Thursday, January 20, 2011

There's no consensus . . . on the ozone hole?

Continuing from my reading of Merchants of Doubt, here's a short summary of Chapter 4.

It was the early 1970s, and the allure of the supersonic transport (SST) was contagious. Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) were commissioned to determine whether emissions from these high-flying aircraft would pose a potential threat to the atmosphere. Early concerns revolved around water vapour and oxides of nitrogen; the former could contribute to the greenhouse effect, and the latter could deplete stratospheric ozone - although the extent that this might occur was still highly uncertain.

The U.S. SST project got canceled, and the Anglo-French Concorde never sold as many as was hoped, so the SST issue turned out to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot. However, some of the research initially done for the SST EIAs turned out to have far greater implications than most people realized. In addition, NASA was doing an EIA for the new space shuttle program, and there was a concern that chlorine emissions from the solid rocket boosters might also pose a threat to stratospheric ozone. Allegedly, NASA buried the report that raised the chlorine-ozone connection, so scientists were forced to be cagey and instead raise the question - at least in public venues - about whether volcano-derived chlorine might degrade stratospheric ozone. By this point, however, independent research by F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina in Nature showed that the breakdown of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) would produce chlorine monoxide, breaking down ozone in the process.

Unusually, the National Academy of Sciences was tasked by the Ford administration in 1975 with producing a report on what to do about the CFC-ozone problem from a regulatory standpoint. While this report was being written, the aerosol industry's spin machine was already in top gear. The Chemical Specialties Manufacturer's Association setup a U.S. speaking tour for a British scientist named Richard Scorer to playdown the ozone problem. Scorer insisted that the atmosphere was too large for human activities to possibly have any effect on it. Another industry group by the name of the Committee on Atmospheric Sciences argued that volcanoes spewed so much chlorine into the atmosphere that human emissions paled in comparison.

Industry and industry shills attacked the surface measurements as inaccurate, and insisted that the satellite data showed no ozone depletion. They pounced on the news that the atmospheric models needed to be reworked before the NAS report could be released. Although the final numbers from the report weren't as bad as initially feared, they were bad enough that the recommendation was unequivocal: CFCs needed to be regulated, and these regulations needed to be put in place within the next two years. Years later, the satellite data was found to have problems and corrected to show that the problem was as bad - or worse - than the surface data, had indicated.

By 1985, the UN framework for what would become the Montreal Protocol was in place. In the meantime, data from the British Antarctic Survey would find the infamous Antarctic ozone hole, and by 1987, the link between chlorine compounds and stratospheric ozone depletion was undeniable. Or at least, you'd think so.

Enter some familiar names: The Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Marshall Institute. All of these groups toed a party line that insisted that the scientists working on the ozone problem were in it for the money, and that the ozone "problem" was part of a natural cycle. Also at this point, another familiar name - Fred Singer - enters the picture. 

Once again, the Wall Street Journal gave its front page as a platform to attack mainstream science. In his article, Singer asserted (among other things), that because scientists had overreacted on the SST-water vapour problem (they hadn't), they were overreacting now. He cited some reputable scientists, too (including James Hansen) - but he used their findings to support exactly the opposite of what they had concluded. Ironically (in light of his later career), Singer had cited two papers that argued for the existence of anthropogenic global warming as evidence against anthropogenic ozone depletion.

In a National Review article, Singer said "It's not difficult to understand some of the motivations behind the drive to regulate CFCs out of existence . . . for scientists: prestige, more grants for research, press conferences, and newspaper stories. Also the feeling that maybe they are saving the world for future generations."

Even though it was clear that the fight over ozone was over by 1990, Singer fought on. He founded the Science and Environmental Policy Project. Singer continued to insist that the surface station data was wrong and that the satellites were right (even though the satellite data showed that the problem was worse). The volcano scapegoat also refused to die, being repeated by Singer as late as 1995 - in testimony before Congress, no less. In his written testimony to Congress, Singer claimed that there was "no scientific consensus" on ozone depletion.

In a foreshadowing of the 2007 Nobel Prize given to the IPCC (and Al Gore), Rowland and Molina - who had written that original Nature paper on the CFC-ozone connection back in 1974 - were awarded the Nobel Prize together along with Sherry Rowland in 1995. Singer promptly accused the Nobel Committee of politicizing the science. Along the way, Singer proposed that the entire crisis was part of a socialist agenda to bring down "business, the free market, and the capitalistic system" and to foster "international action, preferably with lots of treaties and protocols." None other than George Will accused environmentalism of being a "green tree with red roots".

So, let's recap the ozone denier arguments:
- It's part of a natural cycle
- Humans couldn't possibly affect the atmosphere
- Volcanoes are doing it
- There's no consensus
- Exploring alternatives will cripple the economy
- Scientists are just drumming this crisis up so they can get grant money
- It's a socialist plot to impose One World Government


Is any of this sounding familiar?

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