Elon Musk Talks Climate Change in Paris

On Wednesday, December 2, Elon Musk visited the COP21 world conference in Paris to offer his thoughts on climate change. Speaking to a packed audience at the the prestigious Sorbonne, Musk laid out in his typical low key style exactly why burning fossil fuels is the “dumbest experiment in history.” For those who would like to view his entire speech, the video is available below.

I must admit that I get pretty fired up on this subject, especially when America’s congressional leaders are paddling furiously in reverse here at home to blunt any agreement arrived at by the nations of the world even before it is announced. Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would gut the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, calling it “a dagger aimed at the heart of the coal industry,” according to Congressman Mike Bost. To which I say, “You’re damned right it is, Congressman, and about time, too!” Elon would never use such strong language.

Musk chose not to engage in such polemics. He simply explained the carbon cycle and how 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the level that permits life on earth to go on virtually in perpetuity. (At least until the sun implodes in a few billion years.) Plants and animals use the carbon dioxide in the air to grow, then give it back when they die. That cycle has been ongoing for hundreds of millions of years.

Starting about 200 years ago, however, humans started burning fossil fuels that had been buried deep in the earth for millions of years. Adding the carbon dioxide produced from burning those fuels has thrown the carbon cycle out of whack. Today, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is approaching 500 ppm, which is 2/3 more than the norm. Musk says the earth simply can’t handle that much excess carbon.


Atmospheric Carbon Over Time

Elon Musk in Paris

Musk showed his audience the chart you see above, which demonstrates how quickly things are changing. Some of you may remember it, since it’s the same chart Al Gore displayed to the world 20 years ago. He was pilloried back then by climate change deniers, who we now know were bought and paid for by powerful fossil fuel interests like Exxon Mobil and the price-gouging Koch Brothers.

Despite the venomous attacks on Gore, the chart makes things crystal clear for anyone of common intelligence. In a word, that amount of carbon dioxide is simply unsustainable. No matter how it got there, no matter who is responsible, no matter if you live in a red state or a blue state, the current state of affairs is unsustainable. Musk told his listeners that unless the problem is addressed — and soon — the damage to the world will be greater than that inflicted by all the wars ever fought since the beginning of time. Does that get your attention?


Musk’s measured and sober words were couched in economic realities. He says the world’s economy currently rewards those who choose to extract and burn fossil fuels. That pattern needs to be reversed. He cited the International Monetary Fund, which says that fossil fuel users currently receive more then 5 trillion dollars a year in direct and indirect subsidies. His thesis is that the current economic model does not account for the damage caused by burning fossil fuels, a condition he refers to as “untaxed externalities.” His proposal is to gradually impose fees that will incentify people and corporations to get their energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydro power.

Critics of this approach proclaim that it amounts to a tax. It is well known that certain elements in America are virulently opposed to any new taxes. What these ideologues fail to understand is that every loophole in the US tax code is a tax. By benefiting a select few who are wealthy enough to buy favors, the rest of us are required to pay more. By failing to address the carbon dioxide situation, we are placing a tax on every person on earth in order to favor a privileged few.

For those who fret that we have too much invested in a carbon based economy and can’t afford to change it, ask yourself this. Who will business sell to when most of the world’s cities are under water? Who will business sell to when half the world’s population is fleeing drought and famine? Who will business sell to when the world is engulfed in conflict from pole to pole?

Is there no hope? Actually, there is. Researchers in the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University say the world could get all the energy it needs from renewable sources as early as 2050, creating over 20 million new jobs in the process. Not only that, abundant renewable power could give billions of people access to educational and employment opportunities never before possible.

One of the dreams of mankind has always been affordable, non-polluting power. Some scientists think nuclear fusion might be the key. Elon Musk says the world already has access to an enormous fusion reactor that is available to use for free. It is called the sun. Many think Elon is just about making cool electric cars for wealthy people, but don’t realize his main mission is to show the world how it can stop using fossil fuels. The Tesla Model S is just a means to that end.

He and his staff are deeply committed to that goal. When it came time to plan for Tesla’s new GigaFactory in Nevada, they went to extraordinary lengths to make it net zero in its energy usage and have zero carbon emissions. When Elon discussed the need for doing all that with his 9 year old son, the boy said, “That’s so obvious. Why is that even a thing?” One would like to think that if a child gets it, members of Congress would be able to understand as well.

Musk closed his remarks by asking people to take whatever action they could. He encouraged them to talk about the issues with their family and friends. He even prodded them to contact their election officials. If you don’t know how to do that, here is a handy website with useful forms that will simplify the process for you.

Former Congressman Barney Frank once said that if his office got one phone call on a subject, it was from a nut case. If his office got two phone calls on a subject, it was a coincidence. But 6 calls on the same subject was a groundswell! The usual rules of a democracy apply. If the people will lead, their leaders will follow. Make your voice heard … today!


Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.