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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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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.
 
 

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


 

[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.
 



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