Perhaps you have noticed the uptick in extreme weather lately. There’s the never-ending flood in the Florida Keys, all those wildfires, more and longer heatwaves, more frequent and stronger hurricanes, and so on. This is climate change at work, gradually shifting what a normal season and storm looks like. Subaru wants to sell you a car specifically for all that. Seriously.
Car companies, who are themselves significant contributors to climate change, acknowledge this to varying degrees. At this point, they all have a landing page on their corporate website with environmental pledges. These tend to use a lot of words about how their respective companies will reduce their carbon footprints and transition to clean energy.
Subaru, however, has chosen to take a different approach, which, if nothing else, I respect for its honesty. After calling climate change “a threat to all of humanity,” it goes on to suggest that, you know, maybe it’ll be a good sales opportunity for their unrivaled lineup of durable, capable all-wheel-drive vehicles.
Here is how Subaru puts it:
On the other hand, AWD, which is a major strategic vehicle 90% of which Subaru is introducing to the market, has a great opportunity to cope with recent climate change, compared to FW and FR automobiles of 2WD. The main reason for this is that traveling stability unique to AWD is very good compared to 2WD on rough road after torrential rain and snowy road surface due to heavy snowfall. There is a possibility that the recognition that it is a automobile [sic] that can run safely and with peace of mind expands and leads to an increase in sales opportunities.
Yes, you, in our climate-ravaged future, will need a car that can run “safely and with peace of mind,” because there will presumably be few garages in our post-apocalyptic hellscape. Losers with front-wheel drive will get stuck in the mudslides and die of starvation. But not you, the intelligent, forward-looking Subaru purchaser.
Jalopnik asked Subaru if they really meant this, and Subaru, unsurprisingly, said they did not. “Subaru in no way uses, or will use, climate change to sell or market our vehicles,” Subaru of America spokesperson Dominick Infante wrote Jalopnik in an email. “In a translated version of a 2018 report, the translation did not accurately represent the sentiment or the values held by Subaru Corporation or Subaru of America.” He added the language is being removed from the website, although as of this writing it is still up.
Now, I had considered the possibility this was a translation error as well since the web page is for Subaru’s Japanese website with a .co.jp domain. But the page is in English; I am not using Google Translate or anything. More to the point, this is not about one word or phrase. The entire paragraph leans into the narrative that increasingly bad weather, such as heavy rain and snow, due to climate change, will make AWD vehicles more attractive to buyers. It’s hard to imagine how a translator could get an entire paragraph wrong while making a cogent, if morally gross, argument. Perhaps it was all just a big mistake.
Subaru, as a maker of automobiles running almost exclusively on internal combustion engines, is hardly an innocent party when it comes to this whole climate change thing to begin with. On that very same page, Subaru calculates its global carbon footprint, including the emissions from the vehicles it makes, is just a hair shy of 30 megatons of CO2 a year, or eight megatons more than the entire country of Bolivia. Japan, where Subaru is based, emitted an estimated 1,098 million tons of CO2 in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.
While it’s not especially surprising, it is still galling for a car company that almost exclusively makes gas-powered cars in 2019 to see climate change as a sales opportunity. But it might come as a surprise that the company to do so is Subaru, which has a reputation for being environmentally conscious. You can read all about how much Subaru is doing for the environment on their Subaru Loves The Earth page, but their two major initiatives are their zero-waste factories and marketing around Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles or PZEVs.
But PZEVs are solely about reducing smog-creating elements. It has little to do with CO2 emissions, the main contributor to climate change, because PZEVs are still regular ol’ gas-powered cars. Meanwhile, Subaru’s U.S. fleet gets fine but not great gas mileage with most of their fleet solidly in the 20-30 combined mpg range.
Notably, Subaru has been slow to adopt hybrids or EVs. They have yet to put out an all-electric vehicle and have only one hybrid for sale in the U.S.
But Subaru doesn’t see the future as all good from a sales perspective. In that same “Risks and Opportunities” section, right above where the company lists dangerous weather as an opportunity, it puts government efforts to actually do something about it as a risk:
At Subaru, we believe that introduction and strengthening of environmental regulations for products are the major risks in the business environment.
On this front, Subaru very much outed itself when it sided with the Trump administration in the ongoing legal fight over emissions standards. The automakers siding with Trump claim this is about federal versus state regulatory powers and creating consistent rules across the entire country. But that doesn’t align with their history. Many of these same companies have fought federal emissions and safety regulations tooth and nail for decades, in some cases even arguing these rules are best left up to the states. The only consistency here is automakers typically side with whoever wants less regulation.
In any event, Subaru will not be the last company to view climate change with dollar signs in their eyes while fighting rules to mitigate it, but that doesn’t make it any better.
[H/T Ben Serrurier]