It was a provocative, edgy headline, just the kind of thing that might generate a few extra clicks: “Are electric cars worse for the environment?”
That’s what Jonathan Lesser’s May 15 op-ed in Politico asked. Let’s get the answer out of the way: No. Electric vehicles are, as most anyone would correctly guess, much better for the environment than gasoline-powered cars.
But Lesser had “crunched the numbers,” in a report that he wrote for the Manhattan Institute, a think tank that has taken millions from the oil and gas industry and the Koch Brothers. In that report and his Politico op-ed hawking it, he claimed that switching to electric vehicles “will have no impact whatsoever on climate, and thus have no economic benefit.”
There’s one big problem: Lesser, in dozens of articles over the past decade that he’s written for the natural gas industry, has denied the very existence of climate change.
The person who is telling us that electric vehicles won’t do enough in the fight against climate change doesn’t even believe climate change is happening.
Electric vehicles are (obviously) better for the environment than gasoline engines
First, let’s dispense with the actual thesis of Lesser’s argument.
Yes, it is true that the electricity that charges electric vehicles still creates pollution from the power plants that make the electricity to charge them. EVs charged in parts of the country where the electric grid is powered with mostly coal will create more pollution than those charged on grids with more renewable energy. That’s a great reason why we need to keep phasing out coal and switching to wind and solar electricity.
But even right now, before the grid gets any greener, “driving and charging an electric vehicle anywhere in the United States produces fewer global warming emissions than driving an average new gas-powered vehicle.” That’s what the Union of Concerned Scientists found when it conducted a comprehensive “cradle to grave” life cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from electric vehicles in November, 2015. Since then, driving an EV has only gotten greener compared to driving a car with a gasoline engine, as EVs get more efficient and the country keeps weaning itself off of coal and onto more renewable energy.
In his report, Lesser says he is talking about sulfur and nitrogen oxide pollution, not carbon dioxide emissions, which he begrudgingly acknowledges will be reduced by EVs.
The UCS report didn’t examine the sulfur or nitrogen emissions, but a separate, peer-reviewed study by scientists from the Carnegie Mellon Vehicle Electrification Group did look at those other pollutants in 2016. They examined EVs in one of the coal-heaviest parts of the country (the PJM grid) and found that by this year, 2018, coal plant retirements would make EVs as clean or cleaner than gasoline-powered cars on those other pollutant fronts too. Even if one were to discount the climate benefits of electric vehicles entirely, Lesser’s argument on these other kinds of pollution does not hold water. (Lesser’s report fails to acknowledge virtually any information from peer-reviewed studies like that one which have looked at the effects of electric vehicles on pollution.)
So that’s some actual science from people who aren’t funded by the oil and gas industry. Lesser’s “paper” has none of that rigor. The easier way to tell that Lesser is not on the level is by noting that, while his report and Politico op-ed would imply that he thinks addressing climate change is important, in many of his other writings he challenges whether it even exists.
Lesser and the Manhattan Institute’s history of denial and work for the fossil fuel industry
“The inability of current climate models to explain the lack of warming over the past
15 years, plus predictions that the sun may be entering a prolonged period of low activity, suggest that much more analysis must be done before we impoverish ourselves by choking off economic growth. Don’t put that winter coat in storage quite yet.”
That’s what Lesser wrote as recently as 2014 on his website in describing an article he wrote for a gas industry magazine which repeated the common climate denier myth that “global temperatures have not risen for the last 15 years.” Lesser does not accept the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change. “Those who insist global warming is real and taking place suggest that the missing heat is hiding in the oceans,” Lesser goes on. (This strain of climate denial is nonsense that has been debunked over and over. The five hottest years on record have occurred since 2010; the ten hottest since 1998; the 20 hottest since 1995.)
In a 2007 column, Lesser wrote: “Although many scientists view global climate change as a serious problem, many others continue to express doubt regarding both its magnitude and causes. Clearly, the Earth’s climate has changed continuously throughout its history and long before mankind was mucking about.”
More germanely to his latest attack on electric vehicles, another 2007 piece laments a Supreme Court decision for its implication that doing anything about vehicle emissions might be useful to address climate change.
What about the nitrogen and sulfur pollution which Lesser presents as such a great cause of concern in his Politico article – perhaps Lesser has been more consistent on those issues?
Nope. In a 2008 article, Lesser attacked EPA New Source Review regulations aimed at reducing those forms of pollution too. In 2014, Lesser wrote a report on behalf of groups affiliated with Ohio’s utilities attacking an effort to increase renewable energy in that state which would have resulted in coal plants coming offline, reducing the pollution he claims to care about in Politico.
Lesser has earned his paychecks throughout his career from fossil fuel interests, and that continued with his latest attack on electric vehicles. He wrote this most recent paper for the Manhattan Institute, which has accepted over $1 million in funding from Exxon, and millions from the Koch Brothers. The Manhattan Institute also has a long record of denying that climate change is happening or that its costs are worth trying to address.
Simply put, Lesser attacked electric vehicles because he was commissioned to do so by people paid by the oil industry. Lesser could have simply written that he opposes electric vehicles because he doesn’t think climate change is real, or poses much of a problem.
But outright climate science denial is passé, and thankfully no longer taken seriously by news outlets (even at the opinion desk). Instead, Lesser found a cleverer way to attack electric vehicles. He constructed a bogus argument with a catchy headline, and Politico unfortunately took the bait. Lesser and the Manhattan Institute’s benefactors from the oil industry will no doubt be pleased.
Image credit: Oregon Department of Transportation