December 8, 2023

Elon Musk was once lauded as a sort of green Tony Stark – the genius inventor who leads a double life as superhero Iron Man – for single-handedly tackling the climate crisis one Tesla at a time, helping to forge a clean energy future and pushing for new taxes to drive down fossil fuel use.

But the climate credentials of the world’s richest person have become clouded by his embrace of rightwing politicians, some of whom dismiss global heating, as well as by his management of X, formerly known as Twitter, during which many climate scientists have fled the platform amid a proliferation of misinformation about the climate crisis.

Those contradictions run deeply through his work and life. The man who sometimes seems to think of himself as a spartan-living, green thinker is actually one of the elite 1% of the world’s population who, according to a new Oxfam report, produce as much carbon pollution as the poorest two-thirds of humanity, comprising 5 billion people. Where does the reality lie?

In 2020, Musk vowed to get rid of “almost all physical possessions” and he has since jettisoned a number of mansions, opting instead to occasionally sleep on the couch of friends’ homes and, more recently, to move into a $50,000 modular home in Boca Chica, Texas, near the testing and development site of SpaceX, his space tourism venture. And unlike many billionaires, Musk does not own a superyacht, which tend to be highly polluting.

He can also point to his work furthering Tesla, a company that has eclipsed traditional carmakers as it has reshaped the electric car market around the world. And he can cite Xprize, a $100m competition to spur new technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

For many years, and most recently in an interview in 2021, Musk backed the idea of taxing carbon emissions to force down planet-heating pollution, arguing that carbon was an “unpriced externality”.

Musk private jet use

But Musk’s rampant use of private jet flights creates part of the problem that his car business is trying to tackle. Since last October, the month he assumed control of X, Musk’s private plane – a $70m Gulfstream jet with 19 seats and a kitchen – has taken about 200 flights, shuttling between his business interests in Texas, the home of SpaceX and Tesla, and the Bay Area, where X has its headquarters.

There have been longer trips, too, to France, Italy and Singapore, flight records show, meaning Musk’s private jet has spent nearly a month in the air over the past year, creating more than 2,500 tonnes of planet-heating emissions in the process.

The emissions from these flights dwarf those caused by the average US household, which amount to fewer than 50 tonnes a year. Musk has argued that the aircraft helps him work longer hours and is the “one exception” to a lifestyle that is relatively spartan for a man with a personal wealth of more than $230bn, a figure approaching the GDP of Greece.

Emissions flowing from Musk’s investments are also significant, with the Oxfam report finding that his stake in Tesla meant he was responsible for a further 79,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Still, that is far less than others in the rarefied world of the ultra-rich; the report calculates that 125 of the wealthiest people emit an average of 3m tonnes of planet-heating pollution a year via their financial dealings.

Research by Jared Star, a sustainability scientist at the University of Massachusetts, found that America’s richest 10% of people were responsible for 40% of the country’s climate pollution. He said: “Musk is a complicated figure. On one hand he’s played a critical role in popularising EV and battery storage with Tesla, on the other he’s flying space tourists on missions that create a huge amount of pollution. Private jets also use a lot of fossil fuel, so he would himself be in the super-emitter category.”

Possibly more troubling is X’s descent into becoming a wellspring of climate denialism under Musk – the platform has become a “dumpster fire”, according to Star – and the billionaire’s embrace of Republican politicians, some of whom have dismissed established climate science.

Musk private jet emissions

“The rise of climate denialism on X and the support of candidates who call climate change a hoax is incredibly unhelpful and takes away some of the shine from the image of him as a benevolent billionaire helping us reach the promised land of clean energy future,” Star said.

Musk has praised Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and GOP presidential hopeful, as “a very promising candidate” despite Ramaswamy calling the climate change agenda a hoax. Musk responded to Ramaswamy on X about the climate crisis saying: “It is possibly overstated in the short term, but we should be concerned about it long term.”

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This month, Musk, who has appeared to back a growing number of rightwing conspiracy theories, suggested that environmentalists had “gone too far”. He said on Joe Rogan’s podcast: “If you start thinking that humans are bad then the natural conclusion is humans should die out. If AI gets programmed by the extinctionists, its utility function will be the extinction of humanity. They won’t even think it’s bad.”

Musk, who has 11 children, has expressed concerns about population collapse, although experts have forecast the opposite, with a further 2 billion people expected to be added to the global population in the next 30 years.

These pronouncements, and the changes in moderation wrought upon X, have dismayed scientists and activists.

“Daily, I receive comments that range from disparaging to downright vile,” posted Prof Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate researcher who pointed out that Twitter had once been a vital resource for those concerned about worsening global heating. “I mourn its destruction,” she added.

Musk tried to come across as environmentally conscious but was not, said Beatriz Barros, a researcher at Indiana University who co-authored a 2021 study on the carbon footprints of the super-rich (which found that Musk’s lifestyle was responsible for more than 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year even without his jet use, though this was prior to his house downsizing). “He tries to have it both ways, acting like this sort of problem solver while he’s responsible for these shocking levels of emissions from his private jet,” Barros said.

She added that not only did billionaires such as Musk have a “preposterous” outsized impact upon the environment through their own consumption and business practices, they also had a disproportionate influence over government policy. The White House has sought to ally with Musk, as well as other billionaires such as Bill Gates, in recent times to further its climate goals.

“It’s all so undemocratic: these people think they can behave how they like because they have money and power,” Barros said. “We are told to drive less, eat less meat, that we are all in this fight together, and then in one second these people are emitting more than someone in their entire lifespan. How is that fair?”

A possible remedy, Star suggested, would be to apply a carbon tax, which Musk has previously supported, to billionaires. A 1% carbon tax on Musk alone would provide enough money to boost global climate adaption funding for developing countries – the places most vulnerable to disastrous heatwaves, floods and droughts unleashed by rising temperatures – by 10%, according to Star.

“Leading on climate on one hand and then propping up climate deniers on the other isn’t a complementary picture,” Star said. “A 1% tax would mean Musk would still get wealthier but it would make a huge difference to those countries least responsible for climate change but hit by their worst effects.”

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