Mr. Musk goes to Trump Tower — but that doesn’t mean he’s walking away with a deal

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Elon Musk at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference.
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Scott Olson/Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump has been auditioning a host of candidates for various Cabinet positions, and that process has included a parade of distinguished people in front of the media through the gilded lobby of Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan.

Now it’s time for the leaders of the technology world to make the trip, though none of them are up for Cabinet jobs. One of them will be Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla.

As I’ve written, no two brains on earth are more different than Musk’s and Trump’s.

Musk is visionary and scientific; Trump is cloistered and mendacious.

Regardless of their differences, though, it was announced Wednesday that Musk, a hero of US-based manufacturing, was joining Trump’s new economic advisory board.

While this could certainly benefit Musk, there’s no denying that he and Trump have very different views on something that Musk considers existentially urgent: global climate change.

The purpose of Tesla, SpaceX (Musk’s space-exploration company), and SolarCity, the solar-panel firm that recently merged with Tesla, as a group of businesses is to accelerate humanity’s departure from the fossil-fuel era. Tesla replaces gas-burning vehicles with electric ones; SolarCity provides clean power drawn from a source Musk is fond of calling a giant fusion reactor in the sky, the sun; and SpaceX ensures that we will become a “multiplanetary” species.

Won’t back down

Even if the tech industry generally has a cluster of policy, regulatory, and economic issues it might want to raise with Trump, ranging from visas to the insourcing of manufacturing, Musk is unlikely to miss the opportunity to draw a line in the sand.

He hasn’t been kidding around about climate change and how the challenge should be addressed. In a speech late last year in Paris at the Sorbonne, he called in no uncertain terms for a carbon tax.

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Musk’s speech in Paris.
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Screenshot

“We have to fix the unpriced externality,” he said. His entire speech hinged on the simple observation that the addition of carbon to the atmosphere was effectively a worldwide subsidy that had contributed to global warming and prevented humanity from freeing itself from the fossil-fuel era.

Musk called this a “hidden carbon subsidy of $5.3 trillion per year,” citing the International Monetary Fund. In response to questions after his speech, he said a good outcome of the UN Climate Summit (COP21) taking place in France would be that governments “put their foot down” and use a revenue-neutral, gradually applied carbon tax to accelerate the shift from an economy driven by fossil fuels to one driven by sustainable energy.

Musk revisited the speech in March of this year, when he unveiled Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3 mass-market vehicle in Los Angeles.

The V-word

In Silicon Valley, there’s no shortage of people who are routinely referred to by using the “V” word – V for visionary. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wants the world to be more open and connected. Bill Gates has moved into an emeritus role as the steward of a vast fortune that he intends to use to eradicate global diseases.

But Musk is unique in that his vision is so vast and so tied to the specific operations of his businesses. If Tesla succeeds, million of electric cars will hit the road and the demise of the internal-combustion engine will be hastened. If SolarCity succeeds, clean power will replace dirty energy, spelling the end of the coal- and natural-gas-burning power plants. If SpaceX succeeds, we’ll colonize Mars.

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Trump Tower in New York.
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Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

These are the explicit business goals of Musk’s companies. When he made his first fortune after eBay bought PayPal, which he cofounded with Trump supporter Peter Thiel, Musk sank his entire net worth into a vision that was fraught with so much risk that he initially discouraged investors from signing up because the chance they would lose everything was so high.

During the campaign, Trump labeled global warning a Chinese hoax, and though he has wobbled on that view since winning the White House, he has also named Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, as his secretary of state; Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who is a climate-change denier, to head the EPA; and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas to head the Department of Energy, an agency Perry once advocated abolishing.

Actions speak louder than words

Musk shouldn’t judge Trump by his words, which are reliably unreliable. Musk should look at the team Trump has put in charge of the country’s climate-and-energy future and draw the obvious conclusions: Valid climate science is now officially under siege, and sustainable or renewable energy sources are about to lose out big-time to Big Oil.

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President-elect Donald Trump.
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REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Some analysts don’t think Musk should stick to his vision. Trip Chowdhry of Global Equities Research, a consistent Tesla booster, sent out a note this week detailing the ways that Musk could “screw up” his meeting with Trump by “insisting on Scientific Data to prove Climate Change is real and Insisting on Sustainable Transportation.”

The note continued: “Trump knows very well that Scientific community is completely clueless and stupid … they can always find data to fit that particular theory. It is the scientific community, which in 1970’s were saying the coming of “Ice Age” and then in 2000’s pivoted to the coming of “Global Warming.” … basically fitting a data to a theory. President Trump is for reducing/eliminating pollution – but thinks Climate Change is a Hoax – Pollution control and Climate change are completely different from each other.”

An artful deal?

It is certainly possible that Musk could see a “deal” to be made here: Trump supports a carbon tax in exchange for Musk dumping his views on global warming.

But Trump isn’t going to support a carbon tax – and if he did, he’d have a revolt in a Republican-controlled Congress on his hands. At a more microscopic level, there’s a very good chance that Pruitt will direct the EPA to roll back mandated changes to increased fuel-economy standards, benefitting the traditional auto industry.

Trump is going to tell the tech people what they want to hear, praising their genius and encouraging them to keep up the good work of driving innovation in the US economy.

But the economically disenfranchised blue-collar voters who put him in office don’t care about the tech industry; they want to roll back the clock to a time before the internet, before automation in factories, before the flow of global goods, services, and capital made Silicon Valley wildly rich. The internet came of age when Bill Clinton was president – and Bill Clinton’s wife just lost her bid for the White House. Trump’s supporters don’t want more tech, which is based in science. They want less.

Musk has to know this. So now he faces a test. Go to Trump Tower and play the Trump game. Or be Elon Musk and stick to the game he’s been playing so well his entire life.