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For Immediate Release

Contact

Cate Bonacini, Center for International Environmental Law, cbonacini (at) ciel.org, +1-(202)-742-5847

Press Release

Ford & GM Knew, Too: New Documents Show Major Car Companies Understood the Link Fossil Fuels Could Affect Climate a Half-Century Ago

WASHINGTON -

A new investigative report published today in Energy & Environment News reveals that leading US auto companies were on notice of links between climate change and fossil fuels by the late 1950s and actively conducting climate-relevant research nearly a half-century ago. The report couples research and interviews by journalist Maxine Joselow with historical documents unearthed by E&E and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Climate Investigations Center.

“The investigation demonstrates auto companies were aware of emerging climate science and on notice of potential climate risks decades earlier than was previously recognized,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett.

  • 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.”

Research into auto industry awareness is at an early stage compared to the extensive evidence regarding oil companies. But one essential element of the story is now clear, Muffett noted.

“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.”

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Since 1989, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has worked to strengthen and use international law and institutions to protect the environment, promote human health, and ensure a just and sustainable society.

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