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 poses a deeper question that the movement must face: should climate policy be subsumed within the broader liberal-versus-conservative conflict, 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) at the slow pace of progress on climate issues and blame conservative Republicans or Democrats. They believe that the “other” side does not act 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 sellout. In fact, members of the House and Senate are likely to worry about being “primary” if they become too complacent.
The stalled $2 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) bill reveals the challenges in finding bipartisan solutions. Senator Manchin, the deciding 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 advocates, have taken an all-or-nothing approach. That means a climate-focused BBB isn’t happening, though the window for climate legislation is likely to close after November’s midterm elections.
Is climate bipartisanship impossible?
In 2020, in an act of bipartisanship, Congress enacted the Great American Outdoors Act, providing $20 billion for National Parks and other federal lands. Both Republicans and Democrats took credit for this during the November 2020 election. Interestingly, many Republicans have historically opposed National Parks and Monuments because they saw them as a federal intrusion 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, even in split states (where different parties control the state legislature and government office) and Republican-controlled states. A recent article reports that Republican-controlled states have enacted about a third of the state’s renewable energy legislation. In states with divided governments, bipartisan efforts have led to renewable energy policies.
This raises the question: what facilitates climate bipartisanship?
First, framing issues is important. Bipartisanship argues that we should avoid using the political term “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 deal with climate change. Of course, a non-climate framework might not allow Twitter stars to take their victory laps, but it likely helps drive 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 across 13,000 acres. At the opening ceremony, Indiana Republican Governor Eric Holcomb noted, “This is an incredibly electrifying 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 did it not attract the support of a single Republican senator? This brings us to the third, and probably the most difficult, point: bipartisanship may require that climate policy 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 policy domains, it gains new opponents (sometimes supporters as well). This is where the ongoing controversy over Elon Musk’s possible 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 probably played the single most important role in electrifying the auto industry (in the US, the transportation sector accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions)? Or should they condemn him because his political views do not align with those of the mainstream movement, especially young activists?
Musk launched electric vehicles (EVs) amid the 2007-2010 recession, when the US auto industry went bankrupt. By demonstrating the business case for EVs, Musk paved the way for the transition from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs) to EVs. Countries and states are announcing ICE bans. Virtually every major auto company is committed to transitioning from ICEs to EVs. So shouldn’t Musk be inducted into the Climate Hall of Fame?
Apparently no. As far as we know, Musk has not received any major climate awards, of the kind given to Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s not the main attraction at the weather summits (if he’s invited). Brandon Farmahini, a prominent podcaster, was hailed twitter for canceling your reservation for the Tesla Cybertruck. He wrote: “I wish I could say it was nice to cancel my #Tesla #cybertruck but it was really depressing. It’s a wonderful piece of engineering, but I’m not going to fund Musk’s effort to reinstate Russian disinformation on #twitter under the guise of “freedom of speech.”
Another commentator, Molly Taft, wrote: “For me, building a livable planet means following all kinds of science – from climate science to the health science behind gender identity and transition – as well as endorsing basic human rights, such as making the incredibly easy thing to respect people’s pronouns or not put your workers in dangerous situations just to maintain your public image as a boy-witch.”
Some talked about a connection to China. Jeff Bezos (Billionaire rival of Musk whose company Amazon wants to be a climate leader) tweeted “Did the Chinese government just gain a little influence over the town square?” – alluding to the fact that China is the second largest market for Tesla and Musk operates a large factory in Shanghai. But doesn’t Amazon have business relationships with China? What about the renewable energy industry or the critical mineral supply chain that China dominates? Should solar and wind power be avoided because they source so much of their equipment from China?
The World Meteorological Organization suggests that the 1.5C temperature rise threshold could be breached as early as 2024, rather than the end of the century. Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that Republicans will win the House in the 2022 midterm elections. Urgent political action is needed, but this would likely require decoupling climate issues from other political and social debates (call this 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.