Report Reveals Auto Giants Knew About Car Emissions and Climate Change — in the 1960s
By Jessica Corbett
"Another cog in the climate denial machine rattles loose."
So said Harvard University climate denial researcher Geoffrey Supran in response to a groundbreaking investigative report published Monday by E&E News revealing that scientists at auto giants General Motors and Ford Motor Co. "knew as early as the 1960s that car emissions caused climate change."
Those discoveries, notes E&E News reporter Maxine Joselow, "preceded decades of political lobbying by the two car giants that undermined global attempts to reduce emissions while stalling U.S. efforts to make vehicles cleaner."
Supran is co-director of the Climate Social Science Network and a research associate in Harvard's Department of the History of Science. He investigates the history of climate politics—particularly the communications, denial, and delay tactics of fossil fuel interests—alongside professor Naomi Oreskes, who also highlighted the revelations.
"There was never any doubt for a minute", former GM scientist Ruth Reck says of her pioneering climate science rese… https://t.co/DaYzkpPG7q— Geoffrey Supran (@Geoffrey Supran)1603721164.0
More details about what corporate America knew about #climatechange in the 1960s and 70s... and also how they funde… https://t.co/lSCrsvA44P— NaomiOreskes (@NaomiOreskes)1603723251.0
"From fossil fuel companies, to car manufacturers and utilities, we know it's not only Exxon that knew about the climate crisis decades ago," Lindsay Meiman of 350.org told Common Dreams on Monday, referencing previous reporting on climate research conducted and concealed for decades by oil giant ExxonMobil.
"Now, with climate disasters at our doorsteps, it's Black, Indigenous, and communities of color who bear the costs of these lies," Meiman added. "The silver lining: we know exactly who is responsible for the climate crisis. It's up to all of us to hold polluters and billionaires accountable for their deception and destruction."
Joselow's exposé is based on nearly five months of reporting as well as documents on GM from the General Motors Heritage Center and Wayne State University in Detroit, documents on Ford's climate research unearthed by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), and additional materials on both manufacturers provided by the Climate Investigations Centers.
According to E&E News:
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, which released large quantities of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide that could trigger melting of polar ice sheets and other dire consequences.
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.
But in the following decades, both manufacturers largely failed to act on the knowledge that their products were heating the planet. 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.
While spokespeople for each company responded to the revelations by recognizing the reality of human-caused climate change and detailing to E&E News their respective efforts to reduce emissions by increasing production of electric vehicles, climate action advocates were outraged.
"It's jaw-dropping," Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media and co-founder of 350.org, told Common Dreams. "GM and Ford not only knew their cars were fueling the climate crisis, but anytime a political effort came together to address the emergency, they helped steer it into a ditch. Think of the millions of premature deaths from air pollution that could have been prevented if the world's largest automakers had committed to go all-electric back in the 1970s."
"This reporting drags the automakers back into the center of the climate fight," added Henn. "It puts immense pressure on them to support any new climate legislation or regulations, especially around electric vehicles and auto emissions. I think it also raises the question of whether GM and Ford should be included in future climate liability lawsuits."
Henn explained that unlike the major fossil fuel companies, who he called "irredeemable polluters," big auto companies like Ford and GM now have a choice to make. "They can get swept away with the likes of Exxon and Chevron or embrace a clean energy future by going all-electric and supporting mass transit," he said. "Activists will be working hard to make sure it's the latter."
Just like #ExxonKnew, General Motors + Ford have known for decades how they contribute to the climate crisis. Inst… https://t.co/noRVIUGiBt— 350 dot org (@350 dot org)1603728598.0
A critical, and damning, look at how #FordandGMKnew that vehicle emissions were driving climate change and they lob… https://t.co/nXJyEZQd4W— Allison Considine (@Allison Considine)1603723820.0
In a statement, CIEL president Carroll Muffett said the investigation "demonstrates auto companies were aware of emerging climate science and on notice of potential climate risks decades earlier than was previously recognized." The group also detailed key takeaways from the reporting:
- In a 1956 letter, Ford scientist Gilbert Plass rejected the idea that excess warming from burning fossil fuels poses "little danger to the Earth," observing that burning known reserves of fossil fuels would raise global temperatures by 7⁰C.
- In multiple articles written while at Ford, Plass detailed the science linking fossil fuel combustion to the planetary "greenhouse effect.""
- Ford continued an active program of climate-relevant research into the 1970s and beyond.
- General Motors employed its own climate scientists from the early 1970s, with a research focus on establishing competing theories of global warming.
- In testimony to Congress in 1967, a Ford executive argued against federal investments in electric vehicle research, arguing that industry was actively developing EV technology and would be ready to bring electric cars to market within a decade.
"Like the oil industry, leading car companies had early notice that the carbon dioxide emitted by their automotive products posed potential risks for the climate at a planetary scale," said Muffett. "Ford and GM had both the opportunity and the responsibility to design products that would reduce emissions, and warn the public of risks that couldn't be eliminated. Instead, they spent decades denying climate science and obstructing climate action."
In other words, Muffett added, "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. We are all paying for that gamble."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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