Elon Musk’s far-right lurch helps the fossil fuel industry

Twitter, a place I’ve called my digital home for just over a decade now, is being eaten alive by billionaire child-king Elon Musk. He’s gorging on it so he can enter his next stage of evolution: Eco-Fascist Joffrey Baratheon.

Out of his depth, mean-spirited and watching his genius myth dissolve, Musk’s mask has slipped. It’s clear to more each day he’s an enemy of the climate movement – his achievements are severely exaggerated and his efforts in support of fossil fuels and fossil-loving political parties like the Republicans are getting worse. He’s pouring toxic waste into an irreplaceable space for climate activism and networking, and he’s happy about it.

Musk over-paying for Twitter has already had a significant financial impact for him and for Tesla, and it’ll get worse. As their situation decays, he will dip ever deeper into fascist and far-right groups. That too will embolden the fossil fuel industry and its various defenders and attack dogs.

I’m sad and angry about losing my digital home to a Reddit-brained David Brent. I’m infuriated at the wastefulness and pointlessness of the destruction, and I’m terrified for all the current and future victims of the hate and bigotry enabled by Musk.

But I am also energised, because fighting climate villians is something I already know how to do.

Who saved South Australia?

A Tesla floating in space

I wish I could say that I was always skeptical of Musk and what he represents, but er, no. There was a time when I at least partially bought into the mythos. On this very blog, five years ago, I wrote some misguided and credulous pieces defending autonomous vehicles as a safety tool, or implying space travel might help reduce carbon emissions (Upulie: you were right to call me out on that).

At the end of 2016, a major storm and ensuing blackout tore through South Australia, erroneously blamed solely on wind power, and that event set the tone for anti-renewable politics in the country for the next five years.

After a Twitter exchange between Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and Elon Musk, an agreement was made to install a large-scale lithium-ion battery storage system in South Australia. Tesla were insisting that the battery would “solve South Australia’s power woes”. SA did not have “power woes”, but the saviour narrative was too tempting to avoid. When Musk was inevitably criticised by conservative commentators, I stepped in to defend the battery.

There were clues I missed at the time. Musk, for instance, explained the thinking behind his energy technologies, talking about powering Earth using just solar and batteries, through the ridiculous metaphor of a tiny orbital satellite, which operates very differently to massive, population-scale power systems:

SA’s growth of wind and solar has been smooth, enabled by the patient work of hundreds of engineers, experts and advocates over the past decade. Elon Musk did not save South Australia, but he certainly behaved like he did. Yes – the battery system helped (including a recent grid damage event with echoes of 2016), but batteries in South Australia control grid frequency during sudden trips, rather than storage and generating large volumes of energy (like a hydro plant). They do some things. Not all things.

Like everything else in climate, it’s a single component in a big, complex machine of solutions and policies. There are no heroes here, and no room for arrogance.

That blackout, and the overwrought saviour narrative that played out after the lights came back on, should’ve been a loud, blaring signal of what we can comfortably say was an absence of any real, deep connection with the climate problem. Musk was a grifter passing through the climate world, but somehow, he’s been granted the status of a permanent resident saviour.

A severely overinflated legacy

A Tesla buried underneath a pile of large coal rocks

Musk gets granted varyingly grotesque levels of credit for “solving” climate change. He personally believes Tesla has done “more for the climate” than any other company, ever.

While Tesla barely just began reporting its own emissions, it does report a guesstimate of how many emissions were avoided through the usage of its cars and solar panels. They’re not nothing, but compared to the growth of wind and solar power around the world – particularly wind power – they’re relatively small. Wind turbine manufacturer Vestas can boast avoided emissions several hundred times greater than Tesla. It’s not a competition, but if you’re going to claim hero status, you should expect to be fact checked.

It’s worth noting context for those avoided emissions figures – Tesla has sold carbon credits for its vehicles to high-polluting car companies, which to some degree would have undone the good. But this is a very widespread issue, and Tesla is far from the only carbon credits sinner.

The fundamental approach from Musk is to make an electric vehicle ‘desirable’ and affordable, and in doing so, ensure new cars purchased are lower emissions. This is one of those ‘necessary but insufficient’ things. Yes, you need to replace the combustion engine, but doing so solely using EVs is very, very, very slow.

People own cars for a long time. Even with 100% sales of electric vehicles, it can still take decades for the fleet to ditch reliance on oil. I live in Norway, comfortably the highest EV (and Tesla) deployment per capita country in the world, and road transport emissions are falling very slowly here. This is even with heavy government subsidies and support.

The timeline for decline in oil demand due to EV sales does not make the executives of fossil fuel companies sweat; nor is it particularly risky for an oil-exporting nation like Norway to make this their signature climate policy.

The default defense here is that Musk “kickstarted” a revolution in electric vehicles, but his efforts would’ve been for nothing had a collection of governments not also implemented subsidies to incentivise electric vehicle purchases and production – subsidies that Elon Musk recently pivoted to opposing, to avoid competitors getting the same advantages Tesla did. In a world without Musk, a very slow process simply would have begun slightly later.

(Since we’re on the topic – the final form of that bill Musk opposed will reduce emissions by around 2,500-2,800 MTCO2-e, compared to no bill, in 2030. Tesla’s 2021 total avoided emissions from all vehicles sold was 6.6. But hey, who’s counting)

To reduce transport emissions faster, you also need to do things like making public transport more accessible and cheaper, something Musk has publicly denigrated but also actively delayed through vaporware ‘hyperloop’ and tunnelling projects. And even looking narrowly at electric vehicles, two-wheelers like motorcycles, mopeds and scooters play just as big a role in displacing oil as large private cars. No matter how you slice the problem, there is no view where Tesla fills up 100% of the space.

BNEF

In total, the state of global transport emissions is extremely dire. The 2022 ‘State of Climate Action’ report published by WRI and Climate Action Tracker highlights that pretty much every metric in transport is off track, whether that’s public transport or share of electric vehicles in use. If Musk single-handedly fixed climate change, or just transport emissions, or just private vehicle emissions, it’s absolutely contradicted by the data on all measures, which show we’re badly far behind, thanks to a go-slow approach that favours consumerism, capitalism and free-market ideology.

Even if you buy into the narrative of Musk hand-crafting each Tesla in a garage, you cannot avoid the fact that he’s done nothing to make transport emissions fall fast, and recently, plenty to make them fall slower. When it comes to climate, speed matters most, and it’s on this point where Musk is a catastrophic failure.

Forgetting about climate change

A Tesla running on coal power

The focus of his work has noticeably shifted. Tesla’s most recent passenger vehicle product: a hideous, angular and over-sized ‘cybertruck’, designed to withstand (not really) the apocalypse. If the goal here was reducing emissions, you wouldn’t maximise the emissions from manufacturing cars by making them massive and inefficient (Tesla certainly isn’t alone in this).

Things have gotten notably worse in recent years. A humanoid robot was recently touted as a tool to replace workers (guess why); during the announcement a person dressed as a robot did a horrifyingly awkward dance to dubstep (Elon Musk is stuck in 2012). In October this year, the robot was revealed: wheeled sadly onto stage as three men nervously try to keep it upright (a fourth runs to help, but decides against it). It’s a grim scene. When the wretched automaton finally walks (like Honda’s Asimo did more than two decades ago) it gingerly creeps forward, looking like it badly needs to shit. This, a few years after he sold flamethrowers to Rick and Morty fans to raise cash for his cash-starved tunnelling company.

He now defends his obscene wealth on the grounds that he is “accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars”, rather than anything relating to climate. Notably, Musk has become recently quite explicit that he’s found bigger things to worry about than climate change:

The tweet above came soon after he tweeted approvingly of the work of William McAskill, who promotes a philosophy known as ‘longtermism’. This philosophy at best vaguely acknowledges the immediate risks of climate change, but dismisses it as lower-ranked than things like pandemics or “AI takeover” because those risks could lead to total human extinction (and they insist climate could not). The philosophy is mainly concerned with the lives of the billions and billions of potentially existing (or not existing) humans, centuries and millennia into the future; hence, climate gets deprioritised, and the need to expand human population becomes urgent. In mere seconds, of course, it takes you to eugenics, white supremacy and fears of a ‘Great Replacement’.

Musk’s fascination with population decline and his enthusiasm for longtermism have grown as he’s forgotten about the problem of climate change – the thing he often (falsely) credits himself as having solved more than any other person, or company.

Both in the actual focus of his companies and the things he uses his platform to say, Musk has moved on from climate change. Gone are the days of presentations about a ‘big global experiment’, or covering massive swathes of land in solar panels (I’m glad for that, to be honest).

The problem isn’t just that Musk has forgotten about climate. It’s that today, as 2022 winds to a close, Musk has become an active enemy of the climate movement, and a friend of the fossil fuel industry.

More harm than good

A Tesla nestled in a rectangular cut-out at the bottom of a coal mine

There’s no shortage of examples of Musk being quite explicit about helping the fossil fuel industry. When he came to speak at an oil and gas conference in Norway this year, he delighted everyone here by talking about how badly we need to increase the production of oil and gas. Music to the ears of one of Europe’s biggest oil and gas exporters.

Earlier in the year, Musk repeated his belief that oil and gas extraction had to increase to replace lost supply from Russia during the Russia-Ukraine war. This push for increasing fossil fuel extraction, several months on, has led to fossil fuel companies expanding supply several times more than lost from Russia, and if that extra new supply is used, it’ll tear through the budget for limiting warming to 1.5c. He justified this on the grounds that new supply was fast, and that climate solutions were slow. The opposite is true.

Musk has also become a champion of carbon capture, which he’ll need if he’s to manufacture synthetic fuels for his rockets. The idea is to remove carbon either from a process or just from the ambient air, and turn that carbon into fuel. Of course: when it’s re-burned, it just gets re-released into the atmosphere, so you end up using a huge amount of energy for zero climate benefit, which is a net harm to the environment. As I wrote here, point-source carbon capture has been a tool of climate delay for quite some time.

Possibly one of the most impactful things Musk has been doing to hinder the climate movement has been supporting US Republicans, as Emily Atkin writes in Heated. “Musk’s political preferences matter. And earlier this year, he announced that he prefers the political party that has overwhelmingly voted against every major piece of climate legislation ever introduced in Congress”. As I composed this essay, Musk announced that he’ll support Republican Ron DeSantis if he runs for president in 2024. The DeSantis that established bans on Florida cities and towns adopting 100% clean energy goals, and bans on the state pension fund considering climate in decision making. Elon Musk is a climate villain, and he’s using his power and influence to boost other climate villains.

Musk has also been central in a rising backlash against ‘ESG’ – ‘Environment, social and governance’ considerations for corporations. While the concept is pretty flawed and easily gamed by greenwashing companies, Musk’s simplistic complaints helped along the creation of anti-ESG legislation in Texas, which “bars local authorities from doing business with banks that have adopted ESG policies and divested from Texas fossil fuel-based energy companies”.

Here’s another Musk thing that helps enable fossil fuel advocacy: his habitual appeal to the folksy wisdom of the masses to get closer to truth, rather than effortful investigation or evidence-gathering. “Twitter needs to become by far the most accurate source of information about the world. That’s our mission”, Musk wrote recently. This echoes his failed effort to establish a ‘truth rating’ system for individual journalists a few years back, which as I wrote here, would have been a horror show if it was ever realised.

Musk’s grievances against journalists stem from having experienced a half-decade of 99% fawning coverage, and a shift in the mid 2010s towards only 80-90% fawning coverage, which he obviously couldn’t cope with. There have, of course, been plenty of times where media outlets wrongly criticised Tesla or electric vehicles in general. There is plenty to criticise about modern journalism, which still, in general, is a serious failure when it comes to climate.

But the appeal to folksy wisdom instead of evidence is the domain of climate deniers and climate delayers, who have always appealed to ‘common knowledge’ and mobbing / disinformation campaigns. Twitter’s ‘community notes’ feature, beloved by Musk, already includes a collection of very, very bad climate claims, according to my own preliminary dive into the data.

Musk’s business decisions, ideological shifts and political interference have all become explicitly counter-productive. He is comfortably doing far more harm than good right now, and that ratio gets worse every single day.

Killing Twitter helps the fossil fuel industry

A Tesla floating in a barrel of oil

One of the first thing Musk did after he purchased Twitter for too much money, using cash that he doesn’t have to burn, was to implement a system where you could pay $8 to get a ‘verified’ blue tick on Twitter. That means a huge rise in climate denial and delay content, all slapped with a tick of approval.

Cruelty is the default at Twitter, today. Since becoming owner, Musk has decimated its workforce, including firing people in vulnerable immigration and family situations. As part of the November 4 layoffs, Musk fired Twitter’s entire sustainability team, and a special account created to cover the COP27 conference lay dormant for the duration.

Every move Musk has made at Twitter has had some type of immediate, detectable side-effect in emboldening deniers and delayers, or directly weakening climate action.

Since taking over Twitter, a slew of far-right accounts, including prominent climate deniers / delayers like Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, James Lindsay and Jordan Peterson have sprung back to life.

Professional misogynist Andrew Tate (banned from Twitter in 2017 for saying rape victims “bear some responsibility”) immediately posted a video abusing climate activist Greta Thunberg, once re-activated. Most other major social platforms are botching content control and abuse prevention, but Elon Musk is actively and intentionally increasing abuse on Twitter – specifically towards climate activists (next week, there will be a general reactivation of all suspended accounts, something likely to put activists, advocates and exposed people in immediate danger).

The moves to shift power and influence back to abusers and bigots is justified by Musk on the false belief that the platform has favoured left-wingers and censored conservatives – a decent body of evidence exists that shows it’s the exact opposite. This nicely illustrates that Musk has no critical thinking skills. But it also exemplifies how narratives of fake victimhood are used by the powerful majority to justify cruelty and harm towards those already suffering injustice. It’s a psychotic, dangerous, deadly dynamic.

Musk has also been busy directly ingratiating himself with the absolute worst of the far-right grifters, most of whom have been directly responsible for spreading climate disinformation. Left-wing anti-fascist accounts are getting suspended for no stated reason, but it’s already very clear big names in the far-right movement are simply passing Twitter handles onto Musk, after which they’re promptly suspended.

Musk comfortably fits the bill, for the definition of eco-fascist. He doesn’t deny climate change, but he’s primarily concerned with profiting from it, and protecting himself and those he deems worthy from its impacts at the expense of millions of others. He’s spouting right-wing tropes far more than ever before, and he’s using his power over Twitter to hurt progressives and boost white nationalists and fascists. He’s wringing his hands about population decline, and he is just flat-out cruel. He has a dedicated cultish fandom that’s becoming increasingly militant; following his example in cruelty and bigotry. Every day, he’s becoming less subtle with his neo-fascist signalling.

By lending his wealth, his voice and the mechanics of his newly-purchased social platform over to the far right, fascists and conservatives, Elon Musk is gifting a weapon to the fossil fuel industry. Disinformation, hate speech, mobbing and astroturfing have been the industry’s main tactics for decades now, and Musk’s lurch to the right makes things significantly easier for them.

The images in this post come from DallE, an AI image generation tool. Elon Musk co-funded OpenAI, which developed DallE, with the intent of trying to flatten the power concentration around artificial intelligence tools

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