Elon Musk’s long history of questionable takes on climate change

·9-min read
 (Getty)
(Getty)

Elon Musk, the man who topped Bloomberg’s 2021 list of “green” billionaires, recently surprised observers when he called for more fossil fuel exploration at an energy conference.

“At this time, we actually need more oil and gas, not less,” the Tesla CEO said on Monday at an event in Stavanger, Norway, adding that he didn’t want to “demonize” the fossil fuel industry.

He argued that despite various efforts to build renewable technologies, the invasion of Ukraine and resulting sanctions on Russia’s fossil fuel industry were pinching energy supplies in Europe.

"Realistically I think we need to use oil and gas in the short term, because otherwise civilization will crumble," Mr Musk continued. “In order for civilization to function, we do need oil and gas. Actually, especially these days, with the Russia sanctions, we do need to provide oil and gas to keep civilization running. I think any reasonable person would conclude that, while at the same time accelerating the advent of sustainable energy.”

The tech billionaire made a similar claim in March.

“Hate to say it, but we need to increase oil & gas output immediately,” he wrote on Twitter. “Obviously, this would negatively affect Tesla, but sustainable energy solutions simply cannot react instantaneously to make up for Russian oil & gas exports.”

The remarks have drawn swift rebukes from some environmental observers.

“What is really needed is to cut that energy use globally by more than a half—starting with the 1% in the global North,” tweeted Peter Dynes of MEER, an environmental advocacy group, this week.

“I think his comment was overblown,” wrote journalist Fred Lambert, editor-in-chief of renewable transportation news site Electrek. “He is just pointing a simple fact, but if you want to look at it from a policy standpoint, it’s important to keep in mind that we need to incentivize new energy production to be renewable rather than from fossil fuels in order to account for the impact on the environment.”

International leaders say that investment in new fossil fuel projects needs to be halted immediately to prevent the worst of the climate crisis.

“If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year,” Fatih Birol, director of the influential International Energy Agency, said in 2021. “More and more countries are coming up with net zero commitments, which is very good, but I see a huge and growing gap between the rhetoric [from governments] and the reality.”

UN Secretary General António Guterres has said that even the war in Ukraine and its effect on global energy supplies shouldn’t mean new fossil fuel investments, calling such thinking “delusional.”

Russia burns gas at the Portovaya compression station in Russia. Picture taken from aerial surveillance tower of Pyterlahti in Virolahti, Eastern Finland on 26th August, 2022 (Heikki Saukkomaa/Shutterstock)
Russia burns gas at the Portovaya compression station in Russia. Picture taken from aerial surveillance tower of Pyterlahti in Virolahti, Eastern Finland on 26th August, 2022 (Heikki Saukkomaa/Shutterstock)

“The energy crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine has seen a perilous doubling down on fossil fuels by the major economies,” he wrote in June. New funding for fossil fuels is delusional. It will only further feed the scourge of war, pollution and climate catastrophe.”

Musk’s debatable take on oil drilling was just the latest in a string of comments about tackling the climate crisis that environmentalists have taken issue with.

There’s no doubt Mr Musk is serious about building renewable technologies. Through his companies like Tesla and SolarCity, he has helped developed electric vehicles, solar roof panels, and renewable energy storage devices. Along the way, he’s become an influential voice in clean tech, and both policymakers and legions of online fans often follow his lead.

But that doesn’t mean he’s always right. He’s got a lengthy history of divisive opinions on the climate.

Nuclear or bust

Among the most controversial issues is Mr Musk’s embrace of nuclear power. He has described those who oppose nuclear as a renewable energy strategy as “anti-human.”

He has called for countries to increase nuclear generation, a controversial stance that has divided clean energy advocates. While some tout nuclear’s ability to consistently provide power without burning as many fossil fuels, others point to its high cost, slow rollout, and risk of disasters.

“Countries should be increasing nuclear power generation!” Mr Musk tweeted last month. “It is insane from a national security standpoint and bad for the environment to shut them down.”

Responding to Mr Musk’s calls for more nuclear, Stanford environmental engineering professor Mark Z Jacobson argued: “New nuclear is completely useless for addressing climate, pollution, energy security.”

The professor pointed to research that suggests the money needed to sustain nuclear power would be better spent on replacing it with renewable energy, which is cheaper to construct, faster to build, and emits less carbon per unit of energy generated than nuclear.

According to Jan Haverkamp, an energy expert at Greenpeace, nuclear has a record of overpromising and underdelivering. The world needs renewables, and fast, if it is to avoid the worst effects of global heating.

“We’ve never been in principle against any technology, but it is very clear, every time you start calculating, that the moment you introduce nuclear, the costs are going up and the speed of change is going down,” he told The Independent earlier this year. “That’s exactly what we can’t afford now as climate change is becoming ever more real. If you start talking about nuclear at this moment, either you’re following a fad or you’re trying to divert the attention from what really needs to be done.”

The Independent has reached out to Mr Musk for comment.

More Nuclear Families

At the event in Norway, Mr Musk also hit on another of his pet causes: population trends.

He told a crowd of reporters that because of declining birth rates, like those recorded in the United States, European Union, and China, in recent years, civilization “will die with a whimper in adult diapers.”

Last month, Mr Musk also said that demographic trends, such as the slowing birth rates in many high-income, Western countries, are a greater threat than global warming.

“Population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming,” the Tesla CEO wrote on Twitter. “Mark these words.”

Indeed, birth rates on average have declined since the mid-1900s, according to the World Bank. However, it’s likely more a function of improved public health, especially for youth, than a societal fertility crisis, demographic experts say.

"He’s better off making cars and engineering than at predicting the trajectory of the population," Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, told CNN in August. "Yes, some countries, their population is declining, but for the world, that’s just not the case."

The global population likely won’t peak until around 2100 when it reaches 8.5-10 billion people, according to the UN.

“Virtually every developed country is below two [children per average pregnant person], and it’s been that way for 20 or 30 years," Mr Chamie added.

Even when global population peaks, the UN says, the world won’t be overrun with seniors. There will be more people under 20 than over age 70. And unlike with the novel threats of climate change, governments already have a long history of policy solutions like pensions and state-sponsored healthcare that address seniors’ needs.

Some argue such fears over declining birthrates in rich, comparatively white Western countries have a racist bent, since high birth rates can still be seen in various lower-income countries in Africa.

About a third of countries in Africa have an average birth rate of five children, especially in places with high youth mortality and low access to contraception.

“The real challenge is to address the poverty, inequity, and lack of life opportunities that high fertility and population growth characterise, improve the wellbeing of the greatest proportion of our fellow citizens, and protect ecosystems here on Earth - before indulging the space fantasies of a handful of competing billionaires,” Robin Maynard of the thinktank Population Matters, said in July.

Hyperloop — or just hype?

Mr Musk has provoked a long-running debate among climate experts over his proposals for “hyperloop” transit systems — ultra-high speed, train-like vessels that move through vacuum-chamber tunnels. The billionaire first argued for hyperloop systems in a 2013 white paper. Mr Musk claimed that if they run on renewable electricity, they are a more sustainable way to travel medium distances.

And it’s an idea that has caught on. Companies, inspired by Mr Musk’s entry into the world of transit, are working on at least 15 proposed hyperloop projects around the US.

Analysts are split on whether hyperloops would genuinely be a greener way to get around.

Early estimates suggested that they are a more carbon-efficient way to travel distances of 250 - 500 miles than a flight, according to NASA. A US Department of Transit analysis said an ideal hyperloop could be six times more efficient than air travel at certain distances.

Others, like Cleveland State University environmental engineering professor Jacqueline Jenkins, argue these systems won’t be worthwhile unless they’re paired with massive investments in green power to assure hyperloops are running on renewable energy.

"If we don’t do it sustainably, it’s probably a short-term solution," she told the news site GreenBiz in 2019.

Some doubt Mr Musk’s commitment to truly public transportation, a far more carbon-efficient way to move people than individual car ownership or long-haul flights.

Mr Musk admitted to a biographer that he got the idea for hyperloop out of a dissatisfaction with public transportation, and rooted for California to cancel a planned high-speed rail system — even though train transit is far greener than driving and often than flying too.

Despite being widely viewed as a key solution in cutting emissions, the Tesla billionaire has spoken of his general disdain for public transit.

“It’s a pain in the ass,” he told an audience in 2017. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of whom might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”