A Brief Chat With Elon Musk About Climate Change, Rex Tillerson, and Donald Trump [Update]

Image: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Yesterday Elon Musk stunned us (and just about everyone else) by tweeting in support of Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil and likely Secretary of State under the Trump administration. Musk’s public image is that of a tycoon using his influence to innovate towards a techno-utopian future powered by clean energy and complete with human cities on Mars. What could he possibly have in common with a mogul who made his fortune sucking the Earth’s resources dry? We asked him. And today he answered.


Why Musk spent part of his morning answering our DMs is anyone’s best guess, but we’re happy to meet courtesy with courtesy. His answers to our questions are reproduced below unedited and without emphasis. The first order of business was an explanation for his support of Rex Tillerson on Twitter yesterday. Our questions are in bold.

Many see the appointment of a tycoon as emblematic of crony capitalism. What makes you feel he’s competent? Tillerson also told Bloomberg last year that he’s not exactly sold on electric cars, which of course is the whole point of Tesla. Have you reached an accord on that matter? Are your opinions on Tillerson influenced at all by your position on Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum?

My tweets speak for themselves. Please read them exactly as they are written. Tillerson obviously did a competent job running Exxon, one of the largest companies in the world. In that role, he was obligated to advance the cause of Exxon and did. In the Sec of State role, he is obligated to advance the cause of the US and I suspect he probably will. Also, he has publicly acknowledged for years that a carbon tax could make sense. There is no better person to push for that to become a reality than Tillerson. This is what matters far more than pipelines or opening oil reserves. The unpriced externality must be priced.

Tillerson does indeed have a history of supporting a carbon tax as far back as 2007, signaling his preference for such a regulation over “cap-and-trade” initiatives that became popular among environmentalists and free market conservatives alike in the 1980s, but whose real-world efficacy has long been subject to debate. Many experts agree that a national carbon tax is needed, but take it coming from Tillerson with a grain of salt.

Rather than pushing for policies to reduce carbon emissions, ExxonMobil, under the tutelage of Tillerson and his predecessors, gave over $3.6 million to the American Enterprise Institute from 1998 to 2012, an organization that has helped distort facts about climate change and undermine public confidence in the impact of carbon pollution. This is despite the fact that Exxon’s own scientists have known since 1977 that fossil fuels were leading to climate change.


ExxonMobil also lobbied against two bills that would have established a carbon tax in Massachusetts last year while Tillerson still held his position as CEO of the company.

Could you clarify what you mean by “The unpriced externality must be priced”? If I’m reading it correctly the “externality” is carbon pollution. Which suggests that carbon pollution is an acceptable business practice so long as those business owners pay some debt for it. I can’t fathom a carbon tax high enough that it would make a reasonable impact on current the business practices that are fueling climate change.

CO2 isn’t exactly pollution, but it does cause warming and slight acidification of water if very large quantities are dug from deep underground and added to the surface cycle. The problem is the age-old tragedy of the commons. The common good being consumed is atmospheric and oceanic carbon capacity, which currently has a price of zero. This results in an error in market signals and far more CO2 is generated than should be. We won’t ever go to zero CO2, but the rate over time should be dropped far below what it is today.


It’s worth noting CO2 was classified as pollution under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which is currently embroiled in a lengthy legal battle for survival, and is among the many pieces of legislation President Trump has vowed to kill. A matter of semantics, perhaps, but the thrust of Musk’s argument here is sound: there should be a cost associated with recklessly dumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The question is if that cost will ever be high enough.

That doesn’t clarify how severe of a carbon tax would be needed to meaningfully reduce emissions and scale back climate change.

Start low and increase it until the desired outcome is achieved. This can be offset by a reduction in other taxes, like sales tax, which is quite regressive. This is analogous to taxing cigarettes and alcohol more than fruits and vegetables, which everybody agrees makes sense. We should have higher taxes on the things that science says are probably bad for us than those that are probably good for us.


Most people would agree the premise behind higher taxes on cigarettes is sound. In an ideal situation, science would guide our best interests, and economics would follow. Obviously in today’s world, there are other political realities to consider.

Even if Tillerson, in the wake of retirement from Big Oil, decided to put his money where his mouth is and press Trump for a carbon tax, he won’t be heading up the EPA which handles such matters. That dubious honor belongs Scott Pruitt. Pruitt denies that humans caused climate change, was an executive of the Republican Attorney General’s Association which received considerable funding from ExxonMobil, and has sued the agency he’s about to lead 14 times over environmental regulation.


And of course, leading an administration of climate change deniers is Trump himself who has tweeted loudly and often to describe global warming as a “hoax.” In less than a week in office, Trump’s administration has frozen all grants to the EPA and indicated that it’ll be “scrubbing up” the agency’s climate change page a bit, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Outside the realm of theoretical problem solving, the odds of a potentially reformed Tillerson pushing for any legislation limiting our impact on the environment looks slim.

And you feel confident such a policy [as a carbon tax] would be put in place under the Trump administration, even though he’s repeatedly referred to global warming as a “hoax”?

You are missing the point. This is something we need to strive for and the more voices of reason that the President hears, the better. Simply attacking him will achieve nothing. Are you aware of a single case where Trump bowed to protests or media attacks? Better that there are open channels of communication.


He’s right, of course. Trump isn’t known for cooperation, and has frequently disregarded his closest advisors.

Then again, a free press and the ability to protest are two of the most sacred protections we enjoy under our democratic structure—two paths for our elected officials to hear the voices of their electorate. If Trump won’t listen to his own people, what kind of leader will that make him?


This article has been updated to include information regarding Tillerson’s involvement in opposing two 2016 carbon tax bills in Massachusetts.

Update 1/27/17 10:47am EST: A senior White House official told Bloomberg today that Musk “floated the idea of a carbon tax” to “President Donald Trump and U.S. business leaders at a White House meeting Monday... but got little or no support.”


Given that our conversation took place after this meeting had allegedly been convened it throws into question much of what Musk told us regarding the viability of a carbon tax under this administration, as well as his unusual support of Tillerson as Trump’s pick for Secretary of State. We’ve reached out again to Musk for comment and will keep you informed if he responds.

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Bryan Menegus

Senior reporter. Tech + labor /// bryan.menegus [at] gizmodo.com Keybase: keybase.io/bryangm Securedrop: http://gmg7jl25ony5g7ws.onion/

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