The Case for Reining in Car Advertising

The Case for Reining in Car Advertising by Andy Furillo – October 8, 20203

Also: Connecting people and places: Exploring new measures of travel behavior –, and – a new tool helps you measure the walkability of your neighborhood. And finally: Proof: Bike paths are good for the local economy – Streetsblog USA

Automobiles impose staggering costs on society. Informed mobility behavior can reduce these costs, but the U.S. auto industry has near-unchecked power to control people’s perception of transportation through advertising. Accordingly, car commercials are a key sustainer of auto-dependence.

In contrast to automobile ads, the public messaging capabilities of other high-cost industries – like tobacco and pharmaceuticals – are regulated, helping manage these industries’ behavioral influence. By using similar strategies to manage car companies – which would build on transportation-industry precedent that already exists – our leaders could improve access for people. These strategies include:

  • Limiting the extent to which car advertisements can portray dangerous driving
  • Requiring car companies to disclose downsides and externalities of their products
  • Retooling traffic safety-related public service announcements to educate people more holistically about the transportation options they have

The costs of driving are overwhelming, but yield only questionable benefits

People make a stunning sacrifice for the perceived privilege to drive, ride in, and store automobiles:

While at first glance society appears to bear these costs to satisfy demand for mobility, a closer look at the evidence shows that cars provide limited, if any benefit, relative to other transportation options:

  • Automobiles cause ten times more fatalities than public transit for every mile a person travels.
  • Cars frustrate many people. For example, a survey of Arlington, Va. residents found not only that automobile drivers and passengers are less satisfied than users of any other option, but also that the more car travel they endure, the less satisfied they are with their overall mobility.
  • Car companies have invested some of their profits into expanding options other than personal vehicle ownership, such as ride-hailing. However, the benefits of ride-hailing are hotly debated due to that option’s safetycongestionlabor, and environmental consequences.

Auto industry advertising worsens driving’s societal costs

The automobile industry spends $14 billion of its annual revenue from consumers – more than the total federal transit budget and second most of any economic sector – to advertise to the U.S. market. Evidence suggests that the industry depends on this advertising to overcome its product’s high-cost, low-benefit reality. Here’s how car commercials encourage behavior that increases driving’s costs to society:

Promoting large vehicles

Advertisements selling SUVs and pickup trucks as “manly” and “patriotic” cause people to spend more on these large vehicles, as the Center for Biological Diversity’s Vera Pardee writes. Some commercials even portray such vehicles as desirable in urban areas. For example, a Ford ad from earlier this year shows a happy-looking group of people driving through a city center in an SUV; at one point they pass a jam-packed bus, but the street they’re on is somehow congestion-free.

Though car companies enjoy greater profit margins thanks to the behavior this messaging induces, society loses. Big vehicles not only are more expensive for their users, but increase driving’s burden across the board by taking up more space, polluting more, and posing a greater threat to people on bike or foot.

Anecdotally, the Davis, Ca. cul-de-sac where I grew up offered a (literal) crash course on this burden. For years, a neighbor parked his oversized white pickup – too big to fit in his driveway – in front of the entrance to a bike path at the end of the street, blocking access to the community’s platinum-rated cycling network.

Normalizing unsafe driving

Car commercials regularly glorify driving habits that kill and maim people, without making clear that these habits are dangerous. For example, a recent Nissan ad shows a driver making a high-speed right turn through an urban crosswalk that a person on foot has the signaled right of way to be in. Though Nissan USA’s YouTube video of the commercial has nearly seven times as many dislikes as likes, the webpage’s comments section is turned off, preventing the video’s nearly one million viewers from engaging in open discussion about the dangerous driving that likely contributed to the backlash.

Auto industry advertisements – and companies’ associated payments to media outlets – also influence news coverage of traffic safety. A 2017 study found that news outlets cover car model recalls less if the vehicle’s manufacturer advertises on their platform. In their paper, the researchers presented evidence indicating that the resulting under-coverage of vehicle recalls leads to more traffic deaths.

Fostering a false sense of security

Some drivers believe cars provide them protection from community challenges, like crime and disease, that in reality they do not. Auto industry advertising reinforces this false perception.

For example, a Fiat Chrysler ad told viewers that, following the spring’s COVID-19 shutdowns, “engines are restarting” and “park is shifting into drive.” Fiat’s COVID ad was the top-performing U.S. car commercial during the week of May 4, garnering more than 260 million impressions.

The Fiat commercial was part of a three-week doubling of auto industry advertising spending as states reopened their economies. While car travel encouraged by this late-spring advertising surge may have brought the industry some money, a PolicyLab model soon showed that the virus was spreading along major highways, hitching rides that helped fuel the U.S.’s deadly summer outbreaks.

Regulatory tools and messaging strategies can inform the public and facilitate better access

Restrictions on tobacco ads provide arguable justification for preventing high-cost, low-benefit sectors like the auto industry from advertising at all. In the United Kingdom, a New Weather Institute report issued in August used just one of driving’s costs – climate impact – to make the case for a complete ban of SUV ads, with the decades-long campaign against Big Tobacco the blueprint for the organization’s plan.

However, even if sustainable transportation advocates were to prevail against the politically powerful auto industry, there’s no guarantee an advertising ban alone would bring cars’ costs under control. The attention Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s public statements falsely tying transit to crime and disease have received, despite his company not spending anything on traditional advertising, exemplifies this risk.

A more holistic combination of regulation and messaging, however, could yield significant benefits for access and mobility. Here are three strategies that there is already transportation-industry precedent for:

Restricting harmful content

U.S. state and federal regulators are already tough on car dealers who mislead buyers as to the terms of their loans and leases, as described in an FTC report. As almost half of car commercials feature dangerous behavior and such advertising renders people more likely to view unsafe driving positively, holding auto manufacturers to the same transparency standards as the local businesses that sell their vehicles could do even more to protect consumers and the public.

Countries including Canada and Australia do not allow car companies to show dangerous driving in their advertisements, for example. Though these countries feature metropolitan areas with substantial suburbanization, similar to the U.S., people are less than half as likely to die on their roads.

Disclosing the true costs of driving

U.S. TV viewers are familiar with the long lists of side effects FDA requires pharmaceutical companies to include in their commercials. But they may not know that there’s a similar effort underway to better educate drivers: a movement to add warning labels describing car fuel’s climate change impact and other environmental harm – also known as warming labels – to gas pumps. Such warming labels are mandated in Sweden and Cambridge, Ma., and have been considered in multiple other North American jurisdictions.

This strategy is susceptible to industry manipulation. For example, drug manufacturers strategically dilute the impact of their ads’ side-effects lists by listing potentially severe symptoms alongside frequent but minor ones. Oil companies similarly influenced the content of North Vancouver, Canada’s required warming labels to emphasize trivial steps like tire inflation instead of climate change’s systemic causes.

Nevertheless, a 2018 review by Consumer Reports found that fuel economy and vehicle safety are among car buyers’ top priorities, indicating that mandating full transparency about driving’s costs – including unbiased warming labels and crash safety ratings that incorporate impacts to people outside vehicles – could significantly reform transportation behavior.

Educating people about the full array of mobility options at their disposal  

Traffic safety is a common subject of public service announcements, which do not require the often-pricey ad buys regular commercials do. However, while traffic safety PSAs tend to highlight dangers of certain behavior, such as drunk or distracted driving, they don’t effectively educate the public about forms of mobility than can help people avoid these dangers.

Despite their limited resources, transit agencies produce some pretty clever ads, so re-tooling transportation-related PSAs to give this messaging more exposure may boost its effectiveness. Further, such PSAs could draw attention to broader transportation demand management initiatives, particularly in suburban and rural areas where people may not be aware of all the options available to them:

  • Orange County, Ca.’s transit agency produced a commercial showing a family riding buses to regional destinations including a shopping mall, zoo, and beach, highlighting the sustainable accessibility those suburban businesses and places offer.
  • Yosemite National Park, which is notorious for traffic congestion despite its rural nature, resumed full regional bus service but limited automobile entry upon its COVID-19 reopening. Yosemite’s vehicle reservation page includes a link to the transit system’s website, informing people that the park is accessible without a car.
  • Biking on country roads can be a viable form of mobility in rural places, for a variety of trips. Maps displaying safe, optimal cycling routes can bolster this efficient form of access. Well-mapped rural-area biking networks I have used include the Backroad Bikeways radiating out of Three Oaks, Mi. and Northern California’s Solano-Yolo BikeLinks.

Is now the time to reform our transportation culture?

In a time when U.S. transit agencies are facing budget crisis-forced service cuts, some may question whether it is appropriate to prioritize messaging and communications initiatives right now, as opposed to focusing on urgent needs such as obtaining additional stimulus funding.

But during COVID-19, communities have tapped potential that cars previously stole. For example, in Washington, DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood – where I live – eight restaurants are providing outdoor seating in a pedestrianized service lane that previously hosted 25 parking spots, enabling the establishments to stay open. Valuing sustained COVID-era jobs at the CARES Act’s $600 of weekly unemployment benefits and assuming the national average of about 15 employees per restaurant, the converted lane is yielding $72,000 weekly – nearly $3,000 per former parking spot – for the local economy.

Photo- Andy Furillo

Quality-of-life benefits like these just might make people more attuned to driving’s costs, leading to closer examination of the extent to which auto-dependence is a product of informational manipulation by the industry and, accordingly, catalyzing greater scrutiny of car companies’ advertisements.

That California cul-de-sac of my youth even offers hope for a car culture rethink. This past month, the aforementioned truck-parking neighbors moved out. Now, the home’s new owners not only don’t block access to the bike path with their vehicles but have put up their own traffic-calming sign in the street.


A Different Type of Pedestrian PSA, the Pedestrian Looking for Service

By Dan Bowman – October 22, 2020

When a pedestrian death happens, multiple factors come into play. Too often, themes such as distracted or drunk driving rise to the top of our arguments while the built environment and prevailing car-centric culture are pushed to the side. Historically it seems that interventions to reduce pedestrian fatalities place the burden on the pedestrian themselves. Now, pedestrians can take the opportunity to participate and provide real feedback and show, from a pedestrians point of view, what’s really taking place throughout Arlington County. What a better time for a call to action, rather than simply spreading a message, than during Pedestrian Safety Month.

Source: Vision Zero Arlington County Interactive Map. (Red indicates speeding, Dark Purple indicates Unsafe Crossing, Green indicates Maintenance Issue, Orange indicates Missing or Poor Lighting, Light Purple indicates Poor Biking Conditions, Light Blue indicates Poor Walking Conditions, Pink indicates Traffic Pattern/Signage Issue, Yellow indicates Intersection Safety/Conflict, Green indicates Unsafe Transit Stop) 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has deemed October “Pedestrian Safety Month.” Raising awareness of steps that drivers and pedestrians can take to ensure everyone’s safety in theory is a commendable idea. Education, in fact, is one of the key pillars of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) work. The only problem with NHTSA’s campaign is that they forgot that safety is not solely a burden on pedestrians. This is an issue which has been called out in recent years by the Columbia Journalism Review, and will most likely continue in a car-dominated culture. I’m not going to go into detail about the specific case here- but Streetsblog went on an NHTSA mythbusting spree and I encourage you to check it out.

The Math is Simple: More People + More Cars = More Pedestrian Deaths

In a 2019 Crash fact sheet, NHTSA states that:

  • More people are moving to Cities- urban population increased by 13% from 2008 to 2017, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.
  • More cars are on the road- urban Vehicle Miles Traveled increased by 14% since 2009.
  • More pedestrians are dying- pedestrian fatalities have increased in urban areas by 69% since 2009.

The trend is staggering, and while a tremendous number of factors are in play during each crash, Public Service Announcements tend to pick statistics to make an easy and relatable point. For instance the CDC notes that 2,841 people were killed in 2018 by distracted drivers  and in 2017, 47% of pedestrians killed were the result of drunk drivers. While the stats are real, the problem with centering messages around these issues is that they ignore the simple dangers of our built environment. We’re living in a car-centric world that makes it extremely dangerous for those not inside a 4,000-pound vehicle.

While education and outreach is a small yet crucial step in reducing pedestrian deaths and injuries, awareness campaigns must be supplemented by infrastructure changes and action if the numbers are ever going to decrease.

Public Service Announcements Didn’t Protect Me

The problem with being a pedestrian is you can do everything right and still suffer the consequences of a car-dominated world. I’ve been told to look both ways when I cross the street since I was a child, and guess what, I still do. But like many others, I’ve personally experienced the trauma of pedestrian traffic violence first-hand. Just one year ago on a weekend trip to New York City, my girlfriend and I were walking along the street on our way to grab some world-famous bagels before heading back to D.C. We never got to eat those bagels because a driver decided to make a left turn on red while the pedestrian crosswalk was on, tossing my girlfriend into the air before speeding away. Just another hit-and-run in NYC.

Miraculously, my girlfriend got up without any serious injuries, but that’s not the case for the 6,590 pedestrians who lost their lives in 2019. Ironically the hit-and-run occurred just one month after New York City Mayor de Blasio released his city’s 2019 “Borough Pedestrian Safety Plan.” We were told at the hospital that the cops would surely take this seriously since the city was really trying to “crack down” on these crashes. Well, the police never caught the driver, but they did however find the car, abandoned mere hours later.

The reason I bring up this story is not for the incident itself, terrifying and bizarre as it was, but for the behavior change it sparked since the crash. Experiencing an event such as this opens your eyes to the world around you, I now am not only a more cautious driver around areas I know to be frequented by pedestrians, I am a more observant pedestrian. No number of Public Service Announcements or traffic safety awareness campaigns would have affected this much change in my behavior instantaneously.

Sure enough, this mental shift seems to ring true for others. In a recent survey conducted in part by the National Safety Council, 61% of respondents claimed that “being involved in an automobile accident with injuries” would ultimately be the factor that would dissuade them from using their phones while driving. Waiting for tragedy should not be the factor that shifts behavior.

Building upon these lived experiences and learning from people who may spot unique issues in their community is one tactic that planners can use to implement real and lasting change. The great news is that right now, Arlington’s Vision Zero team  is doing just that.

Giving Pedestrians a Voice in Arlington

Between 2017 and 2019 there was a total of 178 serious or fatal crashes in Arlington County, according to County data. Of those crashes reported, pedestrian crashes comprised over half (54%) of all fatal crashes. As part of Arlington’s Vision Zero planning efforts to combat this growing problem, and to build upon the crash dataset, community engagement is currently taking place to learn more about everyday experiences while walking, biking, and driving around Arlington. As the County states “staff have completed analysis of crash reports, and we’ve learned a lot about where and how these collisions occur. But we know it is not the whole story. To take action on safety issues before crashes occur, we need to hear from the people who use our transportation network every day.” After the feedback period has ended, a Draft Action Plan is anticipated to be complete by January 2021, with a fully public Final Action Plan by Summer 2021.

Everyday people like myself who’ve perhaps experienced a close call, witnessed a crash, or generally kept a keen eye out for safety issues, have made their voices heard already. After taking a short survey, the user gains access to the interactive map, pictured below, where they can pinpoint problem areas.

Source: Vision Zero Arlington County Interactive Map. (Red indicates speeding, Dark Purple indicates Unsafe Crossing, Light Purple indicates Poor Biking Conditions, Light Blue indicates Poor Walking Conditions, Pink indicates Traffic Pattern/Signage Issue)

Just by glancing at the color breakdown you can see trends appearing. On North Pershing Drive, excessive speeding has been noted along the entirety of the street. Just a few years ago a new stop sign, and later a full traffic light were placed here to mitigate speeding, but through every day lived experience, local residents still believe there is a major problem.

In South Arlington, a heavily trafficked area where bikes, cars and pedestrians cross paths multiple times has also drawn criticism for speeding, a lack of stopping in crosswalks, and obstructed views for pedestrians and cars alike.

Source: Vision Zero Arlington County Interactive Map. (Red indicates speeding, Dark Purple indicates Unsafe Crossing, Green indicate Maintenance Issue, Orange indicates Missing or Poor Lighting, Light Purple indicates Poor Biking Conditions, Light Blue indicates Poor Walking Conditions, Pink indicates Traffic Pattern/Signage Issue, Yellow indicates Intersection Safety/Conflict, Green indicates Unsafe Transit Stop) 

I know what it’s like to experience a violent traffic event first-hand, and to see this amount of community input at so many intersections across the County not only makes me hurt for others who may have been a part of similar events and now get to witness our world through a hyper-aware lens,  but also gives me hope that the community recognizes these problem areas and is actively asking for help.

Crash statistics and data can only tell us so much, it is the lived and human experience on each and every street that’s important to study if we want a world where there are zero pedestrian deaths. Traffic calming measures and new infrastructure have a better chance of being put in place if the community speaks up and adds experience to data. The interactive portal is open until October 30th – please use your voice, be an active part of the public and ask for service.

GM And Ford Knew, Too: Researchers at Ford and General Motors knew in the 1960s that combustion of fossil fuels was causing global warming and then actively worked to obfuscate that scientific reality to further their bottom lines, an investigation by E&E News found. As early as the mid-1950s, Ford physicist Gilbert Plass was publishingarticles on the climatic impacts of carbon dioxide, and in 1961 he authored an article that specifically called out fossil fuels like coal and oil as leading causes of rising global temperatures. In 1975, GM researcher Ruth Heck, now 88, published a paper in Science, in which she found aerosols caused “heating of the atmosphere near the poles,” and in 1981 published research exploring “increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.” By 1988 the science was solid and went public with James Hansen’s congressional testimony, but the next year both GM and Ford joined the Global Climate Coalition to oppose efforts to cut greenhouse gas pollution and went on to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to climate denial groups and fought efforts to improve fuel efficiency standards, worried such standards would cut into their profits from SUVs and pickup trucks. In 1989 GM’s public relations department published a report casting doubt on carbon pollution and warming. “There was never any doubt for a minute,” Reck told E&E, “that [the GM report] really misrepresents the truth. The PR people use those kinds of weasel words to misrepresent things.” (E&E News, Grist, The Hill, Mic

An investigation by E&E News reveals that scientists at two of America’s biggest automakers – General Motors and Ford – knew as early as the 1960s that car emissions caused climate change. The companies knowledge “preceded decades of political lobbying by the two car giants that undermined global attempts to reduce emissions while stalling US efforts to make vehicles cleaner”, E&E News says. E&E News says: “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.”

FED FOSSIL FOOLS?: Fed’s purchase of energy company debt continues to raise questions (Wall Street Journal $)

EJ: Trump Interior hire cited white supremacist, called Black Lives Matter ‘racist’ (HuffPost), climate policies largely ignore First Nations’ access to traditional food (Globe and Mail)

DENIAL: ‘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 (Grist)

‘Dangerous and dirty’ used cars sold to Africa BBC News reports on a new UN report finding that millions of highly polluting used cars from developed countries are being “dumped” on developing nations – with more than half going to Africa. BBC News says: “As well as causing accidents, these cars make air pollution worse and contribute heavily to climate change.” The New York Times also covers the report, adding that the report finds the trade of used cars is “largely unregulated”. The New York Times says: “In recent decades, the US and Europe have gone to considerable lengths to mandate cleaner, more efficient cars at home. But at the same time, they are shipping millions of their oldest and worst-polluting vehicles to poorer countries overseas in a largely unregulated trade that now poses serious health and environmental hazards.” Elsewhere, Bloomberg covers a second UN report finding that the African continent is warming at a faster rate than the global average, causing a vast range of impacts for people living there. Vera Songwe, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, tells Bloomberg: “We know that climate change impacts we suffer today are consequences of development choices that countries, mainly developed, adopted over the years.” Reuters also covers the first UN State of the Climate in Africa report.

Exclusive: GM, Ford knew about climate change 50 years ago

Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporterPublished: Monday, October 26, 2020Ford and GM collage. Photo credits: Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News(illustration); ArtisticOperations/Pixabay(SUV);tony webster/Flickr(Ford); truck hardware/Flickr(GMC); Gilbert Plass/The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change(text)

Scientists working for General Motors and Ford Motor Co. knew as early as the 1960s that carbon emissions were warming Earth. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News(illustration); ArtisticOperations/Pixabay(SUV);tony webster/Flickr(Ford); truck hardware/Flickr(GMC); Gilbert Plass/The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change(text)

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.

E&E News obtained hundreds of pages of documents on GM’s corporate history from the General Motors Heritage Center and Wayne State University in Detroit. Documents on Ford’s climate research were unearthed by the Center for International Environmental Law. The Climate Investigations Center provided additional material on both manufacturers.

The investigation reveals striking parallels between two of the country’s biggest automakers and Exxon Mobil Corp., one of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas companies. Exxon privately knew about climate change in the late 1970s but publicly denied the scientific consensus for decades, according to 2015 reporting by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times that spawned the hashtag #ExxonKnew and fueled a wave of climate litigation against the oil major.

The findings by E&E News reveal that GM and Ford were “deeply and actively engaged” since the 1960s in understanding how their cars affected the climate, said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law.

“We also know that certainly by the 1980s and 1990s, the auto industry was involved in efforts to undermine climate science and stop progress to address climate change,” Muffett said. “But a different path was available.”

Today the companies acknowledge that climate change is a problem and in statements to E&E News outlined their plans to increase production of clean cars.

A Ford spokesman said the company knows climate change is real and is “addressing it right now” by investing more than $11 billion to electrify its bestselling vehicles while aiming to run its manufacturing plants with 100% renewable energy in 15 years.

GM, in a brief response, pointed to steps it’s taking to reduce emissions, such as releasing an electric version of its Hummer, which for years has embodied the popularity of gas-guzzling SUVs. The company downplayed its past rejection of climate action.

“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 said.

Ruth Reck and GM

1979 GM press release. Photo credit: General Motors Heritage Center

General Motors Heritage Center

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.Ruth Reck. Photo credit: Minnesota State University

Ruth Reck. Minnesota State University

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.'”Syukuro Suki Manabe. Photo credit: Bengt Nyman/Wikipedia

Syukuro “Suki” Manabe. Bengt Nyman/Wikipedia

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.”

John Hummel and the higher-ups

General Motors Chairman Robert Stempel. Photo credit: KRT/Newscom

GM Chairman Robert Stempel learned about climate change from Ruth Reck about 30 years ago. KRT/Newscom

In 1978, a young man named John Hummel graduated from the University of Michigan with a doctorate in atmospheric science and joined the physics department at GM Research Labs.

Hummel was assigned to be Reck’s office mate. Over the next four years, they collaborated closely on climate research.

Their first paper together was published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology in 1979. It focused on albedo, or the measure of how well a surface reflects sunlight. Their second paper, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in 1981, explored “increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

“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,” proclaimed a 1979 GM press release about Reck and Hummel.

In an interview with E&E News, Hummel — who is now the program lead for integrated resiliency analysis at Argonne National Laboratory — said the research had clear implications for GM’s business.

“The reason GM was doing it, it was right when interest in carbon dioxide was getting to be very important on the global stage,” he said. “Anything that potentially involved fossil fuels was of importance to General Motors because it would have an impact on how automobiles would be fueled.”

Hummel recalled presenting his findings on climate change to Robert “Bob” Frosch, the vice president of research at GM Research Labs and the former NASA administrator under President Carter.Robert Frosch.  Photo credit: NASA

Robert “Bob” Frosch. NASA

In an interview, Frosch — now 92 years old and retired in Cape Cod, Mass. — remembered realizing that global warming would be a salient issue.

“I knew this was going to be a public policy issue, and there were two or three ways in which the corporation had to prepare for it,” he said. “One way was to be prepared to understand the science and the engineering that was involved well enough so that if asked, somebody could testify or explain what the view was. And the other way, of course, was what are we going to do with the product? How are we going to cope with whatever regulations that come out of this problem?”

Reck, too, was asked to present her findings on climate change to James “Jimmy” Johnston, GM’s vice president of government relations. A smooth-talking man whose mantra was “protect the product plan,” Johnston served as GM’s top lobbyist in Washington for many years.

Johnston’s office was located at GM’s corporate headquarters in downtown Detroit, a 25-minute drive from the lab in Warren. A back door in his office led to the adjacent office of the president.

Reck felt nervous before her first meeting with Johnston. To her surprise, she found him to be a “really delightful man” who took a keen interest in her research because of his personal fascination with clouds.

“He somehow fell in love with clouds, and every time he was flying anyplace, he was looking at clouds. And he would call me and say, ‘Ooh, I saw this cloud,'” she recalled.

As Johnston and Reck forged an unusual friendship built on mutual respect, his fixation became the subject of her research. In 1979, she published a study in the journal Tellus that examined the sensitivity of climate models to clouds’ temperatures and altitudes.

Johnston died in 2013, according to an obituary in The Washington Post. Before his death, he was interviewed by Sandra Rothenberg, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and David Levy, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, for their 2011 paper titled “Corporate Perceptions of Climate Science: The Role of Corporate Environmental Scientists.”

Johnston told the professors that GM environmental scientists “were very influential in putting the [climate] issues on the agenda,” adding that Reck “pushed what was really important, and was one of the more energetic people.”

Reck later presented her findings to Roger Bonham Smith, who became chairman and CEO of GM in 1981, and Robert “Bob” Stempel, who succeeded Smith in 1990.

“We would sit down and they would look at the papers, and I would explain to them what they were looking at,” she said, adding, “They were aware of things that were going on.”

Ford and the CO2 problem

Excerpt from a 1956 article in the American Scientist by Gilbert Plass. Photo credit:  Gilbert Plass/The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change

Gilbert Plass/The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change

Meanwhile, at Ford, a Canadian physicist named Gilbert Norman Plass was speeding down a similar path.

After graduating from Harvard University and earning a doctorate in physics from Princeton University, Plass taught physics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He left academia in 1955 and joined Ford’s research staff the following year.

Before arriving at Ford, Plass had published a series of eye-grabbing pieces on the climate, including a 1956 article in the magazine American Scientist titled “Carbon Dioxide and the Climate” and a 1956 paper in the journal Tellus titled “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change.”

Both pieces made a bold claim: Humanity was responsible for heating the Earth since 1900 by burning fossil fuels and pumping massive quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

At Ford, Plass was based in the Aeronutronic Division in Newport Beach, Calif., which focused on aerospace and defense issues. But he continued to study CO2, using Ford’s computers to run early climate models and publishing his findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

In 1960, Plass became manager of the research lab in Ford’s theoretical physics department. The following year, he wrote a letter to the editor of Tellus that argued “[m]any of the climatic changes which have occurred over the past several billion years of the earth’s history can readily be explained by variations of the atmospheric CO2 amount.”

Also in 1961, Plass penned an article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that singled out fossil fuels such as coal and oil as leading causes of rising temperatures over the last century. He stopped short of mentioning gasoline, a product of refining crude oil.

“In recent years the burning of fossil fuels has added 10¹⁰ tons per year of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. It is predicted that this figure will increase to 5 x 10¹⁰ tons per year by the year 2000,” Plass wrote.

“If all of this carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere … [t]his would cause a temperature rise of 1.1°C per century,” he added.

Today, that prediction looks remarkably prescient. The average global temperature on Earth has increased by a little over 1 degree Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times, according to the NASA Earth Observatory, and the Paris Agreement calls for limiting warming to 1.5 C to 2 C.

Plass’ findings reached the highest levels of the U.S. scientific community. The Environmental Pollution Panel of President Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee cited three of Plass’ writings in its 1965 report, which predicted that the burning of fossil fuels would cause CO2 concentrations to increase by roughly 25% by 2000, leading to melting of the Antarctic ice cap and sea-level rise.

During his time at Ford, Plass also corresponded with the prominent English climate scientist Guy Stewart Callendar, according to a series of letters included in the 2009 book “The Callendar Effect” by the historian James Rodger Fleming.

“I do not agree with your remark that there is little danger of the earth becoming too warm from an excess of fuel CO2,” Plass wrote to Callendar in 1956 on Ford letterhead.

In an interview, Fleming said Plass helped revive the idea that CO2 was trapping heat in the atmosphere, which had fallen out of favor after being floated in the 1850s by Irish physicist John Tyndall and Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius — and later championed in the 1930s by Callendar.

“At the time, the theory of CO2 was in deep eclipse,” Fleming said. “Plass picked it up from people like Callendar and took it to the next level. … He was a little bit prophetic.”

Plass wasn’t the only scientist in Ford’s orbit who studied the climate. After Ford’s Aeronutronic division merged with the battery provider Philco and was rebranded as Philco-Ford Corp. in 1963, a researcher at the new company named Darrell Eugene Burch continued to examine the issue, co-authoring a series of 1967 scientific reports on CO2 absorption in the atmosphere.

It’s unclear whether Plass or Burch shared their findings with top executives at Ford. Plass died in 2004, according to a posthumous tribute in American Scientist by Fleming and NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt.

Burch died in 2015, according to an obituary that noted his “detailed measurements of CO2 absorption in the atmosphere, measurements that would later be used to support the theory of global warming.”

A ‘very cynical campaign’

Bush signs U.N. climate convention. Photo credit: UNFCCC

The late President George H.W. Bush signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. UNFCCC

More than two decades after GM and Ford privately confirmed the dangers of climate change, NASA scientist James Hansen publicly sounded the alarm.

In June 1988, Hansen testified before Congress that he had a “high degree of confidence” that human emissions of greenhouse gases were responsible for global warming. His testimony occurred during a heat wave and led to a front-page headline in The New York Times as well as a surge in public awareness.

Instead of affirming their own scientific discoveries from decades earlier, GM and Ford engaged in a concerted campaign to block climate action while casting doubt on the emerging consensus on global warming.

In a “Public Interest Report” in 1989, GM’s public relations department portrayed the field of climate science as full of uncertainties.

“The hot dry summer of 1988 in the U.S. brought to the forefront a debate among environmental scientists about whether human activities may cause a significant enough increase in the greenhouse effect to result in global warming,” the report said.

“Although the four warmest years of the last century have occurred in the 1980s, most scientists agree that there is no strong evidence for a cause [and] effect relationship between the four warm years and the increased emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” it added.

Asked about the report, Reck said it mischaracterized the certainty of the science.

“There was never any doubt for a minute,” she said. “That really misrepresents the truth. The PR people use those kinds of weasel words to misrepresent things.”

She added: “The thing is, the greenhouse gases were the greenhouse gases. There was absolutely no ambiguity from the very beginning. If the temperature is changing and it’s happening, you’re seeing it.”

Also in 1989, GM and Ford joined the Global Climate Coalition, a group that opposed efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during the George H.W. Bush administration, according to a GCC membership list obtained by the Climate Investigations Center.

The other members of the coalition represented a variety of fossil fuel-dependent industries, including the American Petroleum Institute, Edison Electric Institute, National Association of Manufacturers and Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.

One of the GCC’s main objectives was to prevent Bush from setting specific emissions reduction targets at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. After Bush balked at the climate targets and President Clinton entered the White House, the group’s next goal was to block the new Democratic president from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate deal that committed developed countries to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Unfortunately, it was clear that the GCC was intent on putting out false information about the state of climate change science,” said Paul Bledsoe, who served as director of communications for the White House Climate Change Task Force during the Clinton administration.

“And of course, this was of great concern to the White House as we tried to make the case for climate action,” said Bledsoe, who’s now a strategic adviser with the Progressive Policy Institute.

To foment opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, the GCC helped pay for a series of advertisements that argued the deal would harm ordinary Americans, according to materials obtained by the Climate Investigations Center and shared with E&E News.

One ad in The New York Times said U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Protocol was “a bad deal for America.” Another ad in The Washington Post proclaimed: “The Only Thing This Treaty Cools Down Is America’s Economy.”

Around the same time, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association — whose members included GM and Ford — helped pay for a series of anti-Kyoto television ads. In one such ad, children in a classroom tell their teacher the deal wouldn’t reduce emissions because developing countries were exempt. In another, a man changes a price sign at a gas station while a female narrator says the treaty could cause gas prices to rise by 50 cents a gallon.

“The role of automakers and their trade associations in climate denial campaigns is not well-known. But these ads show a very deliberate effort, paid for in part by the auto industry, to undermine U.S. participation in a global climate treaty,” said Kert Davies, founder and director of the Climate Investigations Center.

“They knew that if the U.S. participated, it would mean making cuts domestically in CO2 emissions and limiting the use of fossil fuels,” Davies said. “So it was a very deliberate and very cynical campaign to keep the status quo and keep us buying the same cars and trucks we always bought.”

As they were agitating against climate action, GM and Ford were donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative think tanks that disputed the scientific consensus on global warming, according to an E&E News analysis of data compiled by the Capital Research Center and provided by Robert Brulle, a researcher at Brown University who studies climate denial.

Ford donations

YearCompetitive Enterprise InstituteAmerican Enterprise InstituteHeritage FoundationHeartland InstituteCato InstituteU.S. Chamber of Commerce

Source: Capitol Research Center/Robert Brulle

Between 1985 and 1997, Ford donated more than $1.1 million to the American Enterprise Institute and $457,500 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the data shows. GM gave $635,000 to AEI and $220,000 to CEI, respectively. Scholars at both think tanks have said that concern about climate change is overblown.

From 2003 to 2008, GM donated an additional $325,000 to AEI and an additional $295,000 to CEI. The donations continued even after CEI released a controversial 2006 ad that said CO2 actually benefited humanity.

General Motors donations

YearCompetitive Enterprise InstituteAmerican Enterprise InstituteHeritage FoundationHeartland InstituteCato InstituteU.S. Chamber of Commerce

Source: Capitol Research Center/Robert Brulle

“Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life,” a female narrator says in the video as a young girl blows on a dandelion.

Brulle said GM and Ford “chose to support a campaign to delay or obstruct action on climate change by supporting these conservative think tanks that promulgated scientific misinformation. So what we’re learning is it wasn’t just the fossil fuel producers, but also the companies whose products were heavily engaged in fossil fuel use that were trying to stop action.”

Ford withdrew from the GCC in 1999 following a pressure campaign from environmental groups. GM followed suit in March 2000.

The end of the road

Throughout this time, both GM and Ford continued to resist a technology that could have lowered their emissions and dependence on fossil fuels: the electric car.

In a 1990 paper titled “The Passenger Car and the Greenhouse Effect,” GM research fellow Charles Amann said: “If global warming develops into a serious problem, cars can be operated without fossil fuel. Leading options include battery-electric cars.”

But Amann warned that a massive shift toward EVs could have negative economic consequences.

“If fossil fuel were to become unacceptable, the alternatives under consideration for automotive propulsion could cause economic dislocations,” he wrote. “As research on these alternatives proceeds, therefore, it seems prudent to avoid singling out one of them prematurely for massive action.”

It wasn’t until 1996 that GM introduced its first commercial electric car, dubbed the EV1, in response to tightening emissions regulations in California. But the automaker made only 1,117 units before discontinuing the EV1 in 2002, citing limited demand.

“Unfortunately, it was too early, and the battery technology really wasn’t right yet. But we went through many, many meetings with the California Air Resources Board,” recalled Richard “Dick” Klimisch, a former director of environmental activities staff at GM.

It was a similar story at Ford, which in 1998 introduced the Ranger EV, an all-electric compact pickup. Ford made only 1,500 Ranger EVs from 1998 to 2002, and after California weakened its zero-emission vehicle mandate in 2003, the automaker repossessed and destroyed many of the Ranger EVs that remained.

Instead of going all in on the electric car, both GM and Ford reoriented their business models toward larger vehicles that used more gas, such as SUVs and pickups. They also lobbied against stricter fuel economy standards, which would have required these vehicles to burn less fuel and spew less pollution.

The result was that both automakers made minimal improvements in gas mileage from 1975 to the present, according to an E&E News analysis of EPA data.Fuel economy bar graph. Credits: Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News(graph); EPA(data)

[+] Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News(graph); EPA(data)

The average fuel economy of Ford’s vehicles stayed remarkably flat for 25 years, going from 20 miles per gallon in 1985 to 20.4 mpg in 2010, the data shows. GM saw a similar trend, going from 20.5 mpg in 1985 to 20.6 mpg in 2009.

The third major American car company, Fiat Chrysler, also emerged as a laggard on fuel economy over that period, while Japanese manufacturers Honda and Subaru showed greater improvement, said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Year after year, EPA has found that GM, Ford and Chrysler lag the rest of the world’s automakers on fuel economy,” Becker said. “They do this in part because they make money hand over barrel with gas-guzzling SUVs, pickups and vans, and they wish to do so in perpetuity.”

Today the Ford F-150 pickup truck is the bestselling vehicle in America — a distinction it has held for nearly 40 years. The second bestselling vehicle is the Chevrolet Silverado, which GM manufactures.

The transportation sector is now the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, accounting for 28% of all carbon emissions. Cars and trucks account for the bulk of that pollution.

In response to a detailed series of questions, Ford spokesman John Cangany said in an email to E&E News: “We know that climate change is real and we are addressing it right now through meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions, investment in electric vehicles and sustainable manufacturing.”

Cangany noted that Ford has committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 and has voluntarily agreed to follow California’s tailpipe emissions standards, which exceed federal requirements. The automaker has invested $11.5 billion in electrifying its “iconic nameplates,” such as the electric F-150 due in 2021, he said.

In a brief response, GM spokesman Jim Cain said the company’s sustainability report “contains a comprehensive summary of our work to reduce our environmental impact, including [greenhouse gas] reduction.” He added that GM plans to release at least 20 new electric cars globally by 2023 using its proprietary Ultium batteries.

Reck, the GM scientist, left the automaker in 1992 after she was allegedly told to stop researching environmental issues.

“I always wondered whether they would try to end the research if it showed what they were doing was bad,” she said. “Toward the end, they did. But for 27 years they supported it.”

Reck went on to become head of the global climate change program at Argonne National Laboratory and a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of California, Davis. Now 88 years old and retired, she rarely leaves her home in Indiana due to concern about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the course of four phone interviews with E&E News, Reck expressed shock that severe consequences of global warming, such as the massive wildfires raging in California, have materialized in her lifetime.

“We thought that might happen 800 years from now,” she said of the fires. “We had it in the very far future that these things might start to happen from climate change. So it has gone at such an accelerated rate.”Twitter: @maxinejoselowEmail:

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