- Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Elon Musk’s decision on Thursday to resign from President Trump’s CEO advisory councils following the announcement that the US would pull out of the Paris climate accord was entirely predictable.
But it’s also important to understand why Musk – an American business leader and technologist emblematic of science and reason, while Trump is emblematic of neither – was on the Trump’s councils to begin with.
In 2015, Musk completed the circle of his overall vision as an entrepreneur when just ahead of the ratification of the Paris agreement, he gave a speech at the Sorbonne forcefully advocating for a carbon tax.
Musk knew three things when Trump was unexpectedly elected last fall. First, that Trump wanted to revive American manufacturing in marquee industries such as autos, and Musk just happened to run a car company that makes cars in the US.
Second, that Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who was Trump’s Secretary of State, was friendly to the idea of a carbon tax.
And third, that Trump was anti-science, but not anti-deal.
Musk must have figured that he could work within that framework, with the endgame being advocacy of a carbon tax, using his growing plans for Tesla (and also SpaceX) as a bargaining chip.
Musk knew he was in for a fight. But it was a good fight. A worthwhile fight.
- Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
For Trump to pull out of the Paris accord meant that the fight was going to get much, much tougher. And while Musk isn’t one to cut his losses – Tesla has been losing money since it was founded – he’s not by nature a fighter. He loves science and technology, and regardless of what you think about him as a businessperson, he loves the planet. Conflict interests him less than figuring out innovative ways to rise above it.
His companies – Tesla and SpaceX – are an integrated effort to ensure humanity’s survival and to address what Musk believes is the biggest threat to the species: global warming. If you’re wondering how SpaceX fits into that, by the way, it’s to make humanity a “multi-planetary” species. Mars is our backup plan.
Musk’s obligation if he had remained on Trump’s councils would have been to serve as a figurehead for American manufacturing while simultaneously fighting a desperate fight against Trump’s campaign promise to leave the Paris agreement. It was easy for Trump to bail on Paris – a chunk of cheap red meat thrown to his base, terminating a deal that didn’t make any serious demands on the US.
For Musk, of course, it meant a lot – it made a carbon tax much more plausible.
You have to give Musk credit for swallowing his pride and joining the council in the first place. But some fights aren’t worth it, and Musk now recognizes that he can probably reach out to Tillerson on a freelance basis – if that’s even worth it, given Tillerson’s extremely minimal role in the administration.
You also have to give Musk credit for being true to himself. He knows what he loves, and he isn’t afraid to find the best way to fight for it. Sometimes that means leaving a fight you know you can’t win.