate change a more central issue in the race.

Wharton professor Eric Orts stands in a West Philadelphia park on Thursday after announcing he is running for U.S. Senate. Orts is running on a platform to address climate change.
Wharton professor Eric Orts stands in a West Philadelphia park on Thursday after announcing he is running for U.S. Senate. Orts is running on a platform to address climate change.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia business professor is running for U.S. Senate to fight climate change.

Eric Orts, a newcomer to politics who has taught for 30 years at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, will focus his Democratic primary campaign on the climate crisis. He says he’s running to win but also hopes his candidacy makes the issue more central in the race.

“We’re in a climate emergency,” Orts, 61, said in an interview after launching his campaign Thursday. “We have a second season of wildfires in the Northwest. … In Pennsylvania we set [heat] records in June. A lot of people have known scientifically this is a problem, and a lot of people are just ignoring it. The politicians are saying they’ll do something, but they never do something.”

In his announcement, Orts called on President Joe Biden to declare a state of national emergency.

Orts starts the race as a significant underdog with no previous political experience, joining a growing field of Democrats vying for the seat held by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking reelection. The closely watched race, one of the most competitive in the country, will help determine control of the Senate and how Biden can advance his agenda after 2022.

Declared Democratic candidates include Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Allegheny County, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, and Philadelphia emergency-room doctor Kevin Baumlin.

Other possible Democratic candidates include U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of Allegheny County and State Sen. Sharif Street of Philadelphia.

Lower Merion developer Jeff Bartos is running on the Republican side, as is conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands, and former Army Ranger Sean Parnell.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania’s 2022 Senate candidates just filed new fund-raising reports. Here’s what the money tells us.

Orts painted similarities between his campaign and that of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who ran for president last year. Inslee’s candidacy brought more attention to climate change in the 2020 Democratic primary and influenced the party’s platform on climate change.

There’s been little sustained focus on individual policy issues among the Pennsylvania Senate candidates. Environmental issues were politically complicated for Pennsylvania Democrats during the presidential race last year. Biden often had to clarify his stance on fracking, the drilling technique for extracting natural gas.

Orts, who grew up in a steel-and-coal town on the Ohio River about 60 miles from Pittsburgh, said he understands the resistance businesses and industry groups can marshal against environmental initiatives. He worked as an attorney before starting at Wharton, where he is currently a professor of legal studies and business ethics.

Orts thinks a climate-change candidate can win in Pennsylvania. Polls vary but sometimes show that it’s among the top issues voters care about.

Having a business background, Orts said, will help him push back on one of the main arguments he expects to hear: that fighting climate change hurts the economy.

“What’s really going to kill jobs is if we don’t do anything on the climate,” he said. “Ask someone who’s in farming what’s going to happen if you have a mega drought in Pennsylvania as you have in Utah right now.”

Orts, who lives in West Philadelphia with his wife, will take a break from teaching to run for office. He thinks younger voters in particular will respond to his message.

“A majority of students in business schools today, even hardcore ones like Wharton — tough-minded, finance-oriented students — they really care about the climate issue,” he said. “Because they see that this is their future.”