Climate Change Denialists No Longer See Automakers As Allies: Report

Photo: AP

Most Americans accept the established science that the planet on which we live is rapidly warming due to human activity. Some Americans do not. A still smaller yet influential group of Americans have been actively fighting any and all efforts to address the climate crisis, either because they believe the rest of humanity is wrong, or they have a financial stake in them being wrong, or both.

Until recently, automakers were, if not outright climate change denialists, an influential ally and customers for their consulting and lobbying services. Automakers could further be counted on to fight nearly every uptick in fuel economy standards or emissions requirements tooth and nail.

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But times, they are a’becoming quite different. Last month, nearly every major automaker (FCA being the exception) petitioned the Trump administration to not follow through on a drastic rollback of fuel economy standards. This put them at direct odds with climate change denialist groups, who very much want those rollbacks.

According to newly released emails obtained by the Sierra Club via a public records request with the Environmental Protection Agency and as reported by the New York Times, the rift between automakers and denialists has been in the works for at least a year.

“The automakers are not going to help and may be part of the opposition,” wrote Myron Ebell, a senior figure at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington that disputes that climate change is a problem, in a May 2018 email sent to supporters and an official at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The administration must stick with the rollback, he said in the email, addressed to members of the “Cooler Heads Coalition,” a loose-knit group of climate denialists that Mr. Ebell leads.

As the Times notes, Ebell is not some fringe character:

The correspondence, released by the Environmental Protection Agency to the Sierra Club under a public records request, underscores the rising influence of climate denialist groups, which jumped from the fringe to the mainstream in the Trump administration and now hold sway in federal policymaking. Mr. Ebell of the C.E.I. think tank, which challenges “global warming alarmism” and spearheaded the opposition to the Paris Agreement, was chosen to lead Mr. Trump’s environmental transition team.

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It’s worth emphasizing that it’s not like American automakers are signing on to a Green New Deal. Their issue with the fuel economy rollback is more about fighting unpredictable and drastic swings in federal regulations, something every business of every size hates, rather than car companies suddenly sprouting an environmental conscience.

That being said, regardless of what happens with U.S. regulations, it’s clear that Europe, China, and other major vehicle markets are going to pursue drastic fuel reduction standards and/or electrification mandates. Whether or not the U.S. joins them is very much up for debate. But, given that much of the rest of the world is heading in that direction, it’s far from clear it’s in automakers’ medium-term financial interest (to say nothing of long term financial or moral interests) to stick to the denialist playbook and fight any/all rollbacks, which if successful would create two completely different regulatory frameworks.

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The changing times are making for strange bedfellows. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future automakers will not only see it in their financial interest to advocate for gradual fuel economy policies, but see electrification as a path to spur demand for new cars again. It would certainly be good for the environment if that were the case. One can hope, right?

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About the author

Aaron Gordon

Senior Reporter, Investigations & Technology, Jalopnik