The Car Giants That Knew About Climate Change 50 Years Ago

General Motors and Ford have known about the effect burning fossil fuels has on climate for 50 years, a report from E&E News has revealed. And not just this: the two companies spent money on studying this effect and trying to understand the link between fossil fuels and climate change. But the report revealed that they failed to do anything about it. E&E News' Maxine Joselow reports that the investigation into the two biggest carmaking companies in the United States revealed that their own scientists had told them about the industry's role in boosting carbon dioxide emissions that had a heat-trapping effect in the atmosphere, eventually warming the whole planet.

Emissions from the transport industry are indeed one of the leading causes of what was a few decades ago called global warming and is now called anthropogenic climate change. GM researchers informed the executive suite of the company about these findings, but the latter did not act on this knowledge, Joselow writes, quoting the lead researchers at GM who unveiled the link between carbon dioxide emissions from exhaust fumes and the greenhouse effect.

What's more, GM did not try to hush it up. On the contrary: the company made the conclusions of Ruth Reck and her colleagues public.

"The impact of the so-called carbon dioxide 'greenhouse effect' on the earth's climate may be more complicated than previously thought, two General Motors Research Laboratories (GMR) climatologists reported to the American Geophysical Union today," the company said in 1979, as cited by the E&E News report.

Ford scientists also studied the link between exhaust fumes and global temperatures and found that burning fossil fuels is adding vast amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which leads to an average temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius per century.

The findings of the E&E News investigation echo other investigations into Big Oil's knowledge about the effect its business had on the Earth's climate. These investigations led to a series of lawsuits against the majors, notably Exxon, which was accused of knowing about the link between fossil fuel emissions and climate change but refused to act on it.

Of course, now things are massively different. Both GM and Ford are pouring billions in the electrification of their cars, and GM just days ago launched the electric Hummer with a loud ad campaign hailing it as the world's first electric supertruck. While the truck is not yet fully functional, GM boasted that reservations for the vehicle sold out in an hour.

Ford, meanwhile, is betting on speed with the Mustang Mach-E. Production of the sports model is scheduled to begin in December. That's a bit of a delay on earlier plans to make the electric car available to buyers before the end of this year but that's not too much of a concern if 2021 sees mass production.

Both companies are going electric. That's perhaps ironic not just because of the knowledge they'd had and sat on for decades, but also because of GM's very own electric car, the EV1, which had a short and tragic life that ended in 2006. A documentary from the same year suggested that the EV1 was deliberately killed to avoid harming the oil industry. Now, almost 20 years later, it appears that even if there were industry interests involved in the demise of the EV1, there were also many objective problems with EVs at the time, and they made them non-viable.

Today, both companies are unwilling to comment on what happened at research labs five decades ago. They are focusing on the future and their billions worth of commitments to EVs and renewable energy. If they're out of luck, they could become the next targets of lawsuits for knowing and hiding the fact there was a link between CO2 emissions and climate change.

By Irina Slav for