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The climate case against Elon Musk
A detailed breakdown of the new Twitter owner's impact
The richest man on Planet Earth is revered by some of our readers. In a recent comment, a subscriber called Musk “the human who has individually had the greatest positive effect on limiting climate heating to date.”
This appears to be a common talking point. Time deemed Musk “arguably the biggest private contributor to the fight against climate change“ in its 2021 “Person of the Year” feature. New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote in April that “Musk might do more to combat climate change than just about any lefty environmental activist or politician you can name.”
People say this because Musk runs Tesla, which is not only the world's leading electric vehicle manufacturer, but a clean energy company that sells solar panels and has made great strides in battery storage for renewables. Here’s how Time justified the designation in its 2021 feature:
Today, thanks in large part to Musk’s pace-setting, auto companies from VW to Nissan are jostling to invest billions in electric vehicles. Their about-face is driven less by altruism than by a dawning realization that Musk is eating their lunch. “Musk and Tesla forced the change,” says Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Cox Automotive. “He proved that there was a market for EVs.” …
Had the 800,000 Teslas sold in the last year been gas-powered cars, they would have emitted more than 40 million metric tons of CO₂ over their lifetimes—equivalent to the annual emissions of Finland. But EVs may ultimately be less important to the climate fight than the central innovation that made them possible: batteries. Tesla has repurposed the lightweight, energy-dense cells that power its cars for huge grid-scale batteries that provide essential backup for renewables. Demand for Tesla’s smaller home-based Powerwall, which can store electricity from rooftop solar systems, has spiked as consumers look for alternatives to the grid, driven by everything from February’s Texas power shortage to the fire risk in California that has led to power shutoffs. In some areas, software enables utilities to tap into home-energy reserves when the grid is strained, instead of turning on high-polluting standby generators.
Electrifying transportation and accelerating battery storage are two key ingredients necessary for keeping warming to safe levels, and Tesla is indeed contributing to both of those things.
But Tesla is not Elon Musk, and Elon Musk is not Tesla. If you want to honestly evaluate his impact on the planet as a human, then you have to evaluate him the same way you’d evaluate any country or corporation: cumulatively.
How to fairly assess Elon Musk’s climate contribution
When we calculate the climate impact of countries and corporations, we look at their net impact—in other words, the combined impact of everything they do.
For example: If the U.S. shut down 25 coal plants but also added 20 million gas-powered cars to the road, that would result in a net climate impact of nothing. In addition, if the U.S. shut down 25 coal plants but also passed a bunch of policies that would later result in 20 million gas-powered cars being added to the road, that’s would also result in a net climate impact of nothing.
It might be tempting to look at those 25 shuttered coal plants and say, “Wow, the U.S. is truly a leader in tackling climate change!” But that is not how climate change works. You can do objectively amazing things and still have a negative impact overall.
That’s why it’s not fair to simply look at Tesla—only one part of Musk’s legacy—and claim Musk is a climate hero. To adequately assess Musk as a climate figure, you have to look at everything he is doing. That includes more than just his companies’ emissions impact; it includes the political and cultural impact he’s having as the world’s wealthiest person, as those things will ultimately determine whether the climate progress of today will survive in the future.
Let’s look at the pros and cons.
👍 Introducing more batteries and popularizing EVs
In 2021, Tesla claimed that it helped customers avoid emitting 8.4 million metric tons of CO2e— the equivalent of shutting down two coal-fired power plants. Tesla said 6.8 million metric tons of those saved emissions came from electric cars replacing gas-powered cars, while 1.6 million came from Tesla solar panels and energy storage solutions replacing fossil fuel-powered energy.
It’s impossible to know how accurate that is. Tesla does not disclose emissions data or other data on its environmental footprint to outside organizations like the non-profit Carbon Disclosure Project, so there’s no way to check their work. But giving them the benefit of the doubt, this is an impressive number. It’s surely a huge climate positive.
Musk stans tend to go even further than Tesla’s analysis. They claim that Tesla is largely responsible for popularizing EVs, and therefore their impact on solving climate change goes beyond traditional measure. This deserves a bit of cold water. While it’s certainly true that Tesla helped inspire people to buy more EVs, there’s another big reason more automakers are selling electric cars that Musk stans tend to ignore: climate regulations.
China, the European Union, and at least 14 U.S. states have climate laws that require automakers to produce and sell a certain percentage of electric cars compared to gas-powered cars. These climate laws are actually how Tesla has made most of its profits. Because the company sells only EVs, they receive lots of carbon credits from governments—$1.5 billion worth in 2021, to be exact—which they then sell to other car companies that aren’t meeting the electric vehicle target. Only last year did Tesla begin making profits without the help of carbon credits. And that's great, because many automakers no longer need to buy carbon credits from Tesla, as they are now meeting the targets.
But it’s worth noting that for the majority of its existence, Tesla has been selling carbon credits to high-polluting car companies that ensured those car companies could delay their transition to selling EVs. That’s fine, as that was how the climate policies were meant to work. They helped Tesla to be profitable, and pushed other car companies to go electric, too, which will result in long-term positive climate impacts. It just seems like something worth discussing when talking about Tesla’s role.
👎 Investing in infrastructure to keep cars on the road
Electric cars are great, but they won’t be enough to solve the problem of transportation emissions. For electric vehicles to work as a long-term climate solution, we also have to drive less. Musk does not want people to drive less. He wants people to drive the same amount—except in Teslas, and in underground tunnels that his company, The Boring Company, digs.
The Boring Company proposes to solve the problem of traffic congestion not by driving less or improving existing public transit, but by driving in tunnels. As CEO, Musk has invested millions in developing “public transit” systems that are, at this point, just slow roads for cars.
A lot of people knock Musk for this because he could be investing in improving public transit instead. He could, of course — but the larger climate harm is the investments themselves. These tunnels are designed to promote continued “individualized transport” at or above its current rate. This is incompatible with a safe climate future.
👎 Owning a literal methane rocket company
Musk is also investing heavily in an industry that could destroy the upper atmosphere and permanently alter the climate: space tourism. He founded rocket and spacecraft company SpaceX with the intention of reducing the cost of space travel so humans can eventually colonize Mars.
Space travel is not a particularly carbon-intensive effort today, but at the rate it’s going, it soon will be. As one professor who studies the impact of fuels on the atmosphere told The Guardian, the space tourism industry “doesn’t need to grow that much more to compete with other sources” like aviation. And the potential climate impact is even worse than other industries, as Ellen Phiddian wrote for Cosmos Magazine:
The biggest deal is ozone depletion, which can heat the Earth as well as damaging the ozone layer. The soot, carbon dioxide, water vapour, and nitrogen oxides emitted by the rockets all have a warming effect too.
This is compounded by the altitude the gases are emitted at – a recent preprint (not peer-reviewed) study suggests that 0.22% of the upper stratospheric ozone could be lost from three years of space tourism, which could “substantially offset” the progress done by the Montreal Protocol.
The preprint also suggests that black carbon (soot) in the upper atmosphere from rocket launches could be 500 times more warming than soot emitted at ground level, because of its heat absorbing behaviour in the upper atmosphere.
The uncertainty is what makes the space race Musk is participating in so troubling. Musk has been known to jump into things with large environmental consequences before fully understanding them, like when he invested $1.5 billion of Tesla’s money in Bitcoin without researching the climate impact, and then had to disavow the cryptocurrency when he learned about it.
As of now, Musk does not have a serious plan to address increasing spaceflight emissions or the potential ozone impacts. He’s said he’s starting a program to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into rocket fuel, but that’s nowhere close to becoming a reality. Currently, Musk is leasing land in Texas to drill for natural gas that will fuel his kerosene and liquid methane-powered rockets.
It’s unclear what the emissions impact of all this is, because Musk refuses to disclose SpaceX’s emissions data. And he’ll never be required to if the Republican politicians he’s publicly backing assume power.
👎 Advocating for Republican power
As the richest person in the word, Musk is extremely influential. He has legions of fans who take his word as gospel. He has 116 million followers on Twitter. He can disrupt the entire stock market with just one tweet.
Musk’s political preferences matter. And earlier this year, he announced that he prefers the political party that has overwhelmingly voted against every major piece of climate legislation ever introduced in Congress.
Musk appears set on continuing his public advocacy for Republicans. In June, he said he voted for a QAnon-affiliated Republican for a U.S. House seat in Texas and that he’s leaning toward supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president in 2024.
On November 7, he tweeted that he recommended voting for a Republican Congress in the midterm elections, which would have had disastrous consequences for implementing Biden’s new climate law. Republicans only won the House, which will still present climate challenges—one of which is the potential erosion of incentives for electric vehicles.
By advocating for Republicans, Musk is using his massive influence as the world’s richest man to empower a party owned by the fossil fuel industry. He is advocating for political leadership that would seek not only reverse existing climate policy, but pass new policy ensuring new fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come. There would be no bigger climate negative than this.
👎 Totally screwing up Twitter
Research has repeatedly shown that Twitter is an essential tool for studying, fighting, and responding in real-time to climate change. Activists have credited the social media site with allowing them to organize around, and ultimately help pass, critical climate legislation. It’s a popular source for climate news and information. It’s the primary reason this newsletter has readers.
Musk’s recent takeover of Twitter has put this critical climate communication, education and advocacy platform at risk of failure. After mass layoffs and resignations, a former Twitter employee told The Washington Post Thursday that at least six critical systems that keep the site functioning no longer have any engineers.
👎 Investing only in self-interested climate solutions
As the richest person on Earth, Musk has the ability to do a great deal of transformative good for the climate, whether it be through philanthropy or political giving to counterbalance the fossil fuel industry’s outsized influence on U.S. elections.
But Musk largely avoids both things. Indeed, his only purely philanthropic endeavor for the climate is a $100 million incentive prize for the best carbon removal technology.
Even that prize is not really purely philanthropic. While better carbon removal technology is indeed essential for keeping warming to safe levels, it also happens to be exactly the technology Musk needs to turn CO2 into rocket fuel, as he promised he’d do at SpaceX.
Carbon removal also happens to be the preferred climate solution of the fossil fuel industry, as it enables them to further delay the transition to renewable energy.
👎 Treating people like garbage
Solving climate change effectively requires caring about other people. Because the crisis affects people so unequally, less-affected populations need to foster cultures of empathy and compassion toward more-affected populations—otherwise, it’s unlikely solutions will move fast enough prevent the worst impacts.
Solving climate change also requires listening to people. The crisis is manifesting differently in every area of the world, so it’s impossible for one person to know what’s needed in every place.
Musk does not seem to believe either of those things. Indeed, he appears dead set on promoting cultures of treating people like absolute garbage in service of what he unilaterally believes is the “greater good.” This is evidenced not only by how he’s callously treated Twitter’s workforce, firing anyone who expressed disagreement with him, but how he’s treated employees at most of his companies. This is how the L.A. Times described working for Musk:
The out-of-nowhere firings, the threats and the bluster, the pubescent jocularity, the day-to-day uncertainty and the urgent demands to work through the night. …
Personal attacks. Union busting. A casual attitude toward factory floor injuries and other health concerns. A dismissive approach to workplace racism. And an allegation involving a horse and sexual favors.
The many people who idolize Musk will look at how he treats people and aspire to do the same. This is absolutely a negative for building a better world.
Do the negatives outweigh the positives?
Perhaps Musk’s work at Tesla excuses all of the climate negatives listed above. Perhaps the improvements in battery storage and EV deployment are worth the risky new carbon-intensive industry, the collapsed climate organizing tool, the megaphone for Republican power, and the terrible treatment of workers.
That’s on you to decide. But personally, when I look at Elon Musk, I do not see a net climate positive. I see an unstable megalomaniac who would rather watch the world burn than not be at the center of it.
No Catch of the Day today; e-mail length limits won’t allow for it. Pet pics back in your inbox next week.
One more note: HEATED is an independent climate publication that is 100 percent funded by readers—and most of those readers have come to us from Twitter. Now that the platform is hanging by a thread, a critical source of our income is threatened. If you value this newsletter and can afford it, there’s never been a better time to lend us your financial support, so we can invest in new and better ways to get climate accountability journalism to the public.