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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Tesla, Elon Musk, and Climate Change

By Phil Plait

Last Thursday, Elon Musk unveiled the new Tesla Model 3 electric car.

I’ve been waiting for this announcement for some time; I love the idea of an all-electric vehicle, but I’m not quite ready to shell out 100 grand for the Roadster or $70K for the Model S (as much as I would love to have either). At a base price of about $35,000, the Model 3 line is a lot more affordable.

The media, of course, have been all over the announcement, and I’ve enjoyed reading what people are saying. What I haven’t seen as much buzz about, though (aside from a mention here or there) is how Musk started off his presentation: Before introducing the new model, he spent several minutes giving details about the current and future effects of global warming:

Sometimes, I really like that guy.

His concern is real, and well-placed. The points he makes are legit. Carbon dioxide levels are screaming upward, temperatures are screaming upward, and we’re facing a new and rapidly changing world.

And that’s really the important piece. It’s getting hotter faster than it has in a dozen millennia at least. There’s been more CO2 in the air in the past, temperatures have been hotter in the past; but those changes happened slowly, over tens or hundreds of thousands of years. We’re seeing those same changes now happening in centuries. Less.

Things are changing so rapidly that species don’t have time to adapt. Weather patterns are changing, climate is changing, and it’s happening hundreds of times more quickly than natural evolution can respond. And that’s just the overall climate; there are also the nontrivial issues of ocean acidification, sea level rise, and more.

We’re facing a planet we literally wouldn’t recognize. I'd wager Musk sees that too.

Will electric cars save the world? Not alone, they won’t. But moving to solar, wind, and nuclear power (as well as other carbon-neutral sources) to feed our energy-hungry machinery could very well be what we need to keep our planet from becoming an alien world.

Musk recognizes that as well and has for some time now.*Tesla’s plan all along was to build high-end cars to finance the research needed to make the tech cheaper for mass market purposes, so eventually the market would support millions of all-electric vehicles, not thousands. The Tesla house battery, Solar City, even SpaceX—all of Musk’s projects have their eye on a future where we can put King Coal where he belongs, where he started: buried in the ground.

I praise Musk here, because he’s realistically the most vocal and popular person leading the way here. Many more could be cited, too (the 2017 Chevy Bolt may give the Model 3 a run for the money). I’m all for it. We’ve seen what happens when we give the keys to people who prefer ideology over reality. It’s heartening to see people who see the reality.

* Full disclosure: Last year I toured the SpaceX factory and talked to Musk about his future plans, traveling on their nickel. I wrote about that event at the time.

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