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Electric Vehicles Won’t Stop the Climate Catastrophe — Only the Working Class and Oppressed Can

In this “now or never” moment, we must break from any remaining belief that incremental policy changes and technological moonshots championed by capitalists will save us from the climate crisis that they created and profit from.

Lee Palmer

January 23, 2023
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Tesla car chargers partly submerged after a storm.

The “fast track” to an uninhabitable world appears to be speeding up, not slowing down. Preliminary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions estimates for 2022 indicate that the United States, history’s biggest carbon hog responsible for 20 percent of the world’s emissions since 1850, emitted 1.3 percent more GHG in 2022 than 2021. The United States is off track to meet even the modest emissions reductions called for in the Paris Agreement.

The Rhodium Group’s estimates indicate that the transportation sector continues to be the leading source of U.S. GHG emissions, maintaining the top spot that it has held since 2017. Transportation GHG emissions grew an estimated 1.3 percent year-over-year between 2021 and 2022. In 2021, transportation emitted 38 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide, ahead of electric power at 33 percent and industry at a distant 17 percent. Motor vehicles make up 83 percent of overall transportation emissions, led by personal vehicle use. Why? Because passenger vehicles emit more carbon per passenger mile than other forms of transportation and because we drive too much to get to jobs, schools, and healthcare that are getting farther and farther from our homes. Buses, passenger rail, and other forms of transit like subways and light rail produce far less in the way of emissions, and increased ridership has great potential to drive down per capita emissions even further. A switch to public transit would also drive down transportation cost burdens, amid other benefits that would make society less unequal.

Joe Biden and his administration have gone to great lengths to stake U.S. transportation emissions reductions and our collective future on electric vehicles (EVs). The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) funded a nationwide network of EV chargers, while the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) granted large subsidies to EV buyers. The recently released National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization includes a smattering of strategies but boldly declares: “transitioning to clean [vehicles] is expected to drive the majority of emissions reductions.” A national target to decrease vehicle miles traveled and a strategy to disincentivize private vehicle use are notably absent.

Sustainable transportation advocates correctly point out that the Biden administration’s explicit focus on EVs will not bring emissions reductions down to the levels needed to prevent catastrophic climate disasters. Under optimistic circumstances (e.g., a temperate climate and a relatively green grid), mid-sized EVs have a life cycle embodied carbon footprint half that of a car powered by an internal combustion engine. At best, a full transition to EVs falls short of the 80 percent carbon reduction target by a full 30 percentage points. The production, operation, and destruction of an EV represents 20 tons of carbon. Despite the branding found in the Blueprint, EVs are far from “zero emissions.”

Furthermore, a transition to EVs won’t address the unacceptable status quo of traffic violence, environmental injustice, and the high costs to working people created by auto dependency. EVs will likely exacerbate some of these effects including greater traffic fatalities, worsening road conditions, and higher particulate matter pollution from the increased weight and torque produced by batteries and electric drivetrains. The impacts will likely continue to be inequitably distributed in Black, indigenous, and low-income communities. Even the chair of Biden’s National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) has sounded the alarm about the dangers posed by going all-in on EVs. Furthermore, private vehicle ownership is extremely costly. The average U.S. household spent nearly $11,000 on transportation costs in 2021. Transportation costs accounted for 29.7 percent of after-tax income for the poorest Americans.

Why, then, has the Biden administration insisted that EVs will save us from climate disaster, even though transportation experts know they won’t or can’t? Why aren’t we putting public transportation in a leading role with EVs acting in support? Why aren’t we trying to lower the amount of miles Americans are forced to drive? It is because a dramatic shift to a society moved primarily by public transportation and other sustainable modes like walking and biking with low-emission vehicles playing a supporting role is incompatible with U.S. capitalism. 

EVs are the only “solution” capital can offer while preserving itself. Biden is remaining true to his promise to rich donors that “nothing will fundamentally change.” The National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, much like the IRA, BIL, and other “climate solutions” touted by Biden and the Democratic Party, cements our collective fate. “Improved” policies, targeted incentives, and deregulation are not the way out. Real solutions to our climate crisis and the other crises that drive and are intimately entangled with it depend on the struggle and leadership of the working class and oppressed.

Breaking from Motor Vehicles Means Reduced Capitalist Profits

Capitalists will not voluntarily give up their profits and must seek to increase their rate of profit to survive. The transition to EVs breathes new life into the automotive sector, energy, and real estate. Since EVs stand to benefit capital, the state is more than happy to champion them.

EVs are a gift to the industrial capitalists who run Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis: they keep the assembly lines rolling and the revenues flowing. With consumers holding on to their cars longer and longer, a new market segment is necessary to stimulate sales. EVs also make private vehicle ownership palatable to a segment of consumers in the U.S. and abroad who are troubled by dirty internal combustion engines (even though tire and brake pad wear more negatively impact public health than tailpipe emissions). The writing is on the wall: go electric or go out of business. The auto manufacturers are adapting. By 2024, EV models available in the U.S. are expected to double to 134. Georgia’s Republican Governor, Brian Kemp, has burnished his image by touting the economic windfall that EVs represent while excluding their climate benefits (which are modest for electric F-150s when compared to a sedan).

Incentives for EVs, battery plants, and on-shore chip production are championed by bourgeois politicians on both sides of the aisle because they are blatant corporate welfare. They are intended to stimulate demand, increase efficiency, decrease competition from China, and enshrine the automobile as a strategic U.S. commodity for another generation. In certain cases, they also present an opportunity to shift from a unionized to non-unionized workforce.

Then there is the simple fact that any strategy to reduce vehicle miles traveled by passenger car, EV or otherwise, would reduce demand for cars and energy, and thus capitalist profits. Nearly 80 percent of work commutes in the U.S. are made by drivers without passengers. Moving a significant portion of the population from car-dependent to car-optional lifestyles enabled by robust public transportation and more sustainable forms of land use, would entail losses that the capitalists can’t stomach.

Shifting away from Motor Vehicles Means Diminishing U.S. Hegemony

The global hegemony of the U.S. regime has declined significantly since 2008. Responding to this crisis, Joe Biden has made it a priority of his administration to re-establish the United States as the world’s dominant power. EVs are a feature of the terrain of global competition between the U.S. and China. Relinquishing any advantage or opportunity that the United States. holds would risk further slippage; strengthening the United States’ position. represents an opportunity to cut down China’s ambitions.

The EV subsidies in the IRA are intimately tied to the growing conflict between the United States. and China over global supply chains and critical mineral resources. As of 2023, the subsidies in the IRA only apply to vehicles assembled in the United States. with a minimum required level of components and critical minerals originating from the United States or countries with which it has a fair trade agreement. The terms of the IRA are forcing producers to build new production facilities for the U.S. market, diverting investment from China.

Auto-dependency and car-enabled, consumption-oriented lifestyles are also among the nation’s cultural exports. Transportation advocates scoffed when U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the creation of the Momentum program in 2022. Why would a nation whose transportation system is characterized by exorbitant emissions, high costs, lack of choice, and the highest traffic fatality rate in the developed world believe that it could teach the world anything about transportation best practices? One look at the strategy reveals that it is orientated to exporting the American way of life and economic model to the Global South, notably countries like Vietnam, where U.S. capital seeks to relocate factories and supply chains that are currently based in China. The Blueprint guiding principle “Establish U.S. Leadership” further underlines how the regime will leverage every opportunity to jockey for power on the global stage.

Strong Public Transportation is a Liability for Capital

The private automobile, “affordable” to the average person, was necessary to wrest control of the transportation sector away from workers. When Biden and Congress trampled on the will of rail workers and unilaterally imposed a pro-management contract in November of 2022, they sent a message that they would use all means to prevent worker power in the critical sectors of logistics and transportation. The capitalists recognize that these sectors are a liability and will resist further consolidation.

Transportation by rail, bus, and train has traditionally been a stronghold of organized labor in the United States. The credible threat posed by the railroad strike wave of 1944-45 resulted in the Taft-Hartley Act, which dramatically curtailed the legal rights of railroad workers to strike. These workplaces are centralized into depots, garages, and yards where vehicles are mustered, cleaned, repaired, and dispatched. Quashing organizing in these workplaces is thereby more difficult than in more decentralized workplaces (except where enabled by anti-union laws and chummy union bureaucrats). Furthermore, there is no gig economy model for mass transit: it’s practically impossible. Turning a profit or breaking even on fare revenue can only be achieved by running scheduled service on fixed routes with large vehicles, far beyond the reach of any independent contractor. Look no further than the losses that Uber incurred running the much more modest UberPool shared ride service.

The transportation and logistics sector has emerged as a key site of struggle in a globalized economy that relies on just-in-time supply chains and next-day deliveries. The 2022 U.S. railroad strike threat demonstrated that centralized logistics workers can bring the economy to its knees, hence the swift and unpopular action of Congress to break it. The expiration of the UPS-Teamsters contract in 2023 presents another important battleground. Relinquishing more ground to workers in these critical sectors would create even greater precarity and potential for mass mobilization against the regime.

The Tension between Public Transportation and Capital

The car has another advantage to capital that public transportation lacks: it solves for the characteristic instability of capitalism, which, in the United States, has a distinct spatial expression. In its search to increase the rate of profit, capital must constantly roam. New resources and consumers, under-exploited labor markets, and stolen land buoy the rate of profit and keep capitalism prosperous, but only for a time. Eventually, capital needs to keep moving on. The car enables capital to quickly expand into undeveloped land, to extract newly discovered resources, and to move people over greater and greater distances to the jobs that fuel this growth.

Passenger rail, interurbans, and streetcars once played the same role that the car does today. These earlier technologies allowed capitalists to speculate and expand into new economic sectors and real estate markets. They were and are, however, limited by where the track goes. Operating a train or trolley on a fixed route requires proximity: riders, goods, and customers must be located close enough to the line to use it. Fixed route services also rely on density: there needs to be demand to keep the service in the black. Developing a line requires a large amount of capital to build the necessary infrastructure. When the market inevitably collapses, shifts to new industries, or develops real estate further on the urban fringe, the line becomes unprofitable and falls into disuse. Cars are more flexible and can better imitate capital’s movements.

Real estate capital has been a major beneficiary of the auto boom. Suburban growth machines, which had initial successes with bedroom communities on the urban fringes enabled by passenger rail and interurbans, were sent into overdrive by the mass production of cars and massive subsidization of infrastructure coming from all levels of government. The resulting patterns of land use and the profits that they deliver are intimately tied to the personal vehicle and incompatible with public transportation: they are too unstable, sprawling, and exclusionary to support it. 

Detroit provides a case study of the instability inherent in capital, with an automotive twist. Detroit’s population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950, making it the fourth-most populous city in the country. It then started its infamous decline over a decade before the 1967 Rebellion. Auto-enabled expansion into suburbs allowed for more efficient factory design than the multi-story urban factories. Spurred on by racial animosities stoked by capital, white residents who could afford it relocated to work in these factories and later in the white collar and service sector jobs that would replace them following deindustrialization in the 1970s. Black residents, subjected to racial discrimination and violence in the suburbs, stayed in Detroit, fighting to keep the lights on and the water running. In the last ten years, capital has begun to return to Detroit, lured by a large rent gap and enormous government tax abatements and incentives. Chrysler proclaimed “half time in America” only when Detroit had reached the level of disinvestment that capital could once again profit from.

Public transportation demands stability, which capitalism simply can’t provide. EVs would continue to allow real estate to expand into new, increasingly risky areas for development, unlocking the profits latent in undeveloped land. Breaking with the automobile and pivoting to public transportation would mean breaking with the expansionist and unstable land regime that defines the United States.

The Only Way Out is Through

The formula presented in the National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization and echoed across the mainstream lots of new EVs with a dash of public transportation — is fundamentally backward if our goal is to prevent catastrophic warming. Dramatically better public transportation, controlled by the workers who run it, is the key to moving people about their daily lives while reducing transportation emissions in the United States and abroad. EVs should play a smaller, transitional role as a worker-controlled auto sector retools to build buses, train cars, and e-bikes. 

As argued above, if we want a dramatic expansion of public transportation to address the climate crisis, we will have to fight for it, and our fight will necessarily be against the capitalists and capitalism itself. We must be clear-eyed that the capitalists will not change tack if we ask nicely or present a well-reasoned policy brief: they have too much to lose. If capital won’t concede to the necessary wholesale reorganization of how we provide transportation in order to avert climate annihilation, the only solution is to seize their power and do it ourselves. 

Where do we start? Everyone has a role in building the militancy and power of workers in logistics and transportation. Workers, including railroaders and bus operators, start by building class independence and reaching beyond bread and butter demands in our strikes and labor actions, incorporating climate demands, demands to abolish the police, and demands for Black and trans lives. Through even the most deadly months of the pandemic, transit operators kept grocery stores and hospitals functioning by transporting their essential workforce every day. Imagine what could have happened if organized, militant bus drivers had walked off the job in numbers in June 2020 at the height of the George Floyd uprising. For some transportation and logistics workers, this might mean breaking undemocratic labor laws. Allies, including sustainable transportation advocates, must be prepared to stand and fight with them. If transit workers strike, the solution isn’t to walk or bike like white collar New Yorkers did in 1980, defanging the strike: it is to join the picket line.

Clever policy tweaks and moonshot technologies like EVs won’t save us from driving off the climate cliff; only the leadership and power of the working class and the oppressed, independent of the bourgeois political parties and willing to use the tactics of the strike, solidarity actions, and struggle in the streets will be sufficient to break the capitalist regime that threatens the habitability of this Earth. Allies should support them and follow their leadership. It’s time to take the UN Environment Programme at its word: “We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”

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