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GM Going Electric

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General Motors has seen the writing on the wall and for the first time since it introduced yearly models a century ago is actually ahead of the curve on the future of the auto industry.

Those large forces help explain the decision by G.M.’s chief executive, Mary T. Barra, that the company will aim to sell only zero-emission cars and trucks by 2035.

Her announcement, just a day after President Biden signed an executive order on climate change, blindsided rivals who usually seek to present a united message on emissions and other policy issues. But it was also years in the making. G.M. has had a love-hate relationship with electric cars going back decades, but under Ms. Barra, who took over in 2014, it has inched its way toward a full embrace of the technology.

She has also shown a penchant for making big moves that her predecessors might have considered brash or impulsive given the company’s reputation for deliberate — or plodding to some — decision making. When Donald J. Trump became president, she pushed him to relax Obama-era fuel economy standards that G.M. had endorsed when they were put in place. Then, after Mr. Trump lost his re-election bid in November, Ms. Barra withdrew from a lawsuit seeking to prevent California from maintaining its own high fuel standards.

Now, others are searching for the right response to Ms. Barra’s latest tack. The reaction from automakers and oil and gas companies has so far been muted. But Washington is abuzz with corporate lobbyists complaining in private about what they saw as a calculated move to burnish G.M.’s and Ms. Barra’s reputations even as the industry negotiates a new fuel-economy deal with the Biden administration.

A senior G.M. executive, Dane Parker, said the company was not seeking to curry favor with the new administration. Its decision, he argued, was based on a fundamental, dollars-and-cents analysis of where the auto industry is headed and the cars that it expects to become best sellers in the future.

“We are doing this to build a sustainable business,” Mr. Parker, the company’s chief sustainability officer, said in an interview on Friday. “We want to have a business in 15 years that’s a thriving business.”

It’s clear enough that Barra and the rest of GM’s leadership isn’t doing any of this out of ideology or principle. It’s pure self-interest. Unless Republicans simply create an unpopular dictatorship in the near future (a very real possibility), the politics of never changing from gasoline-powered cars as climate change gets consistently worse are just not sustainable.

It should go without saying that corporations are not going to lead us into a post-fossil fuel economy. GM isn’t showing leadership here. It’s showing a reaction to reality. That reality is created by activists working both within and outside the electoral system to create a politics that demands that change. It’s always baffled me that the oil companies don’t get ahead of the curve on solar and wind energy and dominate the new energy markets for the next century. I still think that will eventually happen. GM is trying to do this for the automobile market. Keep up the pressure to do more about climate change and more corporations will figure it’s in their interest to follow along.

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