Ford And GM Lied. The Planet Died. Part Two

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In Part One, we told you about some of the client scientist who worked for Ford and General Motors in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Ruth Reck at GM and Gilbert Plath at Ford were recognized by the international scientific community as leading experts on the harm carbon dioxide does to the environment. Their findings were known to executives at the highest levels of both corporations, and yet both chose to ignore those conclusions and pursue a campaign of lies, distortions, and half truths, contributing millions to organizations whose sole reason for being was casting doubt on the connection between carbon dioxide and a warming planet.

Earth from space
Credit: NASA


Now in Part Two, we turn to some of the dastardly policies pursued by both companies after they knew how harmful the exhaust emissions of their products were. E&E News set it all out for everyone to see in a recent report based on months of research and interviews with several people involved.

In June 1988, Dr. James Hansen told Congress he had a “high degree of confidence” that human emissions of greenhouse gases were responsible for global warming. His testimony made the front page of the New York Times and sparked a surge in public awareness about climate change. But rather than affirming Hansen’s findings with those of their very own scientists, GM and Ford chose instead to engaged in a concerted campaign to block climate action while casting doubt on the emerging consensus on global warming.

In a “Public Interest Report” in 1989, GM’s public relations department portrayed the field of climate science as full of uncertainties. “The hot dry summer of 1988 in the U.S. brought to the forefront a debate among environmental scientists about whether human activities may cause a significant enough increase in the greenhouse effect to result in global warming. Although the four warmest years of the last century have occurred in the 1980s, most scientists agree that there is no strong evidence for a cause [and] effect relationship between the four warm years and the increased emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” it said.

When E&E News asked Ruth Reck, now 88 years old, about that so-called report, she  said it mischaracterized the certainty of the science. “There was never any doubt for a minute. That really misrepresents the truth. The PR people use those kinds of weasel words to misrepresent things. The thing is, the greenhouse gases were the greenhouse gases. There was absolutely no ambiguity from the very beginning. If the temperature is changing and it’s happening, you’re seeing it.”

A Deliberate And Cynical Campaign

It was about this time that both companies joined the Global Climate Coalition, whose main purpose was to debunk the claims that carbon dioxide had a negative effect on the environment The GCC, in conjunction with the American Automobile Manufacturers Association — both Ford and GM were members — ran a number of ads disparaging the Kyoto Protocol as a bad deal for Americans, primarily because it placed most of the burden of lowering carbon emissions on the world’s wealthiest nations — who of course were responsible for the majority of those emissionsand benefited the most from them.

“The role of automakers and their trade associations in climate denial campaigns is not well known. But these ads show a very deliberate effort, paid for in part by the auto industry, to undermine U.S. participation in a global climate treaty,” says Kert Davies, founder and director of the Climate Investigations Center. “They knew that if the U.S. participated, it would mean making cuts domestically in CO2 emissions and limiting the use of fossil fuels. So it was a very deliberate and very cynical campaign to keep the status quo and keep us buying the same cars and trucks we always bought.”

Many of our regular readers will recognize the same theme running through the current administration’s opposition to the Paris climate accords. Some things never change. When you find a good lie, ride it for all its worth. Such falsehoods have dominated political debates in Washington for the past 3 decades and continue in full force today.

Ford and GM continued their generous financial support of climate denial groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. Between 1985 and 1997, Ford donated more than $1.1 million to the American Enterprise Institute and $457,500 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, E&E News reports. During the same period, GM gave $635,000 to AEI and $220,000 to CEI. GM’s support for AEI continued even after it aired an infomercial in 2006 that claimed carbon dioxide was actually good for us. “Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life,” a female narrator says in the video as a young girl blows on a dandelion.

Fuel Economy

The average fuel economy of Ford vehicles was 20 miles per gallon in 1985. 25 years later, it was  20.4 mpg. For General Motors, its corporate average fuel economy was 20.5 mpg in 1985. By 2009, it had risen a barely perceptible amount to 20.6 mpg. How is that possible? Much of it has to do with the so-called “footprint rule” adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency at the behest of the auto industry. Here are few things to consider when discussing fuel economy.

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers we hear about scare a lot of people. All cars and trucks need to get over 50 mpg? That’s crazy talk! Well, actually, it’s not so crazy once you realize CAFE is simply a mathematical game the government and car companies play. First of all, way back when, the formulas used to make the computations were wildly optimistic. For instance, when I bought a new Toyota Prius in 2006, the window sticker said it got 60 mpg city, 50 mpg city. Over the next three years, I averaged about 42 mpg. Not bad, you understand, but a long way from what the government claimed the car was capable of.

A few years later, after howls of protest from the public, the formula was changed and window stickers today are much more realistic. But here’s the thing. The old standard –the one that has been completely discredited — is what is used to calculate those more than 50 mpg numbers reactionaries always scream about. If the calculations used the new standard, the Obama era fuel economy numbers for the smallest cars would be a hair under 38 mpg. Many compact cars already exceed that standard today.

The “footprint rule” allows larger vehicles to get lower fuel economy ratings. Light duty pickup trucks and SUVs need to meet a much lower standard thanks to intense lobbying by the auto industry. Voila! The market for trucks and SUVs has exploded! Think that’s a coincidence? Think again. The car companies say they only build what the public demands. Horse puckey. They build vehicles with the highest profit potential and then market the bejezus out of them. Why do you think today’s so-called minivans are so huge? Could it be because the larger they are, the lower fuel economy standard they have to meet? You decide.

The EV Revolution

It almost seems like both corporations have (at least) two factions inside them — one that wants to explore new technologies and one that wants nothing to ever change. General Motors created the EV1 then killed it. Ford came up with an electric Ranger pickup truck than killed it. GM created the Volt with a sophisticated plug-in hybrid powertrain that was years ahead of its time than killed it. Ford dabbled with hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars like the C-Max and Fusion than killed them. Are their latest efforts to get back in the electric vehicle game just corporate greenwashing? Both are racing to bring electric pickup trucks to market, but their eyes are still on the prize — light duty pickups and SUVs with profit margins fat enough to bring tears of joy to the eyes of corporate bean counters.

In an email to E&E News, Ford spokesperson John Cangany said. “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.” He added that Ford has committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 (much too late, John) and has voluntarily agreed to follow California’s tailpipe emissions standards. GM spokesman Jim Cain said the company’s sustainability report “contains a comprehensive summary of our work to reduce our environmental impact, including [greenhouse gas] reduction,” before adding that GM plans 20 new electric vehicle models globally by 2023. Once again, too little too late.

Remember Ruth Reck, the GM research scientist who first alerted the company to the dangers of global heating? She left the company in 1992 after allegedly being told to stop researching environmental issues. “I always wondered whether they would try to end the research if it showed what they were doing was bad,” she told E&E News over the course of several interviews. “Toward the end, they did. But for 27 years they supported it.”

Reck went on to become head of the global climate change program at Argonne National Laboratory and a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of California, Davis. During her interviews, Reck expressed shock that severe consequences of global warming, such as the massive wildfires raging in California, have materialized in her lifetime. “We thought that might happen 800 years from now,” she said of the fires. “We had it in the very far future that these things might start to happen from climate change. So it has gone at such an accelerated rate.”

The Take Away

Perhaps Ford and General Motors can be excused for ignoring the findings of people like Ruth Reck and Gilbert Plass, which were far outside the zone of conventional thinking when first presented. But they cannot be excused for financially supporting climate denial from Koch Brothers supported pressure groups — denial that reached into the highest level of policy making for the US government. To the extent that America influenced policy considerations by other nations, the efforts to beat back the unwelcome news about global warming by Ford and GM had international implications as well. Their actions are an indictment of unfettered capitalism as it come to be practiced in the United States.

A clue about the confluence of corporate interest between automakers and oil companies can be found in the history of ExxonMobil. In the 1970s, after the OPEC oil embargoes, the company funded a research program in New Jersey designed to develop more efficient vehicles. That research focused on hybrid powertrains. But after the effect of the embargoes wore off, Exxon shut down the program and gave everything it had learned, together with the first working prototype, to Toyota. 16 years later, the first Toyota Prius went on sale.

ExxonMobil, Ford, and General Motors were all members of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other climate denial groups. All walked away from concerns about carbon emissions and the environment at about the same time. Did they all decide to do so independently or was their affiliation with the same lobbying organizations the key? Once again, you decide.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

Steve Hanley has 5243 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley