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Carbon Pricing

Elon Musk: Yep, We’ve Ordered Extreme Disaster, We Must Go To War On Climate Change & Price Carbon

Update (Sept 1): I’ll note that it’s clear Elon has multiple reasons for wanting us to pursue space exploration and become a multi-planetary species, and the title was a bit of a simplistic play on that goal. However, unless I hear him say otherwise, I think he does see runaway global warming as an existential threat to Earth-based human civilization. Even if global warming and rapid climate change weren’t occurring, I’m confident he’d be doing the SpaceX stuff, but I think the risk of runaway global warming is an actual example of a threat that should push us toward becoming a multi-planetary species, and I assume Elon agrees with that. I’ve also updated the title to leave the Mars implications out of it.


Editor’s Note: Okay, the headline above (different from Steve’s on Gas2) extrapolates from rather than paraphrases what Elon Musk says in the interview below, so let me explain.

First of all, if you watch the video, you’ll see why Steve and the person who uploaded it focused on the word “pessimistic.” Despite Elon’s optimistic nature (he’s pretty well known for that), he comes across as unnervingly pessimistic in this interview. I’m not contending that I compare to Elon, but I’ll note that I’m also known to be extremely optimistic … yet am quite pessimistic about society half decently tackling this problem — hence recent efforts to write a bit more dramatically about the crisis. (See thisthis, and this recent piece for a taste.)

The thing is, we’re massively behind schedule. We needed to shift dramatically 5 years ago … or 15 years ago. We didn’t. We are going in the right direction, theoretically, but it’s like we’re in a race with Usain Bolt and we have a broken ankle or two. The market is still heavily biased toward fossil fuels due to inadequate pricing (distortions in the market known as massive, we-are-totally-screwing-ourselves, wake-the-f***-up externalities). We are giving fossil fuels trillions of idiotic, insane dollars in subsidies every year. And it seems we are just genuinely slower to figure things out than a Golden Retriever puppy.

I just published 30 reasons why your next car should be electric, but how many people are actually going to think about 5 of these things and follow the advice? What percentage of the population? 2%? 5% if we’re lucky? Solar & wind are competitive with natural gas and beat coal on price over the lifetime of a power plant — not taking externalities into account — and if we had an iota of common sense baked into our system, renewables would probably account for 99–100% of new power capacity. We had some hope after Q1 2016, with the figure = 99%, but then Q2 came along and dropped the figure to 29%, leaving the first half of 2016 at 43%.

And then, as Elon highlights in the interview, there are all of the legacy machines running on black fossil blood. We have coal power plants still accounting for 28% of US electricity. Some countries have much more. We still have hundreds of millions of gasoline-burning cars on the road, and they won’t be retired overnight when the Tesla Model 3 comes out. In fact, even if Tesla had more demand than the insane amount it has now, it wouldn’t be able to produce much more. It’s already scrambling and has to raise a lot of cash to ramp up production to meet the 375,000–450,000 reservations that are in place for the Model 3. It can’t really get to the Model Y until it can get Model 3 production up to demand. Its other electric transport vehicle introductions must be years down to the road. And so on. It would be great if automakers made a stronger effort to not push people away from electric cars, and maybe even tried to hasten a transition to them. But what’s going to get them to do so beyond self-sacrificing morality? Carlos Ghosn basically asked politicians to force automakers to build EVs.

Chris Dragon recently wrote a superb piece for us arguing that we need to approach the climate crisis like World War III (Read.That.Article.). The article was essentially built on the same logic as my concerns/pessimism and Elon’s seeming concerns/pessimism, so I implied as much in the title. Naturally, Elon’s argument for the best weapon for war is an adequate price on carbon. We’ve got more on that topic coming, but yes, that would be pretty cool — it’s just hard to see the world getting to that anytime soon, which feeds that much more heavily into the long-term challenge.

However, Elon has a well known backup plan underway in case we do turn the Earth into a giant oven uninhabitable by humans — escape to Mars. He didn’t bring it up in this short interview, but, as I understand it, that’s part of his push to open up space exploration to Mars ASAP. So, again, I carried his comments on to what I saw as their logical conclusion based on previous interviews with superhero Elon. I’ll let you now get on with your day. Below is the interview and Steve’s great article. –Zach

Originally published on Gas2.

Speaking with MSNBC host Chris Hayes recently. Elon Musk said he is pessimistic about slowing or reversing the effects of carbon pollution on global climate change. Doing so will require an effective means of pricing carbon emissions agreed to and implemented by all nations, he told Hayes. In his remarks, Musk made reference to what economists call “the tragedy of the commons.”

According to Wikipedia, that is a “situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.” Another way to put it is the popular expression, “Everybody’s property is nobody’s property.”

In an agrarian society, if public lands are made available for grazing, farmers will use them to feed their herds in order to lower their own costs of production. Some will overuse the privilege in order to deny the benefit of free grazing land to their neighbors. Ultimately, all the grass will be eaten and the animals will starve. The analogy to how mankind treats the earth should be obvious to anyone with more than a 3rd grade education (which excludes the majority of the US Congress, sadly).

Musk uses an analogy to offshore fishing grounds. “Since no one owns a particular fishing area, it will get fished to extinction — because there’s no price for that.” No one owns the earth’s atmosphere, he points out, leaving it open to a similar fate. “There’s no price for carbon, so we do all these things that cause long-term damage,” he said.

The task is huge. The vast majority of the world’s transportation and manufacturing base relies on burning fossil fuels. Trillions of dollars worth of investments have been made in carbon-based enterprises. Naturally, those who have invested all that money don’t want to see any changes that threaten the status quo. But Musk says things must change because the ability of the oceans and the atmosphere to absorb any more carbon emissions is rapidly coming to an end.

Many people believe that mankind can innovate its way out of the coming crisis. Musk agrees the free market can work wonders but only if the game is not rigged. By failing to put a market price on carbon, people and corporations are free to spew as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they wish without any financial penalty.

“I’m ordinarily quite a big believer in the market — because the market is just the sum of individual decisions. But when there’s a breakdown in the market, that’s where things go awry,” he said. The lack of a price on carbon is just such a breakdown. “It makes things that are carbon producing very rewarding, because the true price is not being paid,” Musk says.

Is there any hope? If you look at the number of people who firmly believe climate change is a gigantic hoax perpetrated by communists, socialists, and liberals, the answer is no. But just this week, China and the United States both confirmed their commitment to the Paris climate change agreement.

In a few days, the annual G20 economic summit will take place in Hangzhou, China. Leading up to that meeting, a group of 130 investors with assets worth more than $13 trillion have penned a letter to world leaders urging them to initiate carbon pricing measures that would level the playing field between carbon and non-carbon enterprises. Once the market has the correct pricing signals, Musk believes that innovation in zero-carbon technology will explode.

Right now, because there is no cost associated with putting more carbon emissions into the atmosphere, a person can make a “tremendous amount of money” being a petrochemical engineer, Musk told Hayes. Once producing carbon emissions becomes more costly, people will switch to promoting zero-emissions technologies.

There is not a moment to lose, Musk believes. With several billion fossil-fueled vehicles on the roads worldwide and with 100,000,000 more new ones sold every year, he says if every new car was electric today, it would still take two decades to replace all the existing vehicles with zero emissions transportation.

A year ago, I was one of those people who thought a “carbon tax” was a drastic and unwise idea, one that would cause the global economy to collapse. Then I went to a presentation hosted by Alan and Jessica Langerman at their home in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The featured speaker was Massachusetts senator Mike Barrett, the sponsor of a bill that would impose a fee on carbon emissions within the state. I was skeptical.

But after Barrett’s presentation and a powerful endorsement of his ideas by Jessica Langerman, I started to open my mind to the concept. Then I saw Elon Musk’s simple but brilliant address to an audience at the Sorbonne during the Paris climate change summit. The clarity of his argument opened my eyes.

When I realized that the International Monetary Fund estimates the total value of all direct and indirect subsidies received by the fossil fuel industries each year exceeds $5 trillion (i.e., is idiotic), I came to see that low- and zero-carbon alternatives were being unfairly excluded from the marketplace of ideas, swept away in the tide of public and private money flowing to the polluters. I decided it was time to change my mind. I am hopeful reading this story and following the links will help you change your mind, too.

There is much to do and very little time to do it in. We are at a tipping point. The cost of renewable energy has plummeted to the point where both solar and wind energy are cheaper than electricity made from burning fossil fuels or splitting atoms. Tesla, with its commitment to building electric cars that people actually want to buy, is sending shock waves through the automobile business. Those waves are having ripple effects in several related industries.

The times really are a’changing. The only questions is, will the change come soon enough and how much is each of us willing to do to make it happen? You can start by refusing to vote for candidates this November who do not support a clean, non-toxic environment for all. Don’t waste your vote by thinking there is nothing one person can do. Together, we can make a difference, but first we have to elect leaders who won’t kowtow to the fossil fuel industry.

Source: Daily Planet

 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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