Ford and GM Knew About Their Role in Climate Change 50 Years Ago

A new investigation details how the automakers denied their own findings

General Motors headquarters Flint Michigan
The General Motors headquarters in Flint, MI in 1998.
Porter Gifford/Liaison via Getty Images

The most frustrating part about human-caused climate change is that while, to everyday Americans, it can feel like there’s still a debate about whether or not it’s happening (spoiler: it is), we continue to get new information about how business leaders knew about the effect of greenhouse-gas emissions decades ago. These executives, who were responsible for a significant portion of emissions, knew they were causing climate change — and they misled all of us about it.

Oil and gas executives knew decades ago. So did the American auto giants Ford and General Motors, according to a new investigation from E&E News, an outlet that reports on energy and the environment.

“Researchers at both automakers found strong evidence in the 1960s and ’70s that human activity was warming the Earth,” writes E&E News. “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.”

The five-month investigation unearthed new evidence about what Ford and GM knew, and when they knew it. The report includes detailed accounts of scientists who worked at both companies, including Ruth Reck formerly of GM and Gilbert Plass formerly of Ford, who studied the effects of burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide. Both Reck and Plass warned that continuing to rely on fossil fuels for their cars could have disastrous repercussions for the planet and the people living on it.

“Instead of shifting their business models away from fossil fuels, the companies invested heavily in gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs,” says E&E News. “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.” That includes the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which also receives donations from Amazon and Google.

While Ford and GM responded by highlighting the steps they’re currently taking to reduce emissions, the companies stop short of taking responsibility. It seems they still haven’t quite recovered from their climate-denying heyday; GM, for its part, is siding with the Trump administration in attempting to weaken federal emissions standards. 

“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 spokesman told E&E News.

That’s at best a misrepresentation and at worst a lie. It’s more relevant than ever, and GM could say: “We knew about climate change. We’re sorry we denied it. To make up for it, we are now committed to fighting it.” But the automakers that make their billions off gas-powered trucks and SUVs are not going to do that.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!