Consumers blast GM Foundation gift to group fighting climate science

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2012 

WASHINGTON — General Motors, a company that's made strides to lower the carbon footprint of driving, is taking heat from 10,000 of its customers for a donation its charitable foundation made to an institute that casts doubt on climate science.

GM vehicle buyers have posted online comments objecting to the GM Foundation's gifts of $30,000 in the past two years to the Heartland Institute, a free-market advocacy organization that publicizes its disagreement with prevailing scientific views about evidence of climate change.

"I love Buicks and Cadillacs! My husband loves his pickup. We've been GM owners for 50 years. If GM continues to support the Heartland Institute, we will NOT purchase another GM vehicle," wrote Elaine of Blue Ridge, Ga. Her comments were among dozens posted by Forecast the Facts, a group that advocates for accurate climate reporting by meteorologists.

Many companies support the Heartland Institute, but Forecast the Facts focused on GM because it got taxpayers' dollars in the auto bailout, and "people really care about GM and what it stands for in American society and in the American economy," said the group's campaign director, Daniel Souweine. No taxpayer dollars went from the GM Foundation to Heartland, however.

The foundation's $15,000 annual gift in 2010, repeated in 2011, went to the Heartland Institute's general funds, not its climate program, said GM spokeswoman Carolyn Markey. Heartland also takes a free-market approach to other areas, including education, insurance and health care.

The GM Foundation hasn't decided on its 2012 funding yet, Markey said. It was set up with a GM endowment but hasn't received GM funding since 2001. In the past 10 years, the foundation has given $303 million to various causes, including $27 million to increase graduation rates in Detroit and a $4.5 million annual college scholarship program.

Souweine said Tuesday that more than 10,000 current and former owners of GM vehicles were asking the company to stop supporting Heartland.

Heartland contends that global warming has stopped, a view that's contradicted by global data and reports from many scientists, including those at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA, for example, has reported that each of the last three decades has been warmer than the decade before.

Heartland, however, sees global warming as part of a "liberal political agenda," according to its website. It argues that warming rose mostly from natural causes and has stopped, and that the benefits of "moderate warming" will probably outweigh the costs. The organization plans to fund a K-12 curriculum saying that climate science is controversial.

Climate science research, however, overwhelmingly reports that continuing warming is driven mainly by human use of fossil fuels. One summary, from the National Academy of Sciences, said: "Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems."

Michael J. Robinson, GM's vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs, said in a statement Wednesday that the company does not support the Heartland Institute's position on climate change.

"We are operating our business to continually reduce the carbon footprint of our vehicles and operations and we believe our actions speak for themselves," he added. "GM is leading the auto industry's transformation in the showroom with the Chevrolet Volt and at our factories, many of which are landfill-free and powered by alternative energy."

The company announced last week that the Environmental Protection Agency named GM a 2012 Energy Start partner of the year in the motor vehicle category. The company said it increased industrial efficiency, took energy-saving measures that paid off in one year and powered four facilities with landfill gas, which reduced its greenhouse gas emissions.

GM spokeswoman Markey said that GM was concerned about the public comments. "Any time you have consumers expressing concern over something, that's important to us," she said.

The Heartland Institute keeps its donors secret. The recent GM Foundation grants and other contributions were disclosed in documents obtained by Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research and advocacy organization. Gleick admitted last month that he got the documents by asking for them in someone else's name. He forwarded the documents to bloggers who posted them in February. Gleick is on leave and his institute has hired an independent firm to investigate.

Heartland dubbed the case "fakegate." It announced on Monday that it hired a legal team to represent it in the conflict with Gleick.

The institute used to make public its lists of dozens of corporate and foundation donors. GM, Ford Motor Co. and the predecessor of the Chrysler Group in past years were among them. The earliest record on the web, for 1999, shows all three American car companies as donors.

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