Detroit Knew: GM and Ford Were Aware of Climate Risks Decades Ago Too, Investigation Reveals


Groundbreaking reporting this week by E&E News revealed that, similar to major oil companies like Exxon, American automakers Ford and General Motors (GM) engaged in early cutting-edge climate science research and that the companies were aware as early as the 1960s of potential climate risks that stem from burning the fossil fuels that power their vehicles. The investigation, published Monday, October 26, also describes how the auto giants largely dismissed those risks and actively lobbied to block action and fund climate science denial campaigns.

Just as with the oil industry, the auto industry was really focused on potential regulatory threats from pollution to its business long ago,” Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit law firm which helped uncover historical documents on Ford scientists’ climate research, told DeSmog. 

That the auto industry would be aware of the emerging science that was relevant to how its products operate is not surprising,” Muffett added. Yet despite this early knowledge, he explained, the industry “embarked on a multi-decade course of action designed to sow uncertainty about climate science and to block climate action.”

This understanding that corporations long ago knew of climate risks associated with their products and later downplayed those risks to delay policies restricting greenhouse gas emissions was first revealed five years ago through investigative reporting focusing on Exxon, by InsideClimate News and by the Los Angeles Times and Columbia Journalism School. Subsequent reporting by DeSmog, InsideClimate News, and HuffPost has shown that other major oil companies as well as the coal and electric utility industries were aware of climate change and its potential impacts before the issue became politically salient.

So too were Ford and General Motors aware, the monthslong investigation by E&E News has found.

What could be relevant in potential climate litigation, which the oil industry is already facing, is not only what the automakers knew and when, but what they did in response. Rather than publicly acknowledging the climate consequences of fossil fuel consumption from automobiles and shifting to alternatives like electric vehicles, Ford and General Motors continued business as usual, while stoking uncertainty about climate science through their private donations.    

Instead of shifting their business models away from fossil fuels, the companies invested heavily in gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. At the same time, the two carmakers privately donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups that cast doubt on the scientific consensus on global warming,” E&E reporter Maxine Joselow wrote in the investigation.

Car Companies’ Early Climate Research, Subsequent Lobbying, and Climate Denial Funding

Ruth Reck, a physicist who worked for GM on climate science research starting in the late 1960s, told E&E News she presented her research findings to company executives including former CEOs. She collaborated with other scientists developing early climate models and studying the impacts of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, impacts like rising surface temperatures and melting ice sheets.

Ford also had in-house scientists studying global warming. One scientist named Gilbert Plass conducted extensive climate research and even penned a letter in 1956 on Ford letterhead to another climate scientist rejecting the notion that planetary warming from burning fossil fuel poses “little danger.” According to the E&E report it is unclear if Ford scientists shared their climate findings with company executives.

Ford did continue to support climate-relevant research into the 1970s and beyond, a CIEL press release notes.

When climate change started to emerge as an international and U.S. policy issue in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ford and GM donated to conservative think tanks and organizations disseminating disinformation on climate, and they engaged in campaigns to downplay climate risks and misrepresent the science through a now-defunct group called the Global Climate Coalition.

As E&E News reported, based on data provided by Brown University researcher Robert Brulle, GM and Ford funded free-market think tanks promoting climate denial messaging such as the Heritage Foundation, Heartland Institute, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ford contributed over $1.1 million to AEI and $457,500 to CEI between 1985 and 1997. GM donated $635,000 to AEI and $220,000 to CEI during that time.

Both automakers were original members (starting in 1989) of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an industry lobby coalition that opposed controls on greenhouse gas emissions and worked to misrepresent climate science to stave off policy responses. Other members of the GCC included major petroleum companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell, companies that are now named defendants in a raft of climate liability lawsuits.

The GCC disbanded in 2002; Ford and GM both exited the coalition between December 1999 and March 2000.

There is nothing we can say about events that happened one or two generations ago since they are irrelevant to the company’s positions and strategy today,” a GM spokesperson reportedly told E&E News.

In response to a request for comment from DeSmog on why the company’s current plans to produce more electric vehicles and reduce the climate impacts of its business were not embraced decades ago when there was more time to avoid dangerous climate change, GM spokesperson Jeannine Ginivan reiterated the company’s commitments to address climate change and said GM “has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to an all-electric future.”

Climate change is something our company takes very seriously and recognizes the role the transportation sector has in contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

We came to market with our first commercial electric vehicle in 1996 and today we are committed to an all-electric future, and have committed to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2040,” Ginivan added. “We are not evading responsibility, we are addressing it head on.”    

Automakers Still Profit More from Gas Guzzlers  

General Motors headquarters in Detroit, Michigan
General Motors headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. Credit: Michigan Municipal League, CC BYND 2.0

While the auto industry now acknowledges the problem of climate change and no longer funds outright climate denial, it mostly continues to fight regulations like stricter fuel economy standards and still relies on selling larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles to reach higher profit margins at the expense of a rapidly warming planet.

Based on the profit motive, it is perhaps unsurprising that GM is part of an auto industry coalition that is backing the Trump administration in a lawsuit challenging California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set stricter vehicle fuel economy and climate pollution standards.

As DeSmog previously reported, GM has indicated in its 2018 annual 10-K SEC filing that its profitability largely hinges on selling more gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs as these large vehicles retain a higher profit margin.

GM made the same revelation in its 2019 10-K form, stating: “Our success is dependent upon our ability to sell higher margin vehicles in sufficient volumes. Any shift in consumer preferences toward smaller, more fuel- efficient vehicles, whether as a result of increases in the price of oil or any sustained shortage of oil, including as a result of global political instability, or other reasons, could weaken the demand for our higher margin vehicles. More stringent fuel economy regulations could also impact our ability to sell these vehicles.”

Ford is one of four automakers that struck a deal with California agreeing to adhere to the state’s stronger tailpipe standards.

But Ford’s annual SEC filings also acknowledge that consumer shifts towards smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles could hurt profitability. The company’s 2019 10-K, for example, states: “Ford’s results are dependent on sales of larger, more profitable vehicles, particularly in the United States. A shift in consumer preferences away from larger, more profitable vehicles (including trucks and utilities) at levels beyond Ford’s current planning assumption, whether because of spiking fuel prices, a decline in the construction industry, government actions or incentives, or other reasons, could result in an immediate and substantial adverse effect on Ford’s financial condition or results of operations.”

Ford did not respond to a request for comment specifically on this disclosure indicating that profitability is tied to larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles. Company spokesperson John Cangany instead responded with the same statement supplied to E&E News emphasizing the company’s commitment to climate action.

We know that climate change is real and we are addressing it right now through meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions, investment in electric vehicles, and sustainable manufacturing,” Cangany said. “We have ambitious climate goals to move toward a carbon-neutral future while still delivering great vehicles and services to our customers.”

SUVs’ Hefty Emissions Toll

While SUVs may be more lucrative for automakers, they are some of the largest sources of carbon pollution on the planet. The International Energy Agency found that SUVs were the second-largest cause of global increase in carbon emissions from 2010 to 2018, belching out more heat-trapping gases than heavy industry, shipping, aviation, and trucks.

As the Guardian explained in an article published September 1, SUVs have become particularly popular in America largely due to the auto industry pushing these larger, more rugged vehicles.

After successfully lobbying lawmakers to class these vehicles as light trucks rather than cars, binding SUVs to less stringent fuel efficiency standards, the industry set about slotting them into almost every arena of American life,” Guardian reporter Oliver Milman wrote. The industry’s emphasis on SUVs has consequences for the climate, he noted. Total SUVs sold in the U.S. in 2018 will emit 3.5 million more tons of CO2 in a single year compared to smaller vehicles, for example, and SUVs in the U.S. spew 14 percent more carbon emissions on average than small passenger cars.

Furthermore, as DeSmog reported last year, a 2019 analysis by CDP and the World Benchmarking Alliance found that automakers are not yet prioritizing electric vehicles and are not doing enough to de-carbonize their business in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Low-carbon vehicles are starting to become more available on the market, but for most auto manufacturers these alternative vehicles make up less than 1 percent of annual sales.

For historical reference, Ford documents uncovered by CIEL reveal that a Ford executive claimed in 1967 testimony to Congress that the auto industry was at that time prepared to bring electric cars to market within a decade, and for this reason, the executive argued, there was no need for the federal government to invest in electric vehicle research.


Potential Liability? 

It is unclear whether the new revelations about Ford’s and GM’s early knowledge on the climate risks associated with their products will lead to even more investigations into climate change and the auto industry, and potentially, as we are now seeing with the oil industry, liability litigation.

But the fact that it is now documented that scientists at Ford and GM were engaged in understanding climate impacts from fueling automobiles, Muffett explained, means the companies were “effectively on early notice” of dangers related to their products and that they had a duty to warn.

If you know that your principal product releases a pollutant that could pose a risk of transforming the entire planet’s climate, the responsibility to address that, to investigate it and not just to investigate but to warn the public, to warn consumers and regulators about it, is very clear,” Muffett said.

Instead, the automakers downplayed the climate risks and worked with other fossil fuel interests to block climate action. And the climate consequences are now becoming quite clear and costly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that 2020 marks the sixth straight year in which the U.S. experienced at least 10 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters such as storms and wildfires. The cost of not addressing global heating could reach hundreds of billions of dollars each year in the U.S. by the end of this century, according to 2019 research published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Like the major oil and gas companies, leading car companies took a calculated risk that they — and the world — could delay action to address the drivers of climate change,” Muffett said in a press release. “We are all paying for that gamble.”

Main image: Hummer

Dana is an environmental journalist focusing on climate change and climate accountability reporting. She writes regularly for DeSmog covering topics such as fossil fuel industry opposition to climate action, climate change lawsuits, greenwashing and false climate solutions, and clean transportation.

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