Elon Musk and Tesla can’t solve the climate crisis alone

Of the plethora of pundits who publish predictions, prognostications and polemics about Tesla every day, some “get it” and some don’t. Many will simply never be able to understand how a company that supplies less than one percent of the global auto market could grow to a market value of more than a trillion dollars—more than the value of the legacy automakers combined. 

Above: Elon Musk showcasing his 360-degree approach to clean energy at Tesla with solar, battery storage, and electric cars (Source: Tesla)

What many of these scribblers fail to grasp is that Tesla has a mission beyond that of making money for its shareholders (although it has certainly done a fine job of that as well). Yes, every company has a “mission” statement and a “vision” statement, but most of these are not to be taken seriously. Those who tear their hair out over Tesla’s (to them) inexplicable stock-market performance assume that the company’s mission is like all the rest—meaningless marketing fluff. “Save the polar bears, make a better world for our grandchildren, yeah, yeah, sure,” says the grizzled, world-weary Wall Street analyst. “Talk about that stuff all you want, as long as you maximize profits.”

I submit that many of Tesla’s customers, investors and fans do not see things in this cynical light. Could it be that part of the reason for the company’s unprecedented success is that millions of people really do have hope for a future with cleaner air? That they understand that today’s oil-fueled transportation system is driving us towards disaster, and that making the switch to electric vehicles is a necessary step to avert climate catastrophe?

Obviously, this is only part of the picture. Many Tesla buyers have zero interest in the polar bear thing—they’re attracted by the head-snapping acceleration, the fun high-tech features, or the chance to show off their wealth and coolness to their neighbors. In fact, the Tesla founders’ firm grasp of this fact of life was one of the company’s ace cards from the beginning. Musk, Eberhard, Tarpenning, Wright and Straubel were motivated by greenness, but they understood very well that most car buyers were not. Trying to sell an electric car on its environmental bona fides was (and still is) a losing proposition, so they set out to build “not the best electric cars, but the best cars.” And the rest is history.

Now, some may say that Tesla has strayed from its mission. The idea of building an EV for the masses seems to have been abandoned, as the company regularly raises its prices. Snubbing environmental leader California and embracing insurrectionist, climate change-denying Texas has certainly rubbed some of Tesla’s long-time supporters the wrong way. But despite these missteps, I believe that the mission remains, and that Tesla is still a positive force in the quest to decarbonize.

Above: Inside Tesla's journey to a trillion dollar valuation (YouTube: Billster)

The green wheels are finally starting to turn at legacy automakers such as VW and GM, and make no mistake about it—this would not be happening if Tesla weren’t breaking stock-market records. Government regulation (specifically, California’s ZEV mandate and Europe’s tightening emissions standards) has played a positive role, but political winds are variable, and they’re starting to shift. Governments were keen to support EVs when they were a promising young technology, but now that electromobility is plainly the future, we’re already seeing signs that government efforts will be redirected to protecting oil industry profits (excuse me, I meant jobs).

For better or for worse, money moves markets, and economic forces shape history. Tesla has proven that there’s big money to be made selling electric vehicles, and the profit proposition grows clearer every day. That’s why the legacy automakers are following trendsetter Tesla down the electric road, and it must continue to lead them until they pass the point of no return.

Tesla has said from the beginning that it wants everyone to drive an EV, whatever brand it may be, and recent actions such as the opening up of the Supercharger network and Elon Musk’s controversial pep talk for VW execs indicate that this is still the case.

Like so many things in life, the EV revolution is not unfolding exactly the way many of us would like. It’s unfortunate that industry workers and management are squaring off for a fight over impending job losses; that EVs remain out of reach for lower-income drivers; and that Tesla’s CEO continues to alienate his natural allies with a steady stream of divisive public statements.

Be that as it may, the show must go on. Sometimes people do the right things for the wrong reasons; we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; it is what it is. Pick your platitude, but keep the faith, and remember, our common enemy is pollution, and we strike a blow against it with every EV that hits the road.


Written by: Charles Morris