GM Knew

October 27, 2020

We knew #Exxonknew, now we newly know GM and Ford knew, too.

Huge article in ClimateWire (EENews), excerpted here.

Above, after making a big splash debuting the Hummer EV last week, GM back to regular form with this ad in my mail feed this morning.


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.

In 1965, a young physicist became one of the first women to join General Motors Research Laboratories in Warren, Mich. Her name was Ruth Annette Gabriel Reck, and she would set the company on a course toward greater scientific understanding of how the greenhouse effect was raising temperatures on Earth.

A Midwesterner, Reck had in 1954 become the youngest person to graduate from Minnesota State University, Mankato, at just 18 years old. After earning a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Minnesota, she joined GM with plans to continue studying that subject.

But in her first week on the job, Reck met with Marvin Leonard “Murph” Goldberger, a visiting physicist from Princeton University who later would become president of the California Institute of Technology. Goldberger convinced her to study climate change instead.

“He said, ‘You will never regret it. It really is an important topic,'” Reck recalled in one of several phone interviews with E&E News.

With the approval of her supervisors, Reck began studying global warming in the late ’60s. The first topic she explored was aerosols, or tiny particles that can come from automobiles, power plants and factories.

GM executives were optimistic about the research. They believed it would show aerosols had a significant cooling effect on the atmosphere, canceling out the warming effect of carbon dioxide.

The executives thought aerosols “might actually negate the effects of the CO2 coming off. And so they were positively thinking that maybe the use of fossil fuels by the automobile could be neutral,” Reck said.

The findings showed otherwise.

“Of course, that didn’t happen at all,” she said. “First of all, their lifetime is very short, whereas CO2 is very, very long. … It didn’t play out at all the way they wanted it to happen.”

The executives nonetheless allowed Reck to publish her findings in several peer-reviewed scientific journals. In a 1975 paper in Science, she asserted that aerosols caused “heating of the atmosphere near the poles.”

Reck recalled warning her colleagues that higher temperatures in the Arctic could cause ice sheets to melt, which could trigger sea-level rise and other serious consequences.

“It’s all a question of perspective, whether you think … melting all the ice in the northern regions is bad or not,” she said. “And I said, ‘Because it disturbs the entire globe and it disturbs what food we can grow and everything else and the whole balance of the entire Earth atmosphere system, yes, I think it is bad.'”

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Reck also collaborated with two prominent scientists at Princeton’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory named Richard “Dick” Wetherald and Syukuro “Suki” Manabe, who had created one of the first one-dimensional models of the Earth’s atmosphere.

In a 1974 paper in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, Wetherald and Manabe found that in response to a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the temperature increased at the Earth’s surface and in the troposphere, while it decreased in the stratosphere.

The pair allowed Reck to borrow their model and run simulations on the IBM computers at GM Research Labs. At the time, the computers were a relatively new invention, and they were the size of large refrigerators.

Wetherald died in 2011 after more than 44 years at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which later became part of NOAA, according to an obituary that noted his work “in the field of greenhouse warming.”

In an interview, Manabe — now 89 years old and retired — recalled working with Reck on the cutting-edge research.

“I was one of the first people who started developing climate models,” Manabe said, adding, “I’m sure that General Motors’ research group was very interested in climate change research, mainly because they produced the car, which emitted a large amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

That’s just the beginning – go read the rest yourself, here:


2 Responses to “GM Knew”

  1. grindupbaker Says:

    I mentioned that on this Web Log site a few years back after Dan Lubin mentioned it in passing in case anybody here wanted to study it but I only got 1 incredulous reply implying that I lied and asking who this “Dan Lubin” was (so typical response for this venue). Thanks, I never saw the paper before and there’s a tiny non-zero possibility I might develop the energy to study it over winter to see whether it gives some accuracy to my approximation I’ve been posting:
    The Arctic Ocean surface/air gets its heat from 2 sources that provide almost equal amounts of heat to it as follows, in w/m**2 at latitude 75N for 2016 AD:
    spring & autumn annual
    summer & winter average
    159 11 85 Sunshine absorbed
    66 121 93.5 Warm air (mostly by far) & water from the south
    -10 10 0 Heat into or out of the Arctic Ocean
    -19 19 0 Ice—>water or water—>ice latent heat
    —– —— ——
    196 161 178.5 Total radiated to space
    The following average semi-annual & annual surface/air temperatures are supported by those heat quantities:
    w/m**2 degrees
    196 1.1
    161 -12.1
    178.5 -5.3
    When there is no Arctic Ocean sea ice on March 13th then add 30 w/m**2 to the “159” above and alter the other numbers in the ways that you think they will alter based on your studies.
    The huge uncertainty in the above is that Kevin Trenberth actually shows 164 w/m**2 rather than the “121” above but 164 w/m**2 is way too much heat for the actual surface/air temperature and thus my assumption that 43 w/m**2 gets radiated to space without affecting surface/air temperature because it arrives at high altitudes (much tropospheric thermal inversion). That is just an assumption to get the quantity total to the correct sort of scale.

  2. jimbills Says:

    Not super surprising, but it’s good the journalists side the work to track it down.

    Just saw this:

    ‘It just goes into a black hole’
    The Trump administration is burying dozens of studies detailing the promise of renewable energy, impeding a transition away from fossil fuels

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