General Motors Affirms that Climate Change Is Real

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 02, 2013

On May 1, General Motors became the first automaker to sign the “Climate Declaration,” which urges Congress to take action on global warming. That’s a big milestone, and a giant step for an automaker that fairly recently was bedded down with climate deniers.

General Motors isn't exactly on the barricades with Oxfam, but it's no longer denying that climate change is real. (Oxfam photo)The declaration, launched just last month with 33 signatories (it has 40 now), was created by the sustainable investing advocacy group Ceres and the related Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy. It says that taking a strong stand on global warming is “one of America’s greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.”

Brian Bowen, a spokesman for Ceres, said that transportation is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas, after electric power. Signing the declaration was a major step for GM, and for the auto industry as a whole. “It’s a big turnaround, a massive shift from the days when Detroit was trying to stop cars from having catalytic converters,” Bowen said. Ceres’ goal, he added, was to get car companies “to take sustainability as seriously as they do financial reporting.”

GM is a pragmatic company, and it’s bowing to a growing acceptance, reflected in polls, that climate change is real. It’s the majority sentiment today, though somewhat down from past years (because of “Climategate” and a steady drumbeat from Congressional leaders and other deniers). Stronger storm intensity as dramatized by Hurricane Sandy is one reason belief is on the upswing, and a near-unified scientific opinion is another. In a new Gallup poll, 58 percent say they worry “a great deal” or at least a fair amount about global warming, and that’s ticked up from 51 percent in 2011.

The Chevrolet Volt is GM's flagship carbon warrior. A Cadillac version is coming. (Jim Motavalli photo)Mike Robinson, GM’s vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, says that GM has been affiliated with Ceres for more than 20 years, and that signing the declaration generated “a lot of discussion internally.” GM was the first big industrial company signed, and Robinson said that “symbolically meant a lot to Ceres.”

GM’s signature on that document should “end any doubt” about where the company stands on global warming, Robinson said. “There is overwhelming scientific consensus that something is happening to the climate," he said. "We can talk about what percentage of that is manmade, but it really doesn’t matter to what GM should do as a company. We have to show leadership.”

GM sees the world getting more electrified, and it's even making some of the cars, such as this electric Chevrolet Spark. (Jim Motavalli photo)Now GM is talking about being a “change agent” in the auto industry. It has a new set of environmental commitments. CEO Dan Akerson has called on President Obama to work up a 30-year energy policy for the U.S., something that I’ve also heard Bill Ford talk about. Long-term thinking hasn’t actually been the car industry’s strong suit. GM, which is very proud of its zero waste assembly plants (with the goal of reducing energy intensity 20 percent by 2020), has been honored by the American Carbon Registry’s Corporate Excellence Award, and was an EPA Energy Star partner of the year. It has a new set of environmental commitments, and good-citizen sustainability reports.

It wasn’t always thus. In both 2010 and 2011, the General Motors Foundation donated $15,000 to the Heartland Institute think tank, which is epically climate skeptical. That prompted an outcry from environmentalists, expressed in a campaign called Forecast the Facts. “Global Warming: Was it Ever Really a Crisis?” is one of the milder taglines from Heartland. The group’s Center on Climate and Environmental Policy produces a steady stream of global warming denial.

GM told critics back then that Heartland was merely fostering debate. But a year ago, the largest American automaker finally announced it was abandoning its support for the institute, in large part because of a growing conviction that climate change is real.

Earlier, GM had been a charter member (along with ExxonMobil, Ford, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others) of the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), yet another denier, which fought tooth and nail against the Kyoto Treaty. GM dropped out of GCC in 2000; Ford departed in 1999. Sourcewatch says that GCC was “was one of the most outspoken and confrontational industry groups in the United States battling reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” before it disbanded in early 2002.

Here's CEO Dan Akerson on video at a key moment, shepherding General Motors away from climate denial, and putting some distance between the company and Heartland. His role is obviously key in understanding GM's rapid turnaround. (It certainly wasn't former vice chairman Bob Lutz, who legendarily said that global warming is "a crock of *#$%%^," but championed the Volt anyway.)

I have to give GM credit. It’s putting its money where its mouth is. It’s commited to investing as much as $40 million in the Chevrolet Carbon Reduction Initiative, which is working on community projects across the U.S. and aims to cut eight million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

I asked Robinson if he could see a time, however distant, when GM would sell only electric cars. “I don’t think in my lifetime, because of practical realities,” he said. “But I think we’ll see a higher and higher percentage of electrified vehicles. I’m not smart enough to know what will be on the road in 2020.”

The Climate Declaration has also been signed by eBay, Ikea, Stonyfield Yogurt, Timberland Patagonia, Adidas, Intel, and Ben and Jerry’s. New signatories, along with GM, include Autodesk, Burton Surfboards, Eastern Bank, Method Products and Novelis.

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