Is Elon Musk a climate hero that the climate movement and its allies should embrace, or does his libertarian (or conservative) politics make him an object of contempt? Musk raises a deeper question the movement must grapple with: should climate policy be subsumed into the larger conflict between liberals and conservatives, or should it be guided by bipartisanship?
There is no easy answer because there is a political logic to both partisanship and bipartisanship. Many climate activists are frustrated (and rightly so) with the slow progress on climate issues and blame Republicans or conservative Democrats. They believe that the “other” side is not acting in good faith and cannot be trusted to make political compromises.
In addition, the internal dynamics of the movement favor partisanship. Social media, which shapes the political discourse of young climate activists, sees bipartisanship as a sale. In fact, members of the House and Senate are likely to worry about being “principalized” if they become too accommodating.
The stalled $2 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) bill reveals the challenges in finding bipartisan solutions. Senator Manchin, the swing vote, is willing to support a smaller bill (about $550 billion) focused on climate, prescription drugs and deficit reduction. But many Democrats, including the most vocal climate supporters, have taken an all-or-nothing approach. This means that a climate-focused BBB is not in the offing, although the window for climate legislation will likely close after the November midterm elections.
Is climate bipartisanship impossible?
In 2020, in a bipartisan act, Congress enacted the Great American Outdoors Act, providing $20 billion for national parks and other federal lands. Both Republicans and Democrats took credit during the November 2020 election. Interestingly, many Republicans have historically opposed National Parks and Monuments because they viewed them as a federal encroachment on state rights and an impediment to economic development. . However, the perspective on National Parks seems to be changing. They are now politically popular because they generate tourism revenue that helps local economies.
States are also making progress on climate policy, including in divided states (where different parties control the state legislature and the governor’s office) and states controlled by Republicans. A recent article reports that Republican-controlled states enacted about a third of renewable energy legislation at the state level. In states with divided governments, bipartisan efforts have led to renewable energy policies.
This begs the question: what facilitates climate bipartisanship?
First, the framing of the problem is important. Bipartisan advocates should avoid using the political phrases “climate change” or “global warming” because they have become polarizing. Instead, they use phrases like “clean energy” for climate mitigation and “disaster management” for climate adaptation. Even in the Great American Outdoors Act, national parks were not framed as conservation measures to address climate change. Of course, a non-climate framework may not allow Twitter stars to take their victory laps, but it will probably help push the climate agenda forward.
Second, bipartisan climate initiatives tend to emphasize the local benefits of climate policies rather than a moral imperative to combat climate change. Indiana (where Trump won 57% of the vote in the 2020 election) is building a 440 MW solar facility, Mammoth Solar, spread over 13,000 acres. At the opening ceremony, Indiana Republican Governor Eric Holcomb said, “This is an incredibly exciting day for the state of Indiana as we celebrate Doral Renewables’ significant investment in the future of power generation and the state of Indiana”.
It could be argued that many elements of the BBB generate local benefits. Why then has he not attracted the support of a single Republican senator? This brings us to the third point, probably the most difficult: bipartisanship might require climate policy to be decoupled from non-climate issues. This is complicated if we believe that climate progress requires structural changes in the economy and society. But as climate policy begins to encompass other political domains, it finds new opponents (sometimes supporters as well). This is where the ongoing controversy over Elon Musk’s potential purchase of Twitter comes in.
Musk: a climate hero or a libertarian reactionary?
Should the climate movement and its allies hail Musk as a hero who has probably played the biggest role in the electrification of the auto industry (in the US, the transportation sector accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions?) greenhouse gases)? Or should they condemn him because his political views do not align with those of the mainstream movement, especially the young activists?
Musk launched electric vehicles (EVs) in the midst of the 2007-2010 recession when the US auto industry was bankrupt. By demonstrating the business case for electric vehicles, Musk paved the way for the transition from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles. Countries and states are announcing ICE bans. Virtually every major car company is committed to transitioning from ICEs to EVs. So Musk shouldn’t be inducted into the Climate Hall of Fame?
Apparently not. To our knowledge, Musk has not received any major climate awards, of the sorts given to Leonardo DiCaprio. He is not the main attraction at climatic summits (if he is invited at all). Brandon Farmahini, a noted podcaster, was hailed Twitter for canceling your reservation for the Tesla Cybertruck. He wrote: “I wish I could say I felt good about canceling my #Tesla #cybertruck but it was really depressing. It’s a wonderful feat of engineering, but I won’t fund Musk’s effort to reinstate Russian disinformation on #twitter under the guise of “free speech.”
Another commenter, Molly Taft, wrote: “To me, building a liveable planet means following all kinds of science, from climate science to solid health science behind gender identity and transition, as well as supporting the basic human rights, like doing the incredibly easy. It’s a matter of respecting people’s pronouns or not putting your workers in dangerous situations just to maintain your public image as a child wizard.
Some have spoken of a connection to China. Jeff Bezos (Musk’s billionaire rival whose company Amazon wants to be a climate leader) tweeted “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of influence over the town square?” – alluding to the fact that China is the second largest market for Tesla and Musk operates a major factory in Shanghai. But does Amazon not have business relations with China? What about the renewable energy industry or critical minerals supply chain that China dominates? Should solar and wind power be avoided because they source much of their equipment from China?
The World Meteorological Organization suggests that the 1.5 C temperature rise threshold could be exceeded as early as 2024 rather than by the end of the century. Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that the Republicans will win the House in the 2022 midterm elections. Urgent political action is needed, but this would probably require decoupling climate issues from other political and social debates (call it the BBB effect). There is a compelling argument against decoupling because the climate crisis reflects and contributes to deeper social and political problems. However, without decoupling, climate progress will be difficult. This is the dilemma facing the climate movement and its allies.