The recent passing of Sherwood Rowland, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery (along with Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen) that CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) break down ozone in the stratosphere, causes me to think back on that furious debate over environmental issues—and the remarkable way it was resolved by international agreement and no longer threatens us. Those of us who are old enough to remember the political events of the 1970s and 1980s might recall the big public concern over the ozone layer. Like the debate over acid rain, this environmental crisis arose from earlier research that suggested a problem, then ran into huge opposition from conservative business and anti-environmental interests during the 1980s when Reagan’s cronies were in power. Like the debate over acid rain, the evidence for the hole in the ozone layer only increased until the pressure from scientists and governments around the world overcame the resistance of the affected industries, and resulted in an eventual global agreement to curb the causes of this pollution.
The story began in the late 1960s when the U.S. and Europe were both engaged in a race to develop a supersonic transport (SST) for civilian passengers, which would whisk people around huge distances in much shorter times (primarily between Europe and America). I vividly remember this series of events, because my father worked for Lockheed Aircraft at the time, and spent years of his life working very long hours to develop a huge multivolume “proposal” for how the Lockheed SST would be built. Huge numbers of man-hours and millions of dollars building two working prototype aircraft were wasted by Lockheed in the competition when the contract went to Boeing Aircraft instead. Ironically, the Boeing SST was eventually canceled, too. The only SST that was built was the Anglo-French Concorde, which traveled between New York and Paris from 1976 until it was retired in 2003 due to low demand after the 2000 Concorde crash, low air traffic after 9/11, and high costs since most of the electronics in the aircraft were over 30 years old and obsolete.
One of the concerns that caused the cancellation of the Boeing SST project (besides the technical problems, delays, huge cost overruns, and the concern that it would ever be profitable enough to justify its existence) was the possibility that as the SST flew through the ozone layer in the stratosphere, it might cause environmental damage. Ozone (O3) is a chemical made of three oxygen molecules bonded together; it has a distinctive smell most commonly noticed when a lightning strike or electrical discharge occurs. It is formed when O2 in our stratosphere is bombarded by radiation and splits up, and some of those free oxygen radicals join other O2 molecules to form O3. At ground level, it is not good for us, but up in the stratosphere, it performs an important role in screening out excessive ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation from the sun, which can cause skin cancers and blindness.
The issue of the possible damage of SST travel in the ozone layer was raised in the late 1960s as the Boeing and Concorde SST projects were well along (previously, there had been worries that SSTs might contribute to greenhouse gas warming). A crucial 1970 paper by atmospheric chemist Harold Johnston raised the possibility that nitrous oxides from jet engines might break down the ozone layer, and the story soon reached national attention. However, by the time the paper was fully published, the House of Representatives had already canceled funding for the Boeing SST program, so it was only applicable to the European Concorde. Nevertheless, Congress funded another program, Climate Impact Assessment Program (CIAP), which involved nearly 1000 scientists across many different agencies and universities over 3 years, to assess the possible impact of the SST. When the 7200-page report came out in 1975, it suggested that 500 Boeing-type SSTs could deplete the ozone layer by 20% especially over the heavily traveled North Atlantic corridor. Yet the executive summary, written by Department of Transportation bureaucrats who wanted the SST to go forward, claimed just the opposite, and suggested that a newly modified SST would not damage the ozone layer. The scientists who had worked so long and hard on the research were outraged, but their corrections only appeared in the scientific literature, while the mass media only reported the summary that falsely claimed that the SST was safe for the ozone layer.
Meanwhile, the focus on SSTs and nitrous oxide shifted to another culprit when scientists testing the engines for the upcoming space shuttle missions discovered that it emitted chlorine, which was much more reactive and capable of destroying ozone. Paul Crutzen, an important contributor to the “nuclear winter” debate, presented a paper on the chlorine problem at a 1974 NASA conference on the topic in Kyoto. Soon thereafter Rowland and Molina published a historic paper in Nature showing that the most abundant source of stratospheric chlorine was chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were commonly used in refrigerators and air-conditioners as a coolant, and spray cans as a propellant. CFCs were particularly nasty and rapid destroyers of ozone. In the stratosphere, they break up due to solar radiation to release a free radical chlorine atom, which then bonds to ozone and breaks it apart. Once this reaction occurs, however, the chlorine atom is freed up to break up more and more ozone.
With the news that everyday products like hair spray were dangerous to the environment, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, and Congress soon convened panels and commissioned research to look into the problem. As Oreskes and Conway (2010, Chapter 4) describe in detail, the battle of scientists vs. the CFC industry soon became bitter and nasty. The main industry trade associations and their lobbyists, the Chemical Specialities Manufacturers Association and the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association, soon set up a PR campaign to try to discredit the research, while pouring over $5 million in research grants to scientists (in hopes they might find results which would dispute Molina and Rowland’s conclusions). They hired a British professor of theoretical mechanics, Richard Scorer, to plug their viewpoint. He argued that humans could not cause a problem that might affect the entire atmosphere (even as he gave speeches in Los Angeles, which was experiencing dangerous smog alerts). Once a Los Angeles Times reporter exposed his links to the CFC industry and called him a “hired gun,” his propaganda was discredited, but others soon took his place.
Then the industry made a big fuss about the idea that volcanic eruptions might be a bigger source of CFCs than humans, and therefore hair sprays were not to blame. They spent money on a “research” program monitoring an Alaskan volcano, which erupted as expected in January 1976. But when the research didn’t show what they wanted to show, they quickly toned down the PR machine and claimed the results were “inconclusive”. Yet the lie that volcanoes were a bigger source of ozone damage continued in their PR campaign. As Harold Schiff put it, the CFC industry “challenged the theory every step of the way. They said there was no proof that fluorocarbons even got into the stratosphere, no proof that they split apart to produce chlorine, no proof that, even if they did, the chlorine was destroying ozone”. Then scientists went out in 1975 and 1976 and disproved every one of the industry’s claims, and showed that CFCs were indeed a severe threat to the ozone layer and needed to be taken seriously.
When the National Academy of Sciences finally released its long-delayed report on Sept. 15, 1976, it was devastating in its clear-cut conclusions: CFCs were indeed a serious threat to the ozone layer. Despite the efforts of the aerosol industry, the federal regulatory machinery jumped into action, and the FDA and EPA both began to work on regulation of CFCs. Ironically, by the time the FDA announced regulations in 1977, the bad publicity surrounding hair sprays had already had an effect on consumer buying patterns. People had discovered that there were lots of CFC-free products that sprayed their contents without dangerous chemicals, such as roll-on deodorant and pump sprays for most kitchen cleaners. The sales of CFC propellants had dropped by 75%, and when the ban took effect in 1979, it was merely the final step in the process already underway.
Meanwhile, NASA began to devote more and more of its satellite time to look into the problem. By the 1980s, their satellites had documented an alarming “hole” in the ozone layer that arose over the Antarctic at the beginning of each austral spring in September-October, as the warming stirred up the stratospheric clouds and sped up the chemical reactions. The hole was huge and persisted for months, and the ozone levels were alarmingly low. There were even hints of an Arctic ozone hole as well, although it was not as predictable and well established. Both of these discoveries were alarming, since it meant that people living at high latitudes (southern South America, New Zealand, Australia) as well as the wildlife of these areas and the Antarctic, were being exposed to dangerous levels of UV-B during the Austral Spring. Not only does high UV-B cause skin cancer, but at high enough levels it can cause eye damage as well. This was a threat to be taken seriously.
As this research emerged through the 1980s, international conferences were held to reach agreements for a worldwide ban on CFCs. The final result of years of negotiation was the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which was ratified by all the signatory nations by 1988. Not only was the research supporting the agreement scientifically impeccable, but even the manufacturers had a member on the panel. They could see the market trends away from CFC use, and the risks they took by fighting regulation and scientific consensus. Finally, on March 18, 1988, DuPont (the largest maker of CFCs) announced that they would cease production of CFCs within a few years.
The battle should have been over. The scientific research had reached a consensus, governments around the world had agreed on a solution to the problem, and since CFCs were easily replaced, the industry had complied and actually done better financially without CFCs. Case closed. But the right-wing organizations that challenge any science restricting business (even a business no longer fighting the science) were not ready to give up. The major conservative “think tanks” (the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Marshall Institute again) wanted to keep fighting regulation which violated their “free market” philosophy, even if the industry being regulated didn’t make the polluting product any more, and had agreed to the regulation (and improved their bottom line). Some of these people were prominent in the Reagan Administration, like Interior Secretary Donald Hodel. His “protection plan” for people under the ozone hole was to wear hats and long-sleeved shirts! The ridicule that he received soon led to his resignation, but there were many other conservatives both in and out of the Reagan White House who were working both publicly and quietly to deny the already settled problem of ozone depletion.
Among the most prominent of these critics was none other than Fred Singer of the Heritage Foundation, a “hired-gun” scientist famous for his previous battles defending the tobacco industry and the polluters who caused acid rain. In 1987, he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal claiming that the “ozone scare” was not credible. He claimed that CFCs were not responsible, and that the ozone simply moved somewhere else. Of course, if he were not a long-retired physicist with no experience in satellites since the 1960s, he would have known that this claim was ridiculous. The newer generation of satellites have global coverage, so if the ozone had moved somewhere else, it would have been detected.
Singer’s writings are full of the same dodge, deny, and divert tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry. For example, he pulled the old distraction of “other causes”: there are other reasons for skin cancer, therefore we shouldn’t worry about the ozone hole! As we saw before, this is irrelevant: if the ozone hole causes skin cancers, we don’t want to add it to the list of other known carcinogens, but try to eliminate it.
His main stratagem was a familiar one: scientists have changed their minds in the past, therefore we shouldn’t take them seriously. He brought up the ancient 1960s debate over where the SST might deplete ozone, and laughed at scientists when this proved to be wrong. But he never mentioned that scientists themselves had corrected this error decades ago, and the current evidence of CFCs causing ozone was based on a huge amount research in the ensuing 20 years.
In 1988, Singer misinterpreted valid scientific research by V. Ramanathan about greenhouse gases to claim that the fluctuations of chlorine and stratospheric cooling were just “natural variations” and humans didn’t cause them. But in original paper, Ramanathan argued nothing of the kind, but just the opposite: that humans were warming the warming the troposphere that was causing cooling of the stratosphere. Singer did the same to James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and an early prophet of the global warming problem. Singer pulled a graph out of context from one of Hansen’s publications to argue that the warming trend was part of a natural cycle. Of course, any objective look at those papers would show that this is a deliberate distortion to pervert their meaning to the opposite of what was said. Ramanathan and Hansen’s research was arguing in the clearest possible terms that the changes in the troposphere and stratosphere were not cyclic and were due to human-induced greenhouse gases.
Soon Singer’s view of the world—that CFC-ozone science was incomplete and uncertain, that scientists had made mistakes in the past, that it would be expensive to fix the problem, and that scientists were corrupt and money-grubbing)—was picked up by the right-wing media, including the ultra-conservative Washington Times (founded and owned by Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church), and business publications like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fortune. William F. Buckley published an article by Singer in his conservative journal National Review. There, Singer blamed rejection of his writings by major scientific journals not on his own incompetence and bad science, but on a global conspiracy by scientists to shut out dissenting points of view. According to Singer, “It’s not difficult to understand some of the motivations behind the drive to regulate CFCs out of existence. For scientists: prestige, more grants for research, press conferences, and newspaper stories. Also the feeling that maybe they are saving a world for future generations”.
To working scientists, this entire statement sounds bizarre and absurd. Yes, scientists are motivated to publish research which will be noticed and have some importance. They’re all human, after all. And why is it a bad thing to save the planet? Unlike biased “think tanks” publishing their own opinions over and over, and pushing a political-economic agenda, scientists can’t get away with claiming just anything. The peer review process is very strict, and if their data or conclusions don’t pass muster, they will be quickly refuted by other scientists eager to shoot them down. Outsiders like Singer (long retired from doing any real science) or the creationists love to propagate this myth of “scientific conspiracy”, but as any working scientist knows, that’s a lie. The scientific community is sharpening their knives to critique each other through peer review and checking published results with later follow-up research to prove someone wrong, and they are about as far from a unified conspiracy as one could imagine.
And the charge that scientists do their research just to get rich is equally absurd. Most of them are in relatively low-paying teaching positions, where they rarely reach a six-figure salary even after 20 or more years of hard work. I’ve been teaching for 33 years now, and I still haven’t made it to a salary of six figures, despite publishing numerous books and over 250 scientific papers. To reach our goals of working in science, we had to make many hard sacrifices of long hours and living in near poverty in 5-7 years of grad school (for a total of 10-12 years in college) to earn a Ph.D. Then we go through the brutal process of teaching for 4-6 years or more on starvation wages as a lowly assistant professor, all the while under the threat of not getting tenure and losing our job forever. All the scientists I know have made these sacrifices willingly, because they love what they do, and want to discover new and important things about the natural world. As scientists, we were typically bright students near the top of our class, capable of going in lots of directions. If we wanted to make real money, we would have gone into business or law, where the grad program is only a few years, and then huge salaries are available at the other end.
For Singer or any of the other conservative anti-environmentalists to claim scientists are corrupt and trying to earn big money and better reputation is a clear case of projecting their own motivations on someone else, or the “pot calling the kettle black.” Singer and his cohort are certainly not hurting for monetary support. For example, Singer’s foundation Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP) was originally affiliated with a Moonie organization, and now receives funding from Arco, Unocal, Shell, and ExxonMobil. SEPP netted $226,443 in 2007, and had accumulated assets of $1.69 million. We don’t know how much Singer gets paid for shilling for all these different conservative foundations, but it’s safe to say he earns a lot more (as do most of the rich businessmen who fund these foundations) than the paltry salaries of academics. And Singer, a former scientist with an agenda, gets a lot more publicity and coverage when his causes are trumpeted by right-wing media than do any scientist involved in the debate.
What motivates this bizarre perspective of Singer and his conservative cohorts? As Oreskes and Conway (2010, p 134) show, Singer sees the environmental science community as “technology-hating Luddites” with a goal to regulate and change our economic system. According to Singer, scientists have a “hidden political agenda” against “business, the free market, and the capitalistic system.” The “real agenda” of scientists is to overthrow capitalism and replace it with communism.
I’m not sure what scientists Singer hangs out with, but this sounds like the Red Scare paranoia of the 1950s, and it is about as far from reality as possible. I know hundreds of natural scientists (geologists, biologists, chemists, and physicists in many subspecialties), and if there’s one thing they almost all share, it’s a lack of interest in politics and economics, let alone a unified socialist-communist agenda. Many got into science specifically because they weren’t interested in economics and politics, and had a gift or love for doing science instead. What they are committed to is a sincere love of the truth, and a willingness to make sacrifices of their time, money, and even comfort and personal safety to find out what is really true about nature, no matter whose agenda it might support. Only rarely do most of us think about possible political or economic implications of our research. Typically scientists try to downplay those aspects because they don’t want to attract attention or controversy! If you doubt this, just look at all the negative comments that scientists heaped on Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould because they were willing to be public figures.
Nor are we all “commies”. I know of large numbers of both conservative and liberal scientists (but no outright communists or socialists), despite the claim that we’re all left-wingers. There are some scientists who do have strong political opinions, but as scientists we try our best to prevent our political biases from influencing our scientific results. We’re human, of course, so occasionally research with a political agenda does get published—but then the rest of the scientific community will jump in and criticize it, so we don’t get away with our biases for long.
But let’s get back to the ozone depletion issue and what this example tells us. Scientists originally looking for something else accidentally discovered the problem. Then it was found to be serious and generated a huge volume of conclusive scientific evidence. From this, governmental agencies finally took action, but long after consumers had almost stopped using CFCs. Soon the industry stopped making them because demand had dropped, and they weren’t necessary, and other materials and methods for refrigeration and propellants worked cheaper and better. Since the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer has been gradually recovering and CFCs have been gradually vanishing from the stratosphere, although they may not be gone until 2050 or later. Yet the anti-environmentalist movement kept beating a dead horse, filling the right-wing media with false or misleading stories, and claiming that even something like curbing CFCs (which was a good economic decision for both DuPont and the planet) was somehow leading us to communism.
All through this debate, one can see the strong parallels to the current global warming debate, from the tactics of industries who want to confuse and cloud the issue (the tobacco company “smokescreen” defense), to the attempts to smear scientists and paint a completely bizarre picture of them, to the efforts to fund phony “research” and then downplay the results when they don’t support your company’s interests. And the players in all these debates were the same, especially the conservative foundations with their funding from major energy corporations. But there are positive messages, too: once scientists produced overwhelming evidence for the dangers of CFCs, and governments and affected industries cooperated with each other, it was possible to find a solution for a global environmental problem, and now it is no longer on our radar. The same happened with the acid rain debate of the 1970s and 1980s, and now cap-and-trade has solved that pollution problem. We hear all the screaming over cap-and-trade on the AGW issue, but it works just fine in reducing acid rain and everyone in those industries has learned to work with that system.
Of course, weaning civilization off of fossil fuels is a bigger problem than these, but the history of the debates over the ozone hole and acid rain show that once science, industry, and governments get together, something CAN be done. The question is: will we be able to reach that consensus? Or will science deniers in the pay of the fossil fuel industries prevent us from acting when it has been long overdue?