You might think Elon Musk is good because he runs companies that build solar panels and electric cars. He is not.
“This may sound surprising coming from me,” the SolarCity and Tesla head tweeted yesterday, “but … Rex Tillerson has the potential to be an excellent Secretary of State.”
No, Elon, it’s not surprising. In mid-December, Musk — alongside Uber CEO Travis Kalachnik — joined Donald Trump’s economic advisory team, so the fact that he’s supporting the president’s nominee to become the country’s top diplomat should surprise precisely no one.
Tillerson and Musk also have similar visions for how to solve (or, rather, not solve) the climate crisis. As Musk went on to explain via Twitter, he and Tillerson agree that a revenue-neutral carbon tax should be the keystone of any climate plan.
In voicing his support for a long-time oil executive and known funder of climate denial to become Secretary of State, he also showed why a revenue-neutral carbon tax is a horrible policy for bringing down emissions.
Faith in a revenue-neutral carbon tax rests on a belief that markets are efficient. That is, if you tax so-called “negative externalities” (pollution) enough, rational firms will simply weed them out of their business model. As the costs of coal, oil and gas rise, consumers and market forces will prioritize accordingly, and buy less dirty fuels. Alternative-energy companies like Tesla and SolarCity will prosper, and fossil-fuel companies like ExxonMobil will suffer — theoretically — unless they transition rapidly over to low-carbon fuels. By the logic of market-based approaches to the climate crisis, then, Elon Musk’s profits and the planet’s fortunes should be one and the same, while fossil fuel company’s fortunes should decline in proportion.
So why would Rex Tillerson, a man whose only resume line beyond Exxon is being an Eagle Scout, support such a policy?
Because it doesn’t actually pose a threat to Exxon or the rest of the fossil fuel industry. Exxon has factored a carbon tax into its long-term projections since 2007.
Any reasonable climate policy needs to threaten ExxonMobil’s profits. It might give a boost to Tesla and SolarCity along the way, but the rising tide that brings down emissions will not lift all boats — most especially not the fossil fuel industry’s. As a refresher, some 70 percent known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to avert truly catastrophic levels of warming.
Musk isn’t stupid, and probably has no illusions about Tillerson and how he’ll use his post: to open up new markets for the only industry he’s ever worked for. And yet he sees no contradiction between his ability to sell clean energy and Tillerson’s unyielding drive and potentially unprecedented power to sell and promote dirty energy. That’s Elon Musk acknowledging (however implicitly) that revenue-neutral carbon taxes don’t work, and that he’s perfectly happy with a scenario under which he and Tillerson’s former colleagues can get rich at the same time.
They can, but not while staving off catastrophic warming.
In sum, don’t trust Elon Musk to save you for a goddamn minute.
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.