I’m generally an Elon Musk fan. I’m going to break down his talk on global warming here and comment on it.
Elon begins by referring to the “climate crisis”, which immediately reveals his position on man made climate change. Since he owns an electric car company and is closely associated with one that makes solar panels, I guess some bias is to be expected.
He begins by explaining the carbon cycle. He then states that we have added extra carbon to the system and that it is much more than can be absorbed by the ecosystem. Since the extra carbon comes from plant life that was buried long ago, we know that that isn’t true. The ecosystem could and did absorb massive amounts of CO2 during the Carboniferous period some 300 million years ago. I will give Elon the benefit of the doubt and assume he means that the CO2 we have been releasing cannot be absorbed quickly enough to avoid posing a danger to humanity.
Elon shows the Al Gore hockey stick chart of CO2 in the atmosphere and then makes the claim that CO2 has been low for the last 10 million years. While CO2 has been near its all time low for the last 2 million years, 10 million years ago it was actually far higher than it is now (see Geologic Global Climate Changes). Interestingly enough, the low CO2 levels coincide exactly with the Pleistocene and Holocene eras, which are the only times in Earth’s history that it has experienced periodic ice ages.
Elon makes the claim that the extreme recent growth rate of the CO2 concentrations poses an extreme threat. He then points out how many cities are built near the ocean and claims that there are countries that would be completely underwater in a climate crisis. A 2017 NOAA report states that the sea level will rise between 0.3 and 2.5 meters by 2100. Assuming the worst case, 2.5 meters, Elon is right that some countries (e.g. Bangladesh) would be inundated. This number is based on IPCC climate models that predict 3 degrees of warming will occur during that time.
Elon goes on to repeat the argument from authority that 97% of climate scientists believe in the worst case climate change predicted by the IPCC. The veracity of this claim has been disputed, but I can believe that the percentage is at least high. While it holds some weight for me, I also recall that, before Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter, 97% of astronomers believed the Sun orbited the Earth.
Elon then claims that the because the cost to society of fossil fuels are not being factored in to their prices, there is a disincentive to move to renewable energy. His solution is to have a carbon tax. He goes on to claim that the fossil fuel industry is doing exactly what the tobacco industry did. Frankly, I find this claim false. There was scientific evidence from direct observation of the health hazards of tobacco. Current climate science predictions are based on theoretical models, not measurement. The two are not comparable.
Elon advocates a revenue neutral carbon tax. While I agree that if there is to be a carbon tax, it should be revenue neutral, once the government gets a new method of taxation, they tend to increase it. See the article How BC’s formerly revenue neutral carbon tax turned into another government cash grab, for example.
One fact that Elon omits entirely is that there are not only the “hidden tax” down the road costs to the environment for fossil fuels, there are also actual government subsidies to the industries. Why are we even talking about a carbon tax when these subsidies, funded by taxes, exist? They should be eliminated first, before any thought is given to creating new taxes.
If there is to be a carbon tax, I’d like to see the money that comes for it be used to good purpose. The problem is, the government will simply waste it. In BC, we are constantly scrambling to fund improvements to public transit. Why isn’t the carbon tax going directly to these projects? Unfortunately, using the power of the government to try to create change is ineffective at best, and at worst, dangerous.