Is GM Guilty of Funding Climate Change Denial?


GM CEO Dan Akerson

Treehugger reports that 10,000 General Motors customers, and another 20,000 citizens have signed a petition to urge the company to stop funding the Heartland Institute, due to that organization’s position of climate change denial.

To fund such denial – even if indirectly – would fly in the face of a building perception that GM is becoming a more environmentally responsible company, with an increased range of fuel efficient vehicles, and with perhaps the most demonstrative product of the new GM, being their halo car, the Volt.

Last week I attended the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, where Climate One interviewed GM CEO, Dan Akerson, on the future of the auto industry and GM’s role within it. The action of the Heartland Institute was a topic that came up for discussion, and a clip of the segment can be seen here. So, what’s Mr Akerson’s take on GM’s role in the matter?

First Off, Mr Akerson pointed out that he only found out about it all in the last day or so, and that with respect to any funding, it came from GM’s foundation, not GM the car company itself. This distinction is important, since in the interests of good governance, Mr Akerson is not permitted to sit on the board of the foundation as well as being CEO of General Motors. The point he wished to convey: GM is not culpable in funding climate change denial.

This might sound like a bit of a cop-out, but I think it’s probably worth giving Mr. Akerson the benefit of the doubt. He related a story about a time when shortly after becoming CEO of GM (in September 2010) he was asked by a reporter if he believed in global warming. Upon confirming that he did, he quipped that some of his fellow GM executives chided him for saying so, telling him, “you don’t say that in public!”

It was a good laugh-line, embellished by his confirmation that his underwear doesn’t have GM stamped on it, and that he is an individual who has his own convictions, that others may not agree with.

So I would say, bravo, for the CEO of a company of a scale that can make a difference to carbon emissions – in either direction – to stand up and go on record as believing climate change is real. Especially when sadly, in 2012, the issue is so politically charged that the fashion seems to be – at best –  to hedge on the subject. Of course, the CEO’s stance is not the be all and end all, but as the CEO sets the tone for an organization, it’s a good line in the sand to draw.

Despite the alleged actions of the foundation, Mr Ackerson is able to talk about GM itself, and went on to point out that in their case, actions matter more than words. He highlighted that GM is 60 percent more efficient in the use of fuel than they were just 5 years ago, and landfill waste from operations is down to zero at many of its plants. Furthermore, some of their operations are currently running on methane from landfill sites and are zero-emissions. In addition, GM’s Chevrolet division, in conjunction with the launch of the Cruz, invested millions to reduce 8 million metric tons of CO2 in one year – a task Mr Akerson said has been accomplished.

This, of course, doesn’t mean the company is perfect, but the efforts are notable and move in the right direction.

So, what does the CEO of a company do when the company’s related foundation disrupts the messaging and compromises the important real steps being made towards a lower carbon future? Mr. Akerson says he finds the actions interesting, and that he would take another a look at it when he got back to Detroit. Perhaps the tens of thousands of people signing the petition will make that a priority for him.

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.