A Reminder That Science Can Override Pressure

Source: FELICITY BARRINGER • New York Times  • Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2012

Arie Jan Haagen-Smit in his laboratory at Caltech, left, and F. Sherwood Rowland in his laboratory at the University of California, Irvine.

Left: Archives, California Institute of Technology; right, University of California, IrvineArie Jan Haagen-Smit in his laboratory at Caltech, left, and F. Sherwood Rowland in his lab at the University of California, Irvine.

The recent death of F. Sherwood Rowland, who, working in 1974 with Mario Molina, discovered that the ozone layer was endangered by a lucrative class of chemicals, is a reminder of the perennial determination of industries to undermine scientific findings that could cost them money or markets.

The best-known example is the cigarette industry’s effort to marginalize the science linking tobacco to deadly diseases like lung cancer. Accounts by historians including “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway or the just-released “Golden Holocaust” by Robert Proctor show how tobacco companies delayed regulatory action by casting doubt on science.

But delaying consequences is not the same as escaping them. Those attending to the 21st-century climate wars should remember that with smog and ozone, science prevailed. As did Arie Jan Haagen-Smit and F. Sherwood Rowland, two leading 20th-century atmospheric chemists whose research drew them into the public arena, drew sharp criticism and ultimately was proved right.

Dr. Hagen-Smit’s passion was understanding compounds emitted by plants. In the late 1940’s he was working at the California Institute of Technology, consumed by the chemistry of pineapples. The city of Los Angeles, however, was consumed with worry about its thickening smog.

A scientist working with the area’s embryonic air pollution agency asked Dr. Haagen-Smit to explore smog’s origins. These, he found, included volatile emissions from exhaust pipes, refineries and other industries, essential elements of smog.

Bad news for automakers and factories. Also oil refiners, who hired scientists from the Stanford Research Institute to challenge Dr. Haagen-Smit’s findings. The Caltech chemist had intended to return to his pineapples, but then, an S.R.I. scientist denigrated his work in public. He left the room muttering, “I’ll show them who’s right and who’s wrong,” a Caltech oral history relates.

The insult energized smog science and advocates for pollution controls (think catalytic converters and unleaded gasoline). Gov. Ronald Reagan made Dr. Haagen-Smit the first chairman of the California Air Resources Board.

All manner of academic honors now bear Dr. Haagen-Smit’s name. His opponents’ names do not come to mind easily today, but one comment still resonates. According to the oral history, a man scrawled a quasi-confession to Dr. Haagen-Smit: “You know where my livelihood comes from.”

A generation later, Dr. Rowland did research that disrupted industries that made and marketed deodorant, hair spray and refrigerators, products using chlorofluorocarbons. These chemicals were thought to be inert and harmless. Drs. Rowland and Molina, working in their laboratory at the University of California, Irvine found that they were anything but.

Their research showed that when CFC’s float to the stratosphere, powerful ultraviolet rays peel away a chlorine atom that can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules. CFC’s could shred the thin layer of gas protecting the earth’s surface from ultraviolet rays, they found.

The chemical industry struck back. ”The available facts do not rank as proof that fluorocarbons will lead to ozone depletion,” said Raymond L. McCarthy, the technical head of the group at E.I. du Pont de Nemours that was producing the suspect chemicals, a source of tens of millions of dollars in annual profits.

In 1975, DuPont ran a full-page advertisement in The New York Times with the headline: “You Want the Ozone Question Answered One Way or Another. So Does Du Pont.” It continued, “Before a valuable industry is hypothesized out of existence, more facts are needed.”

Over the next decade, Dr. Rowland was a target. A trade journal likened him to a K.G.B. agent. Then in 1985, a group of British scientists published a paper describing an ozone hole over the Antarctic. A decade later, Drs. Rowland and Molina shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry with another ozone researcher.

The emergence of the ozone hole ensured that pleas for regulation were heeded. Du Pont got out of the CFC business. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol provided for an eventual ban on ozone-depleting substances.

Asked for comment on Dr. Rowland this week, a Du Pont spokeswoman wrote, “Mr. Rowland justly deserved the Nobel Price for his work, and DuPont has the highest regard for him.

Could this happen with climate science? Maybe. Solutions to smog were adopted after California regulators faced angry communities choking on their air. The ozone hole provided easily understood evidence of the CFC’s impact.

Climate change is neither easily understood nor local. Still, Dr. Rowland’s partner, Dr. Molina, remains optimistic. “The ozone hole was very striking, very clear,” he said. Yet there will be markers for climate change, too, like intensifying storms, he said.

You can’t tie any single storm to global warming, “but you can measure the increased frequencies,” Dr. Molina said.

The effort to denigrate and marginalize climate science “cannot go on for much longer because it is so irrational,” he said. Persistence will pay off, Dr. Molina said, as will patient reiteration of what is known about climate mechanisms and what remains unclear.

“I think we have to wait a few years,” he said. But eventually, he predicted, something like the Montreal Protocol will emerge — “some agreement that is not as strong as it should be, but that gets you started.”