Ford, GM Knew About Climate Change for 60 Years

The Ford Mach-E electric vehicle. Image: Ford Motor Company

A 5-month investigation from E&E News revealed that scientists at General Motors and Ford Motor Co. knew as early as the 1960s that car emissions caused climate change. As E&E reported,

Researchers at both automakers found strong evidence in the 1960s and ’70s that human activity was warming the Earth. A primary culprit was the burning of fossil fuels.

A GM scientist presented her findings to at least three high-level executives at the company, including a former chairman and CEO. It’s unclear whether similar warnings reached the top brass at Ford.

Despite this knowledge, in the decades that followed, both companies spread misinformation and lobbied nationally and globally against climate policies.

Why This Matters: This is a similar revelation to oil majors like Shell and Exxon also knowing about climate change decades ago yet funding similar denial and industry-friendly lawmakers.

Yet, the biggest atonement for these misdeeds should enatil Ford and GM becoming true partners in the transition away from internal combustion engines. Thus far, Ford and GM have indicated that they plan to heavily invest in electric vehicles, yet the auto giants will also need to play a part in countering widespread public misperception about EVs that prevents people from buying them.

The Science: As Scientific American explained, “the basic physics of climate change have been known for more than a century, but it is in recent decades that the fundamental science of global warming has solidified.” Climate change as we know it became news 30 years ago, yet the urgency of the climate crisis wasn’t taken seriously by most lawmakers or the public until recently.

Company scientists, like this exposé reveals, knew about the dangers of unabated emissions, yet they failed to ring any alarm bells for fear of hindering business. A GM spokesperson told E&E news in response to their piece that, “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.”

Going Forward: While EV and hybrid technology didn’t become commercially available in the United States until about 20 years ago, both Ford and GM waited a long time to get into game. How they do from here on out, in terms of the vehicles they sell and the ways in which they shape perception of zero-emissions vehicles through marketing will be the story to watch.

This past summer, Ford signed a binding emissions reductions agreement with California after the Trump administration wouldn’t renew the state’s Clean Air Act waiver to set its own vehicle emissions levels. Meanwhile, California said that it would no longer purchase GM vehicles after the automaker backed the Trump administration’s actions. This could be an indication how how committed each automaker is to climate action.

The Political Equation: GM and Ford sell 75% of their trucks in states that Donald Trump won, and many of those states have governors and legislatures which will not be friendly to expanding electric vehicle infrastructure. This is where  Ford and GM must use their political muscle to encourage better adoption of EVs, trade-ins, and other political incentives that help Americans make the switch.

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