When Ford Motor Co. announced last month that it was withdrawing from the Global Climate Coalition, Kevin Sweeney could barely contain his joy. As chairman of the national environmental group Ozone Action, he said the auto company had placed an exclamation point on what critics have been saying for years: The coalition is a group of fossil-fuel producers, energy providers, car companies and trade associations whose goal is to spread confusion about global warming.
"Spending millions on advertising, lobbying and other efforts to discredit the best science," Sweeney wrote, "the group's small clique has had a huge presence. They have allowed political leaders to hide behind the false notion that there is significant disagreement about global warming in the scientific community. They have provided ready sources for journalists who, under the guise of objectivity, lazily assume that another side to the science should be presented in each story on the topic.
"The Ford Motor Co.'s withdrawal exposes this deception."
Ford wasn't so blunt. Under the new leadership of self-proclaimed "lifelong environmentalist" William Clay Ford Jr., the company concluded global warming was a problem and that continued membership in the coalition would be an "impediment to [its] ability to move forward credibly on environmental issues."
In the past few years other companies have jumped from the GCC -- most notably British Petroleum, Shell Oil and Dow Chemical -- but none, until Ford, were represented on its board of directors.
Instead of admitting that it is hopelessly out of step with mainstream scientific opinion, the GCC insisted that Ford's decision seemed to be "driven by a campaign of misinformation by fringe environmental groups."
It is somehow fitting that an organization critics claim is one of the biggest purveyors of antienvironmental propaganda would accuse others of being a fringe group dealing in misinformation.
No amount of rhetoric has been able to stop the GCC's loss of key constituents. This month, DaimlerChrysler followed in Ford's tracks and announced that its withdrawal from the coalition.
GCC denials aside, the evidence that we are altering Earth's climate is simply too strong. As Robert T. Watson, chairman of the U.N.-founded Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change, told Congress in 1998:
"The overwhelming majority of scientific experts recognize that scientific uncertainties exist, but still believe that human-induced climate change is inevitable. The question is not whether climate will change in response to human activities, but rather where [regional patterns], when [the rate of change] and by how much [magnitude]. It is also clear that climate change will adversely affect human health, ecological systems and socioeconomic sectors, including agriculture, forestry, fisheries, water resources and human settlements. ...
"These are the fundamental conclusions of a careful and objective analysis of all relevant scientific, technical and economic information by thousands of experts ... from around the world."
The Global Climate Coalition is conceding some ground, but not much. According to Ozone Action, the coalition last year "began to make an effort to change its image and soften its public stance regarding global warming, while maintaining its hard-line position behind the scenes."
But when environmentalists last year unleashed an unprecedented $11 million advertising campaign to elevate public understanding of the global-warming issue, GCC executive director Glenn Kelly told the Associated Press that the ads would "only further confuse the public on what is a very serous issue."
In another case, Vice President Al Gore spoke to school children about the warming effects on the arctic ice cap (which scientists say has been disappearing at an average rate of 14,000 square miles a year since 1978), saying more money should be devoted to the issue, but the Republican-led Congress wanted to hand out tax cuts instead. The GCC responded that Gore was "polluting" the children's minds.
So much for the scaled-back rhetoric.
Given the growing concern, it's not surprising that image-conscious automakers would pull out of the group. The defections by Ford and DaimlerChrysler throw a spotlight on what environmentalists call a decadelong attempt to induce public skepticism and confusion over global warming. Also brought into focus is the schizophrenia of a U.S. auto industry that is simultaneously attempting to paint itself green and pursue environmentally friendly technologies while fighting to preserve the regulatory status quo -- a position not all that different from the one GCC spokesman Frank Maisano says his group is pursuing.
The Global Climate Coalition formed in 1989, one year after NASA physicist James Hansen told Congress there were strong indications of global warming. The coalition's membership -- including not only oil companies and automakers but also industries ranging from aluminum to coal to chemical -- proved just how far-reaching the economic impacts of dealing with the problem could be.
Efforts to combat the growing body of science documenting the problem were not limited to the GCC, either. More than a dozen prominent anti-environmental groups and think tanks receiving industry funding -- the GCC alone has a $2 million annual budget -- have used both scientific and economic arguments in an attempt to counter environmental concerns.
That effort peaked in 1997 when an international summit was held in Kyoto, Japan, to hammer out an agreement to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, so called because they trap heat in the atmosphere the same way heat is trapped when sunlight passes through the glass of a greenhouse.
With the Big Three automakers in the forefront, GCC members contributed $13 million for an ad campaign that slammed the treaty as bad for the United States because developing nations weren't required to make reductions.
Also put into effect, according to Mother Jones magazine, was a secretly coordinated protest campaign conducted by a network of "grass-roots" groups actually funded by the affected industries.
"The fossil-fuel lobby and its ideological supporters have waged a relentless campaign of deception and disinformation to confuse people about the reality of warming-driven climate change," asserts Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ross Gelbspan. Gelbspan, who authored a book on the subject, "The Heat Is On," says that the result of industry's "relentless drumbeat of doubt" is a continuing sense of uncertainty in the public's mind.
That uncertainty, Gelbspan continues, prevents the development of a broad constituency that could force government to take decisive action.
While working to ensure the public remains confused, the same industries behind the disinformation campaigns made certain the nation's lawmakers kept a proper perspective by dumping millions of dollars into political campaigns.
The board and general members of the GCC contributed more than $63 million to federal candidates and the national parties from 1989 to 1999, according to a report released by the public-interest group Common Cause. By comparison, the report states, political-action committees representing environmental groups contributed $4.2 million to federal candidates during the same period.
What's significant about the contributions, say environmentalists, is that the realm of public policy is where the rubber meets the road. The result is that efforts to mandate change continue to stall.
The Kyoto treaty is a prime example. It calls for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels by 2012. Critics say the agreement places unacceptable costs on industrialized nations without requiring developing nations to cut back.
What the GCC and others like to ignore is that the U.S. is the largest source of greenhouse gases, both overall and per capita. Cars and trucks contribute 20 percent of the greenhouse gases produced in this country.
Although Clinton has signed off on the treaty, ratification requires support from two-thirds of Congress. The prospects are so remote the president hasn't sent it to Capitol Hill for a vote.
The administration recently announced new regulations that, beginning in 2004, will reduce sulfur content in gasoline and force automakers to produce cleaner-burning vehicles. But cleaner-burning vehicles, although reducing smog, don't reduce the carbon dioxide in emissions, meaning the effect on global warming is nil.
Of more import, fuel-efficiency standards have gotten worse since Clinton has been in the White House. Because increasingly popular SUVs and light trucks are held to less stringent standards, overall fuel efficiency has dropped from 25.9 miles per gallon to 23.8 miles per gallon during the past 19 years, according to a report released by the Environmental Protection Agency.
As with the stalled Kyoto treaty, the auto industry has lobbied fiercely to prevent tougher mandates -- which, as GCC spokesman Frank Maisano points out, puts his coalition in sync with two members that have just abandoned the group.
DaimlerChrysler spokesperson Max Gates says the company is showing both good business sense and environmental concern. Kyoto is a bad deal for the U.S., he says, and higher fuel-economy standards keep automakers from providing the types of cars that consumers want. Meanwhile, automakers are working to improve the environment by pursuing the green tomorrow of fuel cells.
While automakers are striving to appear environmentally friendly, and aggressively investing in technologies such as fuel cells and hybrid electric vehicles that promise reduced greenhouse gases, at the same time they are fighting what John DeCiccio of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy calls a "rear-guard action."
"They're trying to have it both ways," explains DeCicco, who annually produces a "green book" that provides environmental ratings for cars.
David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan, agrees that the auto companies are walking both sides of the line.
"They have to," says Cole. "They would go out of business otherwise."
The money from high-profit trucks and SUVs, he points out, helps fund the millions of dollars being poured into research of new technologies.
Besides, they're giving the customers what they want. Of the top five selling vehicles for 1999, four are trucks. And three of the top five made DeCicco's list of the 10 worst vehicles for the environment.
If the public gobbles up gas guzzlers, where's the incentive to go green?
"From the business point of view, they're following a very rational strategy," says DeCicco. "They'll keep doing it as long as they can get away with it."
That means it will likely take the federal government to step in and mandate changes. "It's like a game of chicken," explains DeCicco.
Companies are reluctant to incur the expense of gearing up for the full-scale production of cars requiring evolving technologies if the competition is sitting back and waiting for them to take the risk.
Which means government mandates, says DeCicco. "You need to have the public policy that creates a level playing field. If you raise the bar on environmental standards, you need to make everybody do it."
And so the U.S. automakers do their best to paint themselves green, while fighting reforms and producing vehicles that are environmentally destructive.
And the politicians won't have the clout to mandate change until voters realize the threat posed by changing weather patterns is all too real.
Which means we are rolling in the right direction. The question is, are we moving fast enough?
"The clock is ticking," says DeCicco. "Every year of delay is a threat."