The Tesla Debate

Yesterday, Forbes published my new piece “With the Tesla Model S, Elon Musk Has Created a Nice Nice Fossil Fuel Car.” Several members of the Tesla forum disagreed emphatically, with a range of arguments ranging from technical (I allegedly neglected the issue of “energy efficiency”) to emotional (I am “another hater”). Overall, I thought that the responses were a microcosm of how many smart people have been taught mistaken ways of thinking about fossil fuels–and, in some cases, demonizing their opponents–so I wrote a lengthy response. Make sure to read the other posts first.

I’m the author of the Forbes piece. I’m sorry that many on the Tesla forum did not like it, and I want to take the opportunity to elaborate on its argument.

The fundamental question being argued on both sides is, as I see it, whether the government should severely restrict fossil fuel use–and, as part of that policy, promote electric cars as an alternative.

In my view, because cheap, plentiful, reliable energy is so important to technological and human progress, and because fossil fuel technology is essential to providing that caliber of energy for a long time to come, governments should absolutely not be restricting fossil fuel use. (For those interested in seeing how this case stacks up in an open debate, see my recent Stanford debate with Sierra Club Senior Director Bruce Nilles.) Making this case requires addressing concerns about climate head-on, which I did.

“Perhaps the most neglected benefit of fossil fuel energy is in making us safer from the climate. Our cultural discussion on ‘climate change’ fixates on whether or not fossil fuels impact the climate. Of course they do—everything does—but the question that matters is whether it is becoming safer or more dangerous. Here, the data is unambiguous—in the last 80 years, as fossil fuels have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from .03% to all of .04%, we have become 50 times less likely to die because of climate-related causes. Give thanks to the proliferation of climate-protection technology (climate control, sturdy homes, weather satellites, drought-relief convoys, modern agriculture), which are made possible by fossil fuels.”

Most of the posts on this forum assume that climate change is a basis for government action, but none even attempted to address my case about the actual effects of CO2 emissions on climate safety. The underlying data here place an enormous burden of proof on anyone claiming future catastrophe. And that burden cannot be met as the catastrophic climate models are demonstrable failures at predicting climate. (As I will argue later, even if there was a big problem, advocating solar as the solution would not be logical.)

Other posts on the forum assume that the finite nature of fossil fuels implies some sort of necessary government support of electric cars. But basic economics tells us that the price of the finite commodities involved in every mode of transport will signal if and when a change is necessary. (Note: price is more important than “energy efficiency.” Energy efficiency is just one form of resource efficiency, and often not the most important. If you’re admirer of solar, note that an excellent solar panel is “20% efficient”–should that disqualify it?)

Given that electric cars are currently a tiny, luxury, resource-intensive niche of the transportation market, it is odd to assume that all the resources involved will smoothly and economically scale globally. We have no idea, just as we have no idea whether there will be a revolution in coal-to-liquids or gas-to-liquids will mean superior hydrocarbon fuels for hundreds of years to come. Or even whether synthesizing methanol from biomass and burning it using standard internal combustion engines will be more efficient than powering cars with energy-intensive batteries. If we’re free to choose along the way, we don’t have to know in advance.

Although I do not believe that CO2 emissions are a problem, even if it was the public approach of Elon Musk, Tesla, and much of Tesla’s following would be counterproductive–because any constructive approach requires taking on the leading opponents of cheap, plentiful, reliable, non-carbon energy: the environmentalist movement.

I am an adamant supporter of nuclear power and hydroelectric power, as are some of you; the environmentalist movement is the leading opponent of both forms of power–the Sierra Club being a particularly egregious example. These organizations are the ones who made nuclear power uneconomic; without them, there is a strong case nuclear would have won out worldwide on the free market. (For more on this issue, see my pro-nuclear Facebook page, I Love Nuclear,” as well as Petr Beckmann’s classic “The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear.”

Elon Musk should use his public position to condemn every anti-nuclear group. Instead, he endorses their empty promise that solar can power our civilization. That’s why in my article I focused on solar–that’s what Tesla assures us will replace the fossil fuels it opposes (but uses).

To be solution-oriented means to advocate the best options–and that could also include geo-engineering, also opposed by environmentalists–not just the politically correct ones.

To be solution-oriented in this context also means to look for global solutions that would actually work. In my article I cited the fact that globally solar and wind produce less than 1% of the world’s electricity–and that must be backed up by a reliable source, usually fossil fuels. Several posts on this forum took me to task because their Teslas run on a higher percentage of solar and wind. No one addressed the point about requiring backup–usually “100% solar means a reliable source of energy is providing 100% backup (which doesn’t scale). And more broadly, no one acknowledged that solar/wind is a luxury good. It’s very expensive and it scales very, very poorly. If we’re talking 80% global CO2 reductions, the fact that your particular Tesla uses X% solar is completely irrelevant because few can afford it and the “solution” wouldn’t scale if more could.

If you believe that catastrophic global warming is the problem of our age, then the solution is to take a hard line against the environmentalist movement and look for global solutions on the scale of the problem. It is not to, forgive me, be self-righteous about your Tesla.

I bring up the self-righteous point because I very much admire the Tesla, and I think it deserves to be supported in a spirit of pure enthusiasm for technology and humanity–not defensiveness and partisanship.

When I write an article trying to convey that the Tesla S is testament to the unacknowledged virtues of fossil fuel energy, and the response I get in the Tesla forum is to be labeled a “hater,” that is partisan.

It is also partisan to dismiss me because I support fossil fuels. A few people wrote me off for wearing an “I Love Fossil Fuels” shirt to a Tesla store, or period. Well, I do love fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry and I came to that love honestly, for reasons that I hope are clear. (For more reasons, read my book.) I believe it was an incredibly appropriate shirt to wear to the Tesla store. Incidentally, it was not premeditated–I just happened to be wearing it at the Fashion Island mall, but I’m glad I did.

I hope that clarifies where I’m coming from. If you’re interested in learning more about how to think about environmental issues from a consistently humanist, technological perspective, I hope you’ll take a look at my book and my essay “The Industrial Manifesto.”