BUSINESS
09/24/2015 08:38 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2015

Elon Musk Says Climate Change Refugees Will Dwarf Current Crisis

Tesla's CEO says the Volkswagen scandal is minor compared with carbon dioxide emissions.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Elon Musk, co-founder of electric carmaker Tesla Motors, warned on Thursday that climate change will spark a refugee crisis of catastrophic proportions if no action is taken.

In a speech in Berlin, the Tesla chief executive said Europe's current wave of people seeking asylum, prompted mostly by political violence, will be dwarfed as fresh water becomes scarce, food supplies become insecure and weather changes in the coming decades. 

"Today's refugee problem is perhaps a small indication of what the future will be like if we do not take action with respect to climate change," Musk told an audience at Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. "Today, the challenge is in terms of millions of people, but in the future, based on what the scientific consensus is, the problem will be in the hundreds of millions and much more severe."

Volkswagen's ongoing scandal over cheating on nitrogen oxide emissions tests on its diesel vehicles is a troubling, Musk said, but it's a small issue compared with the problem of overall carbon dioxide emissions.

The billionaire has devoted much of his career to reducing the use of fossil fuels. Besides running an electric car company, he serves as the chairman of SolarCity, a solar panel manufacturer. Earlier this year, both missions merged, when Tesla announced a battery pack that would allow buildings to store excess solar energy generated throughout the day for use at night.

"I think it's very important that we take action today to recognize that we are making a very significant change to the chemical constituency of the atmosphere and oceans," Musk said. "One that is almost impossible to reverse."

Climate change remains a contentious issue in the United States as some lobby groups, often acting on behalf of companies that benefit from the carbon economy, sow doubt with the scientific consensus of humankind's role in warming the planet. But in Germany, a country Musk called "the best in the world when it comes to solar power," facts about the climate are much more widely accepted.

Still, Musk said even Germany has a long way to go. Despite the country's aggressive transition to renewable energy, a program called Energiewende, Germany remains dependent on vehicles fueled by gasoline and diesel. The scandal engulfing Volkswagen -- the world's largest automaker by sales and, until now, the pride of Germany manufacturing and exports -- only serves to highlight the problem. 

"If you go 20, 30, 50 years in the future, what do you say to your kids or your grandkids? It's almost, like, scientists have all said that these bad things are going to happen, it's, like 97 percent," Musk said. "So, to say to your kids or grandkids, like, 'Did nobody tell you?' No, everyone was telling us. 'So why didn't you do anything?' What's the answer? I think it's very important that we do something."

Watch the full speech below. Musk begins talking at 9:03:

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