Scientists at two of America’s biggest automakers knew as early as the 1960s that car emissions caused climate change, a monthslong investigation by E&E News has found.
The discoveries by General Motors and Ford Motor Co. 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.
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.
It wasn’t until 1996 that GM produced its first commercial electric vehicle, called the EV1. Ford released a compact electric pickup truck in 1998.
More than 50 years after the automakers learned about climate change, the transportation sector is the leading source of planet-warming pollution in the United States. Cars and trucks account for the bulk of those emissions.
This investigation is based on nearly five months of reporting by E&E News, including more than two dozen interviews with former GM and Ford employees, retired auto industry executives, academics, and environmentalists. Many of these details have not previously been reported.
Recently E&E News obtained hundreds of pages of documents on GM’s corporate history from the General Motors Heritage Center and Wayne State University in Detroit. Documents on Ford’s climate research were unearthed by the Center for International Environmental Law. The Climate Investigations Center provided additional material on both manufacturers.
The investigation reveals striking parallels between two of the country’s biggest automakers and Exxon Mobil Corp., one of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas companies. Exxon privately knew about climate change in the late 1970s but publicly denied the scientific consensus for decades, according to 2015 reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that spawned the hashtag #ExxonKnew and fueled a wave of climate litigation against the oil major.
The findings reveal that GM and Ford were “deeply and actively engaged” since the 1960s in understanding how their cars affected the climate, said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law.
“We also know that certainly by the 1980s and 1990s, the auto industry was involved in efforts to undermine climate science and stop progress to address climate change,” Muffett said. “But a different path was available.”
Today the companies acknowledge that climate change is a problem and in statements outlined their plans to increase production of clean cars.
A Ford spokesman said the company knows climate change is real and is “addressing it right now” by investing more than $11 billion to electrify its bestselling vehicles while aiming to run its manufacturing plants with 100% renewable energy in 15 years.
GM, in a brief response, pointed to steps it’s taking to reduce emissions, such as releasing an electric version of its Hummer, which for years has embodied the popularity of gas-guzzling SUVs. The company downplayed its past rejection of climate action.