Sherry Rowland and the ozone denialists


F. Sherwood Rowland in his lab, 1976 (photo: UC-Irvine)

In 1995, shortly before F. Sherwood Rowland (1927-March 10, 2012) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for collaborative work two decades earlier on the fundamental chemistry of stratospheric ozone depletion, a House Science subcommittee held a hearing, chaired by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, on “Stratospheric ozone, myths and realities.” The committee heard testimony from Majority Leader Tom DeLay on his proposal to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to implement the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances.  S. Fred Singer and Sallie Baliunas were among the witnesses called by the committee to question the international scientific assessments of ozone depletion. 

[March 16 post:  Sherwood Rowland Senate testimony on IPCC, science censorship, and the need for climate action]

Like so very many others, we were saddened to learn of the death of the legendary and admirable atmospheric scientist F. Sherwood Rowland.  See:

UK Guardian/Associated Press March 12, “Ozone layer scientist who ‘saved the world’ dies – F Sherwood Rowland won Nobel prize for raising the alarm over CFC gases destroying Earth’s ultraviolet shield”

Andy Revkin at DotEarth, “The Passing of F. Sherwood Rowland,” and his links to additional sources

Joe Romm at Climate Progress, “Remembering Nobelist Sherry Rowland, ‘Who Sounded Alarm On Thinning Ozone Layer’

RealClimate, “Sherwood Rowland, CFCs, ozone depletion and the public role of scientists

It’s well-known that, between the fundamental scientific work in the early 1970s on the impact of CFCs on Earth’s atmosphere and the adoption in 1987 of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, there was a long battle to get government and industry, both national and international, to recognize the problem and take steps to deal with it.  Of course, the industrial interests that would be affected by regulation, and anti-regulatory ideologues, had motivation to question the accumulating scientific evidence and forestall political action.

And, as RealClimate notes:

In the public debate, many of the climate contrarians (such as Fred Singer) got their start denying that CFCs were affecting ozone, using many of the same arguments they now use about climate change…, and for much the same reasons. But through this all, Sherry Rowland strode tall (literally – he was 6 ft 5 in), and played a large role in debunking some of the wild claims (such as the idea that it was all volcanoes).

Singer wrote in National Review magazine (June 30, 1989, p.37):

“…[E]vidence is firming up that volcanoes, and perhaps salt spray and bio-chemical emissions from the oceans, contribute substantially to stratospheric chlorine, and thus dilute the effects of CFCs.”

This argument was picked up by the Lyndon LaRouche organization as part of their conspiracy theory on the ozone-depletion problem (e.g., The Holes in the Ozone Scare, 21st Century Science Associates, 1992)

Dr. Rowland cited this in his AAAS President’s Lecture in 1993, in discussing at some length how 15 years of work by the international scientific community had already rejected volcanoes as an important source of chlorine (and fluorine) for the stratosphere at the time this assertion was still being put forth.  He cited this as an example of how “the combination of some but not enough intelligence, plus considerable anounts of both ignorance and arrogance, can easily lead to being badly wrong in full voice and, worse yet, with a considerable following.”  That’s a diplomatic way of putting it.

Dr. Rowland’s “President’s Lecture: The Need for Scientific Communication with the Public,” delivered at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on February 14, 1993, is a multifaceted gem. Uploaded here in PDF: Rowland-AAAS-Lecture.  It includes this:

“…some of the doubters are not prepared to accept that there has been any springtime loss of ozone over Antarctica and put their dissent as an assertion that volcanoes are the primary source of stratospheric chlorine, totally overshadowing any possible effect from man-made compounds. Asserting this to be so, they then conclude that there cannot be an Antarctic ozone hole and therefore the whole ozone depletion story is a hoax. In discussing this scientific situation in some detail, I am ultimately raising a cause for great concern over the role of science in a democracy in which the general population has not enough understanding of science itself; does not entirely trust “science experts” and does not want to; and is left with no way to distinguish between the competing claims of apparent experts on both sides of any question.”

Two years later, just weeks before Dr. Rowland received the Nobel Prize, House Republicans – under the leadership of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay – were using taxpayer dollars to hold a hearing on “Stratospheric Ozone: Myths and Realities.”  (Full title: Scientific integrity and public trust : the science behind federal policies and mandates : case study 1, stratospheric ozone, myths and realities : hearing before the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, first session, September 20, 1995 (1996).)  The hearing report, with written testimony, full transcript, and supporting documents, is here.

Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-California), who was already a full-blown contrarian-denialist on global warming when I started working on the professional staff of this committee in 1991, heard testimony from and questioned House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay had earlier introduced a bill, H.R. 475, titled “To repeal provisions of the Clean Air Act dealing with stratospheric ozone protection.” The text in the body of the bill consisted of a single sentence: “Title VI of the Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C. 7401 and following) is hereby repealed.”

p. 27
Mr. ROHRABACHER. Thank you very much, Mr. DeLay. The legislation that you have offered will come to grips with many of the problems that you brought up today.  Before I ask some of our colleagues to comment, you’re basically saying that this ban, the environmental impact of what we have to do because of the ban, could be worse than the problem itself. Is that right?  When you say that the energy requirements on the alternatives are increasing, and would increase the necessity of using more fuel, what you are actually saying, then, is more carbo—they’re not carbohydrates. Carbohydrates is what you eat.

Mr. DeLay. Hydrocarbons.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Hydrocarbons are going into the atmosphere.

Mr. DeLay. Well, certainly. I’ll tell you, Mr. Chairman, and I said it during the debate of the Clean Air Act of 1990. Hardly anyone was listening, about 35 members were. And warned about some of the things that were being done with very little scientific basis to it. …

Mr. ROHRABACHER. … And actually, I’ve read somewhere where there might be some increased cause or risk of cancer by some of the alternatives to CFCs. Is that correct?

Mr. DeLay. Well, I think you’re going to have some panels of scientists that probably speak to that better than I will. But I think it’s pretty clear, or at least there is another school of thought that is not tied to Chicken Little approaches to the environment, that suggest that particularly the CFCs are not doing the damage to the ozone layer that has been claimed.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. So, just in summary, the ozone may not be threatened as we are being told, and even making the matter worse, some of the solutions for this problem that may or may not exist, actually may cause more damage to the environment. And that’s what you’re worried about.

Mr. DeLay. And that’s what I’m worried about.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Thank you very much.

The Subcommittee also heard from Rep. John Doolittle (R-California), who also was sponsoring legislation to block action on the CFC phaseout.  Called down by Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Michigan) on why he appeared to ignore and be unfamiliar with the existing scientific assessments of ozone depletion, and with the peer-reviewed scientific literature, Doolittle said, “I’m not going to get involved in peer-review mumbo-jumbo.”

I attended that hearing, viewing with dismay the deterioration of the committee following the change in leadership after the 1994 election.  As for the proposed legislation, it seemed appropriate to refer to it as “Delay and Doolittle.”

The committee chair heard friendly testimony from S. Fred Singer, identified as professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia, and founder and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project in Fairfax, Virginia; and Sallie Baliunas, identified as research astrophysicist and chair of the science advisory board at the nonpartisan George C. Marshall Institute.

Those two were countered with state-of-the-science testimony by the co-chairs of the UN Ozone Science Assessment Panel: Robert T. Watson, associate director of environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and former director of NASA’s Stratospheric Ozone Program, and Daniel Albritton, director of the NOAA Aeronomy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, as well as Margaret Kripke of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cencer Center.

Then a final blow to the whole charade came during the second panel, when the director of the industry alliance told the panel that the game was already over, the deal had gone down, industry had accepted the science and was moving forward on alternatives:

p. 203

Mr. Fay. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. …

The decades-long examination of ozone science is well understood and supported by expert industry scientists. From our perspective, while we may disagree on the rates of change or estimates of environmental effects, we long ago reached an agreement on the appropriate course of action.

Political opportunists continue to try to take advantage of this issue. … such as CEI [the Competitive Enterprise Institute] has done … to somehow link the deaths, as he tried to do recently in his op-ed piece, the deaths in the Chicago heatwave, is shocking in its irresponsibility. …

The realities are the fundamental scientific basis for the CFC phase-out is credible and has remained basically unchanged since the original policy decision to phase out production of the compounds. The producer and user industries acted responsibly in moving quickly to develop and implement safe and effective substitute technologies that allowed that phase-out to be accelerated….

The legislation went nowhere, the hearing went nowhere, Dr. Rowland received his Nobel, and the denialists went back to sabotaging action on global warming, as they continue to do.


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7 Responses to Sherry Rowland and the ozone denialists

  1. Shibui says:

    However it should be kept in mind that the hole still ocurrs – and a further hole has now been found in the Arctic … despite the CFC phase-out.

  2. Mike MacCracken says:

    Ah yes, I remember it well.

    I would only add that one of my recollections is, frustrated by the absurdity of it all, of wanting to suggest a line to the late night comics that Representative Doolittle was proposing delay, while Representative Delay was proposing do little.

    Professor Rowland was not only a towering scientist and intellect, but a wonderfully warm person, friend and colleague who courageously stood tall for and patiently explained and explained again the findings of the science in the face of the generally content-less gusts of criticism from quite a number of close-minded blowhards. Professor Rowland set a standard for us all to emulate as we respond to many of the same people offering the same types of un- and ill-founded criticisms about climate change science.

  3. Hank Roberts says:

    I’d guess Shibui is thinking of this part of that SpaceDaily 2003 article:
    “greenhouse gases …. cool the stratosphere …. has both good and bad effects on ozone destruction …”

    And yes, the bad effects have gotten worse since then:

    Here’s a wonderful history of the negotiations:

    Richard Elliot Benedick
    In January 1985, not long after I took over the international environment portfolio at the State Department, I led a small American delegation to a little-noticed meeting in Geneva….

    … We held ministerial and other high-level policy discussions, held press conferences and media appearances to reach public opinion, and promoted exchanges between our scientists. In particular, Germany, which was a major CFC producer but also had strong environmental traditions, was gaining growing influence within EC councils.
    I was aided in my efforts here by personal contacts gained during 41⁄2 years at our embassy in Bonn, plus fluency in the language.
    In an effort to counteract the influence of Imperial Chemical Industries on the U.K. position, I suggested to some U.S. environmental organizations that they visit British counterparts, who had not hitherto been active on this issue, in order to brief them on the significance of ozone layer depletion. Their efforts met with success, and British activists soon caused pointed questions to be raised in Parliament about the government’s position. When this resulted in an official protest from Her Majesty’s Government about my role, the relevant State Department office coolly responded that “Ambassador Benedick could not be held responsible for activities of American private citizens abroad.” Interestingly, when British scientists were able in 1988 to bring the ozone issue personally before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had an academic degree in chemistry, the U.K. position changed almost overnight and the British thereafter became a leading proponent of phaseout for all ozone-depleting substances….”

    and he makes an interesting point.

    Read this language in Benedick’s case history:

    ” Congress authorized the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1977 Clean Air Act to regulate “any substance … which in his judgment may reasonably be anticipated to affect the stratosphere, especially ozone in the stratosphere, if such effect may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare” (emphasis added). This law attempted to balance the scientific uncertainties with the fateful risks of inaction. And it opted for a low threshold to justify intervention: the government was not obligated to prove conclusively that a suspected substance could modify the stratosphere or endanger health and environment. All that was required was a standard of reasonable expectation: CFCs would not be considered innocent until proven guilty.”

    Anyone recall if that was relied on to regulate greenhouse gases other than CFCs — carbon dioxide? Because it reads as a basis to do that.

    • thanes says:

      Hank, it looks to me like Shibui is questioning whether the ozone hole is recovering at all, and has cited reports of findings inaccurately. He begins by noting that despite the CFC ban the hole still occurs. I suspect he means to imply that CFC’s are not responsible for the phenomenon. Rick counters this with a report from 2011 of the first finding of increasing of ozone. Shibui then responds with a report from 2003, saying “we’ve seen that before!”. Which I take to mean, he neither believes nor understands the two reports, or doesn’t want other people. The report he cites, instead of saying the same thing the 2011 report did, instead finds what you would have to have first before recovery, a slowing of decline.
      Shibui, please correct me if my inferences are wrong, but what exactly did you mean by your posts, and in particular, the post from 2003 where an impressive scientific achievement COMPLETELY SUPPORTS Rick’s post, the consensus of science, and in fact the entire idea that the world is comprehensible to the human mind?
      Your citation has nothing to do with what you are inferring. It is very easy to click and read it. Don’t you think people who read the entirety of these blogs, through the comments sections, would bother to click?

  4. Shibui says:

    Thank you Thanes.
    The 2003 report says things are getting better. I’m sure you know that the highest loss occurred in 2006. That was the point I was referring to by “We have seen these reports (2003) before.

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