The environmental movement and the world as a whole lost a great champion with the passing of F. Sherwood Rowland. He was the pioneering scientist who discovered the dangers of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to the Earth’s ozone layer. Not only is the story of how he fought for a ban on those chemicals one of the greatest victories in the history of the modern environmental movement, but it also serves as a useful lesson in the current battles to protect our planet.
CFCs are organic chemicals that contain carbon, chlorine and fluorine. One of the best known types was marketed by DuPont under the name Freon. They were first discovered at the end of the 19thcentury, and initially were used for fighting fires. Starting in the 1920s, with the development of affordable ways to mass produce CFCs, they became widely used in refrigeration systems as a safer alternative to gasses like ammonia that were currently in use.
They also found uses as an inexpensive propellant in aerosol cans. Within the span of a few decade, the production of CFCs became a multi-billion dollar industry.
In the 1970s, scientist began detecting increased levels of CFCs in the atmosphere. Since they’re relatively inert or unreactive, the CFCs that had been deliberately or accidently released since the 1920s were still around and accumulating. Rowland was a chemistry professor at the University of California, Irvine, and he, along with a number of other scientists, began researching what the effects would be. Although the CFCs were inert in the lower atmosphere, Roland and fellow scientist, Mario Molina, discovered that, as the chemicals rose into the upper atmosphere they were exposed to ultraviolet light. This caused them to break down into compounds that destroyed ozone molecules.
That had the potential for dire consequences, because the Earth’s ozone layer is our planet’s first line of defense against the harmful ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. The ozone layer surrounds the Earth at an altitude of between 12 and 20 miles up. It absorbs 97-99% of the UV light hitting our planet. Without that layer, those UV rays would damage or kill many living things, and dramatically increase skin cancer in humans. Even though the ozone layer has the potential to regenerate over time, the use of CFCs was so widespread that it was damaging the layer faster than it could replenish itself.
Rowland and his colleagues sounded the alarm, advocating for a world-wide ban on CFSs. Immediately, naysayers started questioning his work, and the manufacturers of CFCs launched a propaganda campaign against him. His background, methodology and conclusions were attacked.
DuPont took out full page ads raising questions about his research, and one trade journal, Aerosol Age, even went so far as to accuse him of being a KGB spy. All the while, the ozone depletion skeptics made dire predictions about how a ban on CFCs would bankrupt our economy and put our nation at a competitive disadvantage. Does any of this sound familiar?
It should, because those are precisely the tactics used today against scientists who warn about the dangers of human induced global climate change. Attacks on the work and character of leading scientists, industry propaganda and dire warnings are all de rigueur in today’s climate debate. It’s important to remember two things. First, all the naysayers and their dire predictions were spectacularly wrong. Rowland and Molina published their results in the journal Nature in 1974. Two years later the National Academy of Sciences publicly concurred with their work, and in 1978 CFC-based aerosols were banned in the U.S. By 1987 the U.S. became a signatory to the world’s first international environmental treaty, The Montreal Protocol. This groundbreaking agreement banned most uses and production of CFCs worldwide. In 1995, Rowland, Molina and Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their CFC work.
The second thing to remember is that this wasn’t some liberal conspiracy. When the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, Ronald Reagan was president. The effort to protect the environment became a bipartisan issue. A number of prominent Republicans promoted the idea that these harmful chemicals could be reduced by something they called “Cap and Trade.” Even the industries that had so loudly opposed the ban eventually came to support it. Oh, and by the way, the economy didn’t go bankrupt. The U.S. wasn’t put at a competitive disadvantage and the sky did not fall because of the ban. The next time you’re arguing with a climate change denier or you see an article or editorial questioning the scientists who’re warning us about the need to act now to protect our atmosphere, remind them of F. Sherwood Rowland. Remind everyone of how his naysayers were so wrong. Remind the skeptics that they didn’t invent the playbook being used now to cast doubt in the minds of the public. It was written before some of them were born, and it’s just as stale and unfounded now as it was back then. Above all remind them and remind yourself that we can protect the environment, we can leave a better world for our children, and we can do it without destroying our country’s economy, if we’re courageous enough to listen to the brave scientists, who like Rowland, are warning us of the dangers of doing nothing.