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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.
The Octopus and the Orangutan
The Future In Plain Sight
The Parrot's Lament
Affluence and Discontent
The Alms Race
Apes, Men, & Language
THE OZONE CHRONICLES; HISTORY REPEATING AS TRAGEDY
Friday August 19, 2016
Joe Farnam, the dogged, data-driven discoverer of the ozone hole, died in 2013, three years before publication of findings showing that the ozone layer, which protects life on earth from UV radiation, has finally started to recover. This nascent recovery comes 42 years after atmospheric chemists first raised alarms about the threat chlorine compounds posed to this fragile shield, 34 years after Farman first saw an alarming drop in ozone in Antarctic, and 29 years after the world’s nations took action to phase out the chemicals, and it will still be decades before the ozone layer recovers completely. Were it not for Farman, the international community might not have taken action, and the world would be a far different place today, with unchecked UV radiation spreading cancer and havoc among humanity and devastating ecosystems and the food chain. It’s also worth revisiting this history because the struggle to identify and come to grips with this threat prefigured all the themes of the still-unresolved question of dealing with another man-made threat: climate change.
In 1982, when Farman’s monitoring equipment first showed a dip in ozone, he was tempted to dismiss the readings as instrument error. At that point, ozone levels had been stable for 25 years. A recheck validated the findings, however, and subsequent years showed an alarming acceleration in the deterioration of the ozone layer.
It was no mystery for scientists what was causing the decline. Eight years earlier, atmospheric scientists Sherwood Rowland, Mario Molina, and Paul Crutzen had published articles documenting that the release of certain chlorine compounds could start chemical reactions that destroyed atmospheric compounds. They won a Nobel Prize for their discovery. Later, prefiguring the playbook of climate denialists today, Congressman Tom Delay disparaged the award as the “Nobel Appeasement Prize.”
Even before Delay’s attempts to delay action on protecting the ozone in Congress, the industry, led by DuPont, which dominated the production of CFC’s (the chemicals deemed to destroy ozone), had organized a lobbying effort to discredit the science. They helped found The Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy in 1980, which challenged the scientists at every turn, spread alarm about the economic consequences of a CFC ban, and sowed disinformation in the media. They realized that given the inertia of American politics, they didn’t have to disprove the science. All they had to do was to argue that the science was inconclusive.
This was the exact same playbook used in the next decade by the Global Climate Coalition (also founded by Dupont), as well as numerous fossil fuel industry lobbying groups in so-far successful efforts to delay action on climate change. Indeed, a good number of the scientists who disparaged the threat of CFCs, including Fred Singer, Richard Lindzen, and Patrick Michaels, later turned up as leading climate change deniers.
In a typical example of industry casuistry, DuPont officials argued in the mid-1980s that no action was necessary because the market for CFCs was flat. What they well knew was that it only looked flat because a severe recession in 1982 distorted the figures, while, in fact, growth was accelerating as the economy recovered and emerging nations looked to increase refrigeration (CFCs were used as a refrigerant).
Once the evidence became incontrovertible, DuPont flipped and became an advocate for banning CFCs. While the action looked noble, DuPont had started developing alternatives to CFCs in the 1970s and had a huge lead on competitors. One wonders whether DuPont would have given its support for the 1987 Montreal Protocol if it were not to their economic advantage.
There are three lessons from the ozone chronicles, all of which have been ignored thus far in the struggle to deal with climate change:
1) Industry requires regulation. In their no-holds barred attack on the scientists, duplicitous use of disinformation, and lobbying power, the chemical industry showed that all their executives cared about was profits, even if those profits came from chemicals that posed a threat to life on earth. Yet the mood in recent years has been decidedly anti-regulation.
2) Politics matters. DuPont began to develop alternatives when Rowland and others showed the link between CFCs and the destruction of ozone. They tabled these efforts when Ronald Reagan was elected because they assumed no regulation was coming. In the U.K., the incoming Thatcher administration almost eliminated Farman’s ozone monitoring operation in a cost-cutting effort. How much more damage to the ozone layer might have occurred before some other agency discovered the problem? Today, Australia is considering the shut down of some of its ocean and atmospheric monitoring, vital to our understanding of climate change, in an effort to redirect science towards more commercial applications.
3) Basic science matters. Were it not for the 25 years of data Farman had collected prior to 1982, he and his colleagues might not have noticed that something unprecedented was happening to the ozone layer. Before Rowland, Molina and Crutzen did their work, CFCs were regarded as entirely benign chemicals. It took basic science to make the leap connecting refrigerants in kitchens to the health of an atmospheric shield. As we introduce more and more novel compounds into daily life, we need such imaginative scientists to determine whether they might also pose novel threats. Yet, both EPA and research budgets are continually under threat. The world remains one short-sighted budget cut away from blithely ignoring some new novel threat. Trouble is, we don’t know which cut it will be.
The world owes a huge debt to the diligence of Joe Farman who doggedly pursued what most would regard as mind-numbing data collection in the face of public indifference and political hostility. We need his successor now more than ever.
An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong
Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.
In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.
And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.
It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.
As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.
With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.
The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.
And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.