Elon Musk calls for mass political mobilization and a price on carbon

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Everyone in America is a Populist these days. On both the Left and the Right, charismatic presidential candidates with mass followings are railing against the establishment and entrenched interests, at odds party leadership.

This trend apparently includes clean energy business magnate Elon Musk, the chief executive and founder of Tesla Motors and chair of SolarCity. In a speech to the World Energy Innovation Forum at Tesla headquarters on Wednesday, Musk called for mass education to spur a “sort of revolt” against the “unrelenting and enormous” propaganda of the fossil fuel industry.

Musk specifically called for a price on carbon, as a means to counter the subsidies that fossil fuels and their consumption receives. “Politicians take the easy path of providing subsidies to electric vehicles, which aren’t equal to the applied subsidies of gasoline vehicles,” stated Musk. “It weakens the economic forcing function to transition to sustainable transport and energy.”

While Musk has spoken eloquently about the dangers of Climate Change, this appeal for mass action is a new direction for the inventor and entrepreneur. “As an economic magnate, he’s a strange figure to be a Populist,” notes Louisiana State University (LSU) Geography Professor Brian Marks, whose focus is political and economic geography.

“He can pay for lobbyists, but his economic sector is not the one that is dominant, so he has to call on the people,” Marks told pv magazine. “I think it’s refreshing that someone like him says – we need a policy, regulatory, public regime answer for that to happen.”

Marks notes that a industrialist making Populist appeals is not entirely without precedent, citing the historical example of Henry Ford. “Ford had a notion of transforming American technology, and transforming American mobility, so he was a kind of Populist in that sense of appealing to the public,” explains Marks.

However, there is a diversity of opinion among policy experts as to the practicality of a price on carbon. “I’ve always been a little bit skeptical of carbon taxes as a mechanism,” states Chris Nelder, a manager at Rocky Mountain Institute’s electricity practice who has written about clean energy for decades. “For one thing, (the U.S. federal government) has been batting it around for about 15 years now and they haven’t done anything.”

“If you could do it, it would be a perfectly good way to get some movement around the Energy Transition, especially as regards transportation,” Nelder told pv magazine. He notes that the timing may be better than it has been in the past as a shift to electric vehicles could lead to less resistance from the automobile industry. However, he also says that oil producers are “fighting for their lives” under low prices, and that they will strongly resist any such policy proposals.

Nelder additionally warns that carbon pricing regimes are indirect mechanisms to deploy clean energy, and are prone to being gamed. “That’s where things get hijacked,” warns Nelder. He blames the failure of the EU’s emissions trading system on “bad design”, but notes that in systems in other jurisdictions such as California profits end up in the hands of financial traders.