S. Fred Singer, All-Purpose Science Denier

July 15, 2019

Siegfried Fred Singer (see Fig. 1) is a noted atmospheric scientist.  Following an impressive career in basic research and science policy, he became one of the most noted “science deniers.”  In that capacity he was active in downplaying the risks of secondhand smoke, he fought against efforts to initiate regulations to combat acid rain, he was one of the leading deniers of the link between chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and ozone depletion, and he has been a major leader in global climate change denial efforts.  In their book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Fred Singer is cited as one of the three most prominent scientists (together with Fred Seitz and William Nierenberg) who were most frequently quoted by the media as they mounted challenges to the scientific consensus on several controversial scientific issues.  In 2005 Mother Jones magazine called Singer the “godfather of global warming denial.”

Figure 1: Atmospheric physicist and science denier S. Fred Singer.

Born in Vienna in 1924, Singer emigrated with his family to England after the invasion of the Nazis.  Moving to America, he received his Ph.D. degree in physics from Princeton in 1948.  Active in the development of observation satellites, Singerestablished the National Weather Bureau’s Satellite Service Center … and held several government positions, including deputy assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, and chief scientist for the Department of Transportation. He held a professorship with the University of Virginia from 1971 until 1994, and with George Mason University until 2000.”

Singer made a number of contributions to atmospheric research.  He studied the properties of charged particles surrounding the Earth in what is now known as the Van Allen Belt, and he also made seminal studies of the properties of interplanetary gas and dust.  However, since 1980 Singer has published few papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and has concentrated on op-ed columns in papers with an anti-regulatory bent (e.g., the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times – but also in the Washington Post), and in papers or conferences organized by right-wing think tanks (the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute).

Singer has been very active in climate-change denial activities.  In 1990, Singer was the founder of the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP).  This was an advocacy group that received major support from private corporations, particularly through the firm APCO and Associates, which initially served Philip Morris and the Tobacco Institute, but then branched out to include denial activities on a number of controversial issues.  Singer was a founding member of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), which was organized in 2008 through SEPP.  This group issues a regular series of papers that attempt to refute reports issued by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  For example, in 2008 the Heartland Institute issued an NIPCC report Nature, Not Human Activity Rules the Climate.  It contended that there was no warming at all on a global scale, or else it simply reflected a temporary natural cycle of cooling and warming.  Furthermore, it accused IPCC scientists of producing distorted reports that reflected the political biases of the authors.  Finally, it asserted that the best way to protect natural resources is through unregulated free-market mechanisms.  ABC News reviewed the NIPCC document, and asked climate scientists from NASA, Stanford and Princeton to comment on that report.  The scientists were not identified, but called the NIPCC paper “fabricated nonsense.”

In 2015, the Heartland Institute issued an NIPCC report called Why Scientists Disagree on Global Warming, with Singer as one of the three primary authors, that was subsequently mailed to every K-12 science teacher in the U.S.  We have written a series of blog posts debunking this booklet.

Our analysis of this booklet agrees with that of the anonymous scientists on the 2008 NIPCC report – fabricated nonsense.  Our blog posts constitute a point-by-point refutation of the material in the NIPCC booklet.  Suffice it to say that Singer’s work on global climate change follows the same “denier’s playbook” tactics that are evident in his work on other controversial issues.

Fred Singer and his collaborators were highly successful in communicating their views to sympathetic legislators.  Singer was a trusted advisor to powerful elected officials such as Congressman Lamar Smith (former head of the House Science Committee), Tom DeLay (former House Majority Leader), and James Inhofe (senator from Oklahoma).  Apparently Fred Singer was one of the more influential sources behind Inhofe’s claims that “manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”  In 1995, Tom DeLay described the source of his claim that ozone depletion was a myth, “My assessment is from reading people like Fred Singer.”

 1.  Singer The Environmentalist

Before he was a climate change denier, Fred Singer was an environmentalist.  He edited the proceedings of a 1968 AAAS Symposium called Global Effects of Environmental Pollution, where he wrote: “Mankind has a record of reacting after a disaster strikes.  Dams are built after floods, not before.  So far in human history disasters have not taken place on a global scale.  Therefore we don’t really have a tested mechanism for dealing with global threats, such as long-range, world-wide degradation of the environment.  If we ignore the present warning signs and wait for an ecological disaster to strike, it will probably be too late. The distinguished biologist Garrett Hardin has pointed out how very difficult it is psychologically to really believe that a disaster is impending … This must have been a terrible problem for Noah.  Can’t we just hear his complacent compatriots: ‘Something has always happened to save us.’ Or ‘Don’t worry about the rising waters, Noah: our advanced technology will surely discover a substitute for breathing.’ … If it was wisdom that enabled Noah to believe in the ‘never-yet-happened,’ we could use some of that wisdom now.”

As editor of a book called The Changing Global Environment, Singer wrote:

“Since throughout history, climate changes have been the rule rather than the exception, and since the biosphere has survived and evolved, one might be tempted to make light of those who decry a warming of the climate … I am persuaded to think that any climate change is bad because of the investments and adaptations that have been made by human beings and all of the things that support human existence on this globe.  Even minor fluctuations of climate could change the distribution of fish … upset agriculture … and inundate coastal cities … Such changes could occur at a faster rate perhaps than human society can evolve.  “

It’s unfortunate that Dr. Singer’s current message is the exact opposite of those prescient words — perhaps he should re-read his earlier remarks, which were right on target.   We don’t know what caused Fred Singer to flip into the “science denier” camp, although one can trace two major themes that motivate the science denial community.  The first is anti-Communism.  Several of these scientists were “hawks,” and were determined to resist the military and political power of the Soviet Union.  Many scientists most active in the denial movement had close ties with industry, particularly the defense industry.  Singer asserted that “some [environmentalists] are Socialists,” while in a 1992 Washington Post column George Will claimed that environmentalism was “a green tree with red roots… a socialist dream… dressed up as compassion for the planet.”  In his book The Way Things Ought To Be, Rush Limbaugh stated “With the collapse of Marxism, environmentalism has become the new refuge of socialist thinking”.

A second theme motivating science denialists is the belief that environmentalists exhibit disdain for free-market capitalism.  Singer asserted that “The telltale signs [of environmental activists] are the attack on free enterprise, the corporation, the profit motive, the new technologies.”  It is interesting to contrast these comments by Singer with his earlier remarks that Noah’s critics may have trusted that new technologies would enable human under-water breathing after the Great Flood.

2.   The Science Deniers’ Playbook:

Skepticism plays a crucial role in the advancement of science.  Healthy skepticism requires scientists to justify their claims, and ensures that theories are bolstered by valid reproducible results.  However, in many controversial issues there are groups whose refusal to accept a scientific consensus appears to be motivated by non-scientific factors.  This is particularly true for scientific issues that are associated with regulatory practices.  We call such individuals or groups “science deniers.”  Over the past 70 years, science denial groups have been active in a number of issues involving science and public policy, including tobacco and public health, the effects of chemical pesticides, acid rain, the ozone hole controversy, and currently global climate change.

Although the spectrum from skepticism to denial is clearly a continuum, a Tweet by Neil DeGrasse Tyson provides a useful distinction between skeptics and deniers.  “A skeptic will question claims, then embrace the evidence.  A denier will question claims, then reject the evidence.”

The landmark book Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway studied the makeup and activities of these groups. They showed that denial efforts in several controversial issues had been spearheaded by a relatively small group of scientists and scientific advisors, and coordinated through a number of right-wing think tanks.  Oreskes and Conway pointed out that in all of these issues the same tactics were employed, frequently by the same individuals.  We will call this the “science deniers’ playbook.”  In an earlier blog post, we summarized the set of tactics employed by these individuals as the “science denier’s toolbox.”

Since the “playbook” tactics are identical for all issues, we will focus on the actions of deniers in the ozone hole controversy.  First, we will briefly review the history of chemical compounds called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and their effect on ozone in the stratosphere.  After that we will summarize the contributions of S. Fred Singer and other science deniers on the ozone controversy.  The same playbook has been used in denying global climate change, and we have debunked the claims and strategies in that context elsewhere on this site.

3.  CFCs and the Ozone Layer: A Brief Review

Here we briefly summarize the issue of ozone and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).  See our blog posts on the ozone controversy here and here for a more thorough review.

Figure 2 shows three forms of oxygen; the ozone molecule O3 is shown at right.

Figure 2: Three forms of oxygen. L: oxygen atom; M: the molecule O2; R: ozone molecule O3.

Figure 3 shows the distribution of ozone in the atmosphere.  Ozone is concentrated in the upper stratosphere between 20 and 30 km above the Earth’s surface.  Above this altitude, ultraviolet radiation from the Sun (UV-B rays) is abundant.  At this level in the stratosphere, UV-B rays strike O2 molecules, breaking them into two oxygen atoms.  At the ambient pressure, a free O atom will frequently combine with O2 to form ozone.  UV-B rays are further absorbed in the process of breaking up the resulting ozone molecules.

Figure 3: Ozone abundance vs. altitude.

The formation and destruction of ozone molecules by UV absorption results in an equilibrium ozone concentration. In this process, the UV-B rays are absorbed and very little of this radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, a process shown schematically in Fig. 4.  Above the ozone layer UV-B radiation is plentiful, but decreases rapidly in and below the ozone layer.  Photons corresponding to UV-A radiation, which are less energetic than the UV-B rays, are not absorbed and reach the Earth’s surface.

Figure 4: Most UV-B rays are absorbed in the ozone layer, while the less energetic UV-A rays reach the Earth.

UV-B radiation causes damage to plants, animals, paints, plastics and building materials.  For example, it is estimated that every additional 1% of solar UV-B radiation that reaches the Earth would cause a 3% increase in human skin cancers.  Thus the ozone layer’s effect in blocking UV-B rays is greatly beneficial.  Any additional chemical mechanism that would destroy ozone molecules in the stratosphere, without the interaction with UV-B radiation, would reduce equilibrium ozone concentrations and UV-B absorption, and hence pose a threat to life and property at Earth’s surface.

Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are a class of chemicals containing at least one chlorine atom, one fluorine atom, and an array of carbon atoms.  Such compounds are extremely stable and thus had many industrial applications; they were particularly useful as refrigerants (e.g., the DuPont product Freon), but also as the propellant in aerosol deodorants, foam insulation, cleaners for electronic components, polystyrene cups and packing peanuts.  In the 1970s, up to 10 billion pounds of CFCs per year were being manufactured worldwide.

Sherwood Rowland, an atmospheric chemist at the University of California – Irvine, and his postdoc Mario Molina began to wonder what happened to CFCs once they were released into the atmosphere.  They hypothesized that CFCs would remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time (~ 50-100 years).  Mixing with layers of air, they could migrate into the upper stratosphere, where UV-B rays could break up CFCs and release chlorine atoms.  Free chlorine atoms would then destroy ozone through a catalytic process shown schematically in Fig. 5.   A free chlorine atom breaks up an ozone molecule, leaving an O2 molecule and chlorine monoxide (Cl O).  The Cl O subsequently reacts with an oxygen atom, leaving O2 and Cl.  The chlorine atom is then free to repeat this process; Rowland and Molina estimated that a single chlorine atom might destroy as many as 100,000 ozone molecules.

Figure 5: Catalytic destruction of ozone by chlorine atoms.

The Rowland-Molina hypothesis had sufficiently serious consequences that if true, it would suggest regulating or even banning CFCs.  Beginning in the mid-70s, a worldwide research effort was mounted to test this hypothesis.   Tests of reactions were carried out in research laboratories, and simulations of CFCs in the atmosphere were developed. Figure 6 shows schematically a number of independent methods for direct measurement of atmospheric ozone.

Figure 6: Different methods for measuring atmospheric ozone.

In 1985 it was discovered that a “hole” was developing in the ozone layer over the Antarctic.  Figure 7 shows measurements of average ozone abundances in September from 1979 to 1984.  Before 1971, no “ozone hole” was observed; after that the area experiencing ozone depletion (blue) increased every year, as did the amount of depletion.  This was particularly concerning because ozone depletion in this region (up to 40%) was more than an order of magnitude greater than predicted by Rowland and Molina.  It was suggested and confirmed that the “Antarctic ozone hole” resulted from ice crystals in stratospheric clouds that formed during the Antarctic winter and spring.  When sunlight passed through clouds containing ice crystals, chlorine was released from CFCs at a much higher rate.  In addition, strong circulating “polar vortex” winds confined the air over the Antarctic, so that it was unable to mix with more ozone-rich air from higher latitudes.

Figure 7: Average September ozone levels in the Southern Hemisphere from 1979-1984.

Figure 5 shows that that chlorine monoxide (Cl O) is a “smoking gun” for chlorine destruction of ozone.  Figure 8 shows correlated measurements of Cl O and ozone as one moves into the Antarctic ozone “hole.”  These data clearly showed that chlorine was destroying ozone in this region.  An international panel of scientists concluded that the destruction of ozone by chlorine was more serious than had been initially suggested.  Re-evaluating ground-based data, they concluded that there had been a 1.7 – 3% decrease in ozone in the Northern Hemisphere.

Figure 8: Cl O and ozone vs. latitude in the Southern Hemisphere.

These experimental results formed the motivation for the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete The Ozone Layer.  This was an international body created in 1987, that included scientists, diplomats, and representatives from regulatory agencies.  The original signatories agreed to reductions in the production of CFCs.  However, following a 1988 report of the Ozone Trends Panel that measured ozone depletion in the mid-latitudes, the Montreal Protocol was amended to call for complete elimination of CFCs by 2000 in developed countries, and by 2010 for developing countries.  The Montreal Protocol also established a Multilateral Fund to provide both financial and technical assistance to developing countries.

In succeeding years, the timetable for phasing out CFCs was shortened to 1995.  There were two reasons for this change.  First, the measured rates of ozone depletion turned out to be larger than was initially expected.  Second, the chemical industry developed alternatives to CFCs considerably faster than had been anticipated.

The ozone depletion model (when updated to account for the Antarctic ozone hole) made several testable predictions.  First, it predicted an Arctic ozone hole (considerably smaller than the Antarctic depletion); this was measured.  Second, it predicted smaller decreases in ozone levels at mid-latitudes; this was also measured, once researchers were able to extract these decreases from regular fluctuations in both season and latitude.  Third, the model predicted that once CFCs were banned, ozone levels would slowly begin to increase.  In 2017, measurements showed a decrease in both the area and depth of the Antarctic ozone hole.

Figure 9 below shows a combination of satellite images of stratospheric ozone from the southern hemisphere spring (October) as a function of time, together with simulations from climate models.  Maps of measured data are shown for 1971 and 2017, together with simulations for 2041 and 2065.  Below the maps are dots that plot the average Antarctic minimum ozone density for October.  White dots are satellite measurements, while red dots are simulations from climate models.  The red line is an average of the simulations.  Both data and the models show dramatically decreasing ozone levels over the South Pole from 1971 until shortly after 2000.  Simulations predict that by 2060, Antarctic ozone levels should return to those in 1980 and by the end of the century,  ozone levels should return to those measured before the onset of the ozone hole.

Figure 9: Average October Southern Hemisphere ozone levels vs. time. White dots: measurements; Red dots: results of simulations; Red curve: average of simulations.

Every four years the Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project of the World Meteorological Association publishes a scientific assessment of ozone depletion.  The latest of these reports (Report 58) is from 2018.

Current simulations predict that atmospheric chlorine levels would have reached disastrous levels if CFCs had not been banned.  The upper graph in Fig. 10 shows world-wide levels of stratospheric ozone expected in 2065 if current trends continue.  The lower graph shows the expected levels (“World Avoided”) if CFCs had not been banned but continued to be produced at 1990 levels.  Note that there would no longer be an “Antarctic hole;” ozone would be dangerously depleted at all latitudes.  Obviously such a decrease in ozone would mean dangerously higher levels of UV-B radiation.  We will review the benefits of the CFC ban in a following section.

Figure 10: Simulated worldwide ozone levels in 2065.  Upper graph “World Expected” following CFC ban. Lower graph: “World Avoided,” if CFCs had continued production at 1990 levels.

4.  The Deniers And the Ozone Issue:

Fred Singer has been a leader in several campaigns of science denial.  Here, we will review the comments of Singer and his collaborators regarding the ozone hole controversy.  We will particularly focus on his paper The Ozone-CFC Debacle: Hasty Action, Shaky Science that was republished in 2010 by the Heartland Institute, long after CFCs were banned. This appears to be a re-release of a 1995 paper Singer published in the Technology Journal of the Franklin Institute.  We have been unable to find links to that paper.  However, the titles of the two papers are identical, and the latest reference in the 2010 Heartland Institute release is 1995.

 We review tactics from the “Science Denier’s Playbook” that were employed by deniers in the ozone controversy.

A. Launch a Public-Relations Campaign

This is one of the first steps taken when scientific hypotheses threaten to disrupt the economic status quo, particularly if they suggest regulatory action.  Groups of corporations will create coalitions devoted to defending their products, and attempt to prevent regulations that would adversely affect their bottom line.  These interest groups compose statements that are released to friendly media venues.  They also enlist scientific “hired guns” who dispute the scientific consensus.

S. Fred Singer’s comments on these issues were often released as publications of the Heartland Institute, where he is a Senior Fellow.  He also published in media with an anti-regulatory bent such as the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Washington Times, and conferences  sponsored by the Cato Institute or the George C. Marshall Institute.

A “hired gun” denier on the ozone issue was British atmospheric chemist Richard Scorer.  Scorer claimed that the atmosphere was “the most robust and dynamic element in our environment.”  He argued that the atmosphere would adapt to mitigate any potentially harmful effects, such as those from CFCs.  Scorer called Rowland and Molina “doomsayers,” and termed their hypothesis on ozone depletion “pompous claptrap.”

B. Combat the Scientific Consensus With a Counter-Narrative

The goal is to prevent or delay any regulations or restrictions on the products of particular industries.  Thus a “counter-narrative” is constructed to combat the hypotheses accepted by the scientific community.  Common tactics are to discredit the research as “junk science” by over-emphasizing uncertainties in the measurements and predictions, and to downplay the level of consensus among mainstream scientists.  This can be accomplished by “cherry-picking” the data, by misconstruing or omitting material that contradicts the counter-narrative, and by “amplifying” the few voices of doubt by making them appear to come from numerous distinct (but allied) “think tanks”.

Many people are under the impression that the dispute between the mainstream science community and the deniers stems from disagreement between research results obtained by the two groups.  This is false.  With very few exceptions, the deniers are doing no research.  They simply misrepresent the results obtained by research scientists, and overestimate uncertainties in those results.  This is exactly the same for the ozone controversy as it is for the anti-evolutionists and the Young Earth creationists – there is essentially no “research” being carried out by these groups, simply denial of the results obtained in legitimate research programs.

Fred Singer crafted a detailed narrative about ozone and chemicals in the atmosphere.  The details of his narrative evolved as scientists obtained more precise data, although Singer’s conclusions never changed – he always contended that the uncertainty regarding the existence and magnitude of ozone depletion was simply too great, thus any decision to regulate CFCs or other chemicals represented a hasty over-reaction to the issue.

Singer’s story began by reviewing the potential impact of the supersonic transport (SST) plane on the stratosphere, an issue that arose in 1969.  This was the first time scientists had considered the potential impact of chemicals and water vapor on the ozone layer.  Singer points out that in 1969 there was very little information regarding effects on the ozone layer and human health; and he asserts that little has changed in the intervening years.

On the contrary, by the late 1980s scientists had amassed a great deal of information regarding the behavior of ozone and chemicals in the atmosphere.  This was obtained through worldwide efforts to validate the Rowland-Molina hypothesis.  However, Singer never refers to the newer data.  In 1989 (2 years after the first draft of the Montreal Protocol), Singer claimed that the scientific basis for the much-touted ozone crisis may be evaporating, completely contradicting the mainstream consensus that ozone depletion was indeed a crisis.  Furthermore Singer suggests that fluctuations in the ozone layer might be correlated with the Sun’s sunspot cycle.  Using the tactic of “deny and delay,” he implies that we might need to wait for a couple of sunspot cycles to test this idea.  Note that the sunspot cycle has a period of 11 years and the satellite measurements of Antarctic ozone concentrations in Fig. 9 reveal no fluctuations with such a period.  But then, the denier’s counter-narrative does not have to bear up under scientific scrutiny; it is just intended to cast doubt in the minds of citizens and policy-makers.

Global climate change theory predicts that the average surface temperature of the Earth will continue to rise, as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increase.  The same theory predicts that the stratosphere will cool.  Singer acknowledges this and hypothesizes that stratospheric cooling may play a role in the rate of ozone depletion.  However, he then puts on his “climate change denier” hat.  Since “global warming” is only temporary, part of a natural cycle of temperature oscillations, soon the Earth’s surface will stop warming and begin cooling.  The stratosphere will then begin warming again, and perhaps the levels of ozone will naturally increase.  Let’s wait and see!

Singer acknowledges the existence of seasonal decreases in the springtime ozone layer in the Southern Hemisphere, and he admits that since 1971 these have been getting larger every year.   However, he insists that this is not really an “Antarctic ozone hole,” but simply part of a normal fluctuation of ozone levels, confined to a region surrounding the South Pole.  He pooh-poohs concerns that such decreases would spread to other latitudes if atmospheric CFC concentrations continue to increase.

Depletion of ozone would lead to an increase in UV-B radiation at the Earth’s surface.  This would have a number of adverse effects on animals, plants and materials, which we will review shortly.  However, Singer focuses only on the impact of increased radiation on human health, and he devotes nearly all his attention to melanoma skin cancer.  He stresses the paucity of data showing increases of UV-B radiation at ground level.  The solution – take much more time for more precise measurements!

Singer has a point, as until the mid-80s it had not been definitively demonstrated that UV-B radiation at ground level was increasing, particularly at mid-latitudes.  However, by about 1985 the first precise and reliable measurements showed an increase in radiation.  By now, it is abundantly clear that surface UV-B radiation was increasing and was correlated with ozone depletion.  Reports from the Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project of the World Meteorological Organization regularly track these changes.  At mid-latitudes, for each 1% drop in stratospheric ozone levels, roughly 1% more UV-B radiation reaches the Earth’s lower atmosphere.

By the late 1980s there were precise measurements of ozone concentrations in both  polar regions, and reasonable data at mid-latitudes.  The scientific community was concerned that ozone depletion was significantly larger than initially expected.  Correlation of ozone depletion with increasingly precise measurements of CFCs (and chemicals such as Cl O) convinced scientists that world-wide regulation of CFCs was necessary to avoid calamitous loss of ozone in the foreseeable future.

In 1987, a world-wide coalition of scientists, administrators and diplomats forged the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete The Ozone Layer.  Over the years this Protocol has been modified and extended, and it has now been ratified by all 197 countries in the world.   Singer’s response was that the Montreal Protocol agreement was the result of “hasty actions” based on “shaky science.”  His counter-narrative failed to acknowledge the substantial data archives on atmospheric CFCs, ozone abundances and UV radiation.

Confusion can be created by massaging the “facts” that support the counter-narrative.  This goal can also be achieved by using dubious or discredited “data.”  For example, several deniers including Singer claimed that “Antarctic ozone holes” had been observed as early as the mid-1950s.  If true, this would constitute strong evidence of other causes for the ozone hole, since this pre-dated the release of CFCs into the atmosphere.  However, the claims turned out to be false.  The “1956 ozone hole” was a mis-interpretation of a comment by Dobson, who expressed surprise that springtime ozone levels over the Antarctic were lower than those measured in Arctic regions.  However, we now understand that result reflects normal seasonal fluctuations at both poles; historical records of ozone abundance show no decrease in Antarctic ozone measurements at this time.  Other deniers claimed that French scientists discovered large Antarctic ozone losses in 1958, but these were the result of instrumental errors.

Fred Seitz repeated both of these claims in a 1994 paper released by the George Marshall Institute, when he was Chair of the Institute’s Board of Directors.  In this paper, Seitz also questioned whether CFCs would be able to reach the upper stratosphere, because of their large mass compared to air.  Seitz’s suggestion was “a claim even a freshman physics major would know was wrong”.

Seitz maintained that “more skeptical scientists” like himself concluded that “the general population is not currently at serious hazard and recommends that many more scientific studies should be carried out before any significant actions are taken if, indeed, such is necessary … there is ample time to obtain a more complete picture so that one knows precisely what the hazards are.”  Seitz parrots the pre-determined conclusion of the deniers that no regulatory action should be taken before much more study of the issue.  Figures 9 and 10 show that a few more decades of inaction on CFCs would have had disastrous consequences.

Other deniers claimed that the most likely source of chlorine in the stratosphere was not CFCs, but chlorine emitted in volcanic eruptions.  The most outspoken advocate for this position was Dixy Lee Ray, in her book Trashing The Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal With Acid Rain, Depletion of Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things).  Ray claimed that “The eruption of Mount St. Augustine in 1976 injected 289 billion kilograms of hydrochloric acid directly into the stratosphere.  That amount is 570 times the total world production of chlorine and fluorocarbon compounds in the year 1975.”  Unfortunately, Ms. Ray was wrong on several counts.  Although volcanic eruptions inject large amounts of chlorine into the atmosphere, much of that is in the form of ash that is rained out at relatively low altitudes.  So Ms. Ray’s contention that Mt. St. Augustine injected HCl “directly into the stratosphere” is false.  Furthermore, she greatly overestimated the amount of chlorine released in that volcanic eruption.  We now know that the contribution of volcanoes to stratospheric chlorine is small, around the 10% level, as is shown in Fig. 11.  However, Patrick Michaels, a colleague of Fred Singer, repeated the “chlorine-from-volcanoes” argument as late as 2000.

Figure 11: Natural and human-made sources of chlorine in the stratosphere.

The worldwide effort to measure ozone levels and to track chemicals in the atmosphere has been a resounding success.  Initial measurements were made by ground-based systems supplemented by instruments carried in aircraft and balloons.  More precise data are now obtained from detectors mounted in satellites or spacecraft.  For example, from 1994 to the early 2000s the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) obtained spectacularly precise data on ozone abundances.  The TOMS devices were instruments in satellites launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  TOMS has now been replaced by NASA’s Aura Ozone Monitoring Instrument, and instruments on spacecraft launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  As a result, we now have extremely precise worldwide data on ozone levels, over a 40-year time span.

NASA currently maintains an “Ozone Watch” Website that provides a remarkable four-decade record of ozone concentrations.   This website (see Fig. 12) can display current daily ozone levels around the globe with exquisite precision.  One can access a “daily animation” movie clip that will review Southern Hemisphere ozone levels for an entire year. Alternatively, average ozone levels for the month of September can be displayed over a 40-year period. Additional ozone data archives can be found on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Web pages.

Figure 12: The NASA “Ozone Watch” Website.

We have never found a “denialist” website that provides a link to these massive data archives.   Singer’s 2010 Heartland Institute paper makes no mention of this asset, although he insists that the magnitude and time dependence of ozone levels are largely unknown and have sizeable uncertainties.

In 1995, Rowland and Molina shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing and proving their hypothesis that chlorine from CFCs was capable of destroying ozone in the stratosphere.  The Nobel Committee citation read “By explaining the chemical mechanisms that affect the thickness of the ozone layer, the three researchers have contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences.”   Responding to the announcement of the Nobel Prize, Singer wrote in a Washington Times op-ed column that “The Swedish Academy of Sciences has chosen to make a political statement … the country is in the throes of collective environmental hysteria.”

C.   Construct Distorted Cost-Benefit Analyses

A favorite denial tactic is to over-emphasize the costs of regulation, and under-emphasize or ignore the benefits of regulation.  The CEO of CFC manufacturer Pennwalt said that phasing out CFCs would lead to “economic chaos.”  DuPont warned that “entire industries could fold.”  Lewis DuPont Smith maintained that “The cost to consumers of the ban on CFCs will exceed $5 trillion: the consequences on human health will be devastating.”

Smith continued, “This summer (1994), more than 30 million car owners will drive to the repair stations to have their car air conditioners either fixed or recharged. To their great shock, they will discover that this will no longer cost them $25 to $50 but closer to $1,000. Furthermore, the substitute coolant is not only very expensive, but also corrosive and possibly dangerous … these people …. are going to flood their congressional offices with calls and letters demanding the overturn of the CFC ban …. More than 35,000 supermarkets across the United States will have to spend close to $100,000 each to retrofit or replace their cold storage cases. Many of those supermarkets, especially independent retailers and those serving the inner cities, will have to close their doors …”

Singer criticized the “huge cost, estimated at over $200 billion worldwide, of replacing capital equipment that cannot accept the [CFC] substitutes.”  And the CFC substitutes “may be toxic, flammable and corrosive, and they certainly won’t work as well [as CFCs].  They’ll reduce the energy efficiency of appliances such as refrigerators, and they’ll deteriorate, requiring frequent replacement.”  Replacement of refrigerants “will involve 100 million home refrigerators, the air-conditioners in 90 million cars, and the central air-conditioning plants in 100,000 large buildings.”

A common trope of deniers is to emphasize (or invent) hardships that Third World countries would suffer if the regulations were adopted.  In the most extreme cases, deniers accuse environmentalists of promoting actions that are tantamount to genocide.  For example, DuPont Smith claimed that: “The CFC ban may cause hunger in the United States, but in the Third World countries, there will be widespread starvation and death as a result of spoiled vaccine and medical supplies … Increasingly, it is being said that the CFC ban is simply a convenient way for those immoral individuals who want population control of the dark skinned races, to do it through hunger and starvation.”  Singer chimed in that “These are some of the costs that we are now trying to impose on the developing countries who can ill afford them … So it’s environmental blackmail vs. environmental imperialism.”

We have now lived through the replacement cycle of CFCs by HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons, gases with much lower ozone-depletion potential than CFCs).  In 1994, the United Nations Environmental Programme Economic Options Committee concluded “Ozone-depleting substance replacement has been more rapid, less expensive, and more innovative than had been anticipated at the beginning of the substitution process.  The alternative technologies already adopted have been effective and inexpensive enough that consumers have not yet felt any noticeable impacts.

So why was the actual impact so much less than the draconian predictions of the deniers?  The substitute refrigerants HCFCs were more expensive than CFCs (although they are now more efficient, and they are neither toxic nor corrosive).  However, in large appliances such as refrigerators and large AC units, the cost of the refrigerant is a small fraction of the total cost.  Thus, the net cost increases were nowhere near what was predicted by the deniers (note: one area where costs did increase was auto air-conditioning service).

Furthermore, the deniers presented the costs as though all refrigerants had to be replaced immediately.  In practice, old units containing CFCs continued to function as long as they were not leaking, and the refrigerant could be replaced over time.  The costs of replacement were substantial, but spread over time they were not crippling.  For example, a study estimated the total CFC phase-out cost up through 1997 of $37 billion to business and industry and $3 billion to consumers.

A 1997 cost-benefit study performed on behalf of Environment Canada estimated that the total worldwide CFC phase-out cost through the year 2060 would amount to $235 billion.  This is a significant amount – however, note that the cost is spread over 65 years.  Furthermore, that same study calculated the economic benefit of replacing CFCs at $459 billion!  So in an honest cost-benefit study, the benefits were nearly twice the costs.  The savings arose from “decreased UV light exposure to aquatic ecosystems, plants, forests, crops, plastics, paints and other outdoor building materials.”  We have not found any of these benefit issues being mentioned, much less estimated, in reports from the denial industry.

Note that the calculated savings from the Environment Canada study did not include the savings from decreased health costs, nor the human health advantages from replacing CFCs.  A cost-benefit study by Barrett (S. Barrett, Why Cooperate?  The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods (Oxford University Press, 2007)) that included health benefits and measures to protect the stratospheric ozone layer (including adjustments and amendments to the Montreal Protocol) estimated global net benefits of more than 2 trillion Euros through 2060.  We will review the human health benefits arising from the ban on CFCs further below.

In May 1987, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel suggested that people could deal with increased UV-B radiation by adopting a “Personal Protection Plan” that called for wearing hats, sunglasses, long-sleeve shirts and applying sunscreen.  Hodel’s plan was assailed by scientists and environmentalists, who pointed out the “broad and potentially disastrous effects that increased ultraviolet radiation would have on the Earth’s climate, food chains and individual species of plants and animals other than humans.” Critics of Hodel’s “Ray-Ban Plan” sarcastically depicted animals and plants wearing sunglasses to protect against increased radiation (see Fig. 13), and he soon resigned under pressure.

Figure 13: Herblock satirizes Hodel’s suggestion that sunglasses can protect against increased UV radiation.

Singer’s discussion of the health effects of ozone depletion focuses almost exclusively on the rise in melanoma from increased UV-B radiation.  Singer dismisses the health risks of increased basal and squamous skin cancers (“easily cured growths” that can be avoided by “clothing or avoiding the sun altogether”).  Singer restricts himself to melanoma because it is less strongly correlated with UV-B exposure than other skin cancers.  He concludes that “melanoma rates would not be affected by changes in stratospheric ozone.  This important finding undercuts one of the main reasons for the Montreal Protocol.”

The 1997 Environment Canada study estimated that by 2060, the Montreal Protocol ban on CFCs would result in 19.1 million fewer cases of non-melanoma skin cancer worldwide, 1.5 million fewer cases of melanoma, 129 million fewer cases of cataracts and 330,000 fewer skin cancer deaths.  One expects ten times as many cases of non-melanoma skin cancer – although the study predicts 1.5 million additional melanomas by 2060, dramatically different from Singer’s assertion that “melanoma rates would not be affected.”  [Note: it is difficult to predict the human health consequences of increased UV-B radiation.  The amount of UV-B radiation that reaches the Earth depends on latitude and also on local atmospheric conditions. So estimates of increased skin cancers could have significant uncertainty].  Nevertheless, an honest reckoning of human health effects shows a significant benefit from the CFC ban.

D.   Question the Motives of Scientists and Environmentalists

The denialist playbook includes impugning the motives of scientists and environmentalists.  It is asserted that these groups are not motivated by scientific issues, but by extraneous or even suspicious considerations.  Here are some examples from the ozone hole controversy.

  • The Cato Institute claimed that NASA’s 1992 warnings of a potential ozone hole opening up over the Northern Hemisphere was “exquisitely timed to bolster the agency’s budget requests”

Fred Singer criticized the motivation of scientists, bureaucrats and diplomats who studied the ozone hole.  (Singer’s insinuations are eerily similar to those used by Will Happer to impugn the motives of climate scientists and concerned policy-makers, as noted in a companion post in this blog series.)

  • It’s not difficult to understand some of the motivations. For scientists: recognition for keeping dusty records or running complicated computer models that are rather dull; more grants for research; press conferences; and newspaper stories. Also the feeling that maybe they are saving the world for future generations. For bureaucrats the rewards are obvious. For diplomats there are negotiations, initialing of agreements, and the ultimate ratification of treaties. It doesn’t really much matter what the treaty is about, but it helps if it supports “good things”. For all involved there is of course travel to pleasant places, good hotels, international fellowship, and more.

Singer also questioned the motives of environmentalists.

  • The environmentalists’ reaction [to the Rowland/Molina hypothesis that CFCs could percolate into the stratosphere and destroy ozone] was ecstatic. At last, an industrial chemical – and produced by big bad DuPont and their ilk.  What a cause!
  • I have left environmental activists to the last. There are well- intentioned individuals who are sincerely concerned about what they perceive as a critical danger to the health of future generations. Many of the professionals share the same incentives as government bureaucrats: status, salaries, perks and power. And then there are probably those with hidden agenda of their own not just to “save the environment” but to change our economic system. The telltale signs are the attack on free enterprise, the corporation, the profit motive, the new technologies. Some are socialists, some are Luddites. Most of these “compulsive utopians” have a great desire to regulate on as large a scale as possible. To them global regulation is the “Holy Grail.” That’s what makes the CFC-ozone issue so attractive to them.

In Singer’s narrative, scientists, environmentalists and bureaucrats are alleged to have non-scientific motives: status, salaries, perks, power, antipathy towards free enterprise, or a utopian impulse to regulate.  This is contrasted with the (presumably) altruistic motivation of the deniers to set the record straight, and to apply impartial and reliable scientific analyses.

Dr. Singer fails to mention that the centers with which he is affiliated have received lavish financial support from the Koch Brothers, and other wealthy donors with extreme anti-regulatory views.  Those centers have been supported by Exxon-Mobil, for many years the biggest supporter of climate-change deniers, and in addition by Shell, ARDO, Unocal and Sun Oil.  The Heartland Institute also received significant donations from Philip Morris when Heartland was involved in efforts to deny that smoking increased risks to health.

E.   Continue to Deny and Delay

In the mid-70s, one could argue that Singer’s counter-narrative represented a skeptical, albeit biased, view of the situation regarding CFCs and ozone.  By 1995 when Singer published his article on the ozone controversy in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, his arguments seriously misrepresented the scientific consensus on the ozone issue.  However, it was truly shocking for the Heartland Institute to reprint his article in 2010.  By this date, there was no doubt that CFCs reached the stratosphere and destroyed ozone.  Furthermore, it was clear that levels of UV-B radiation reaching the Earth were increasing.  None of this is acknowledged in Singer’s Heartland Institute paper.  The 2010 Heartland Institute release predicts extremely dire outcomes if CFC production was to be regulated or banned — but the CFC ban began 15 years before that paper was issued.  None of Singer’s dire predictions were realized; in addition, his article provided maliciously biased estimates, disproven by the factual evidence, of the costs and benefits of regulation.

What about Singer’s charge that world-wide action to ban CFCs would constitute “environmental imperialism” against Third World countries?  Because of sensitivity to the effects of a ban on developing countries, the Montreal Protocol afforded those nations an additional ten years to phase out CFCs.  In addition, in 1991 the Protocol established a Multilateral Fund where Western countries provided support to developing economies.  Since its creation, the Multilateral Fund has been replenished 10 times.  Of the 197 signatories of the Montreal Protocol, 147 of them qualify for aid from the Fund.  The Fund is managed by an Executive Committee with equal membership from developed and developing countries.  Approved activities include industrial conversion, technical assistance, training, and capacity building, with a total value to date exceeding US $3.0 billion.

No mention of such a fund appears in the denialist literature.  The Multilateral Fund was first implemented three years before Lewis DuPont Smith’s 1994 rant that “the CFC ban is simply a convenient way for those immoral individuals who want population control of the dark skinned races, to do it through hunger and starvation.”  Singer’s 2010 Heartland Institute paper was released nearly 20 years after the Multilateral Fund was established.

The deniers were completely wrong on the issue of CFCs and the ozone layer.  The scientific arguments in their counter-narrative were bogus, and their estimates of the costs of a ban on CFCs were outrageously biased.  However, this is completely consistent with the track record of the deniers on all controversial issues.  They have been wrong (and deeply dishonest) on tobacco and health, on chemical pesticides, and on acid rain.   In a series of blog posts, we argue that they are also wrong on global climate change.

Today, the mainstream scientific community regards the CFC-ozone issue as settled.  Rowland and Molina shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their model.  The quantitative predictions of their model have been verified (after modification to fit the Antarctic ozone hole).  NASA and NOAA maintain vast archives of atmospheric data that confirm the models of ozone and CFCs in the atmosphere.  Draconian predictions that regulatory action would cause economic chaos and hardship were not realized. Sadly, one can still find articles from science deniers and right-wing think-tanks that repeat all these discredited claims from the 1980s.  Regardless of the evolution of the evidence, and the failure of the denialist predictions, their pre-determined conclusions — no regulations should be enacted until long in the future, if ever — never change: that’s what makes them deniers.  And S. Fred Singer has been omnipresent in inventing and exploiting their tactics.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Fred Singer

M.J. Molina and F.S. Rowland, “Stratospheric Sink for Chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine Atom-Catalyzed Destruction of Ozone,” Nature 249, 810 (1974).

Jeffrey Masters “The Skeptics vs. The Ozone Hole”

S. Fred Singer, “The Ozone-CFC Debacle: Hasty Action, Shaky Science,” Technology: Journal of the Franklin Institute 332A, p. 61 (1995).

S. Fred Singer, “The Ozone-CFC Debacle: Hasty Action, Shaky Science,” Heartland Institute release Nov. 10, 2010

S. Fred Singer, “Stratospheric Ozone: Science and Policy,” Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy, for Cato Institute Conference on Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?” June 2-6, 1991

S. Fred Singer, “My Adventures in the Ozone Layer,” National Review,  June 1989

S. Fred Singer, “Layering It On For Ozone Day,” Washington Times Sept. 16, 1995.

Frederick Seitz, Global Warming and Ozone Hole Controversies: A Challenge to Scientific Judgment, George C. Marshall Institute, 1994.

S. Barrett, Why Cooperate? The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) report, Why Scientists Disagree on Global Warming, Heartland Institute, 2015

T. Londergan and S. Vigdor, The Heartland Institute Strikes Again, “Debunking Denial” Web site.

Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Dixy Lee Ray, Trashing The Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal With Acid Rain, Depletion of Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things).  Regnery Publishing, 1990.

Patrick Michaels, Peril Up In The Air, Cato Institute, Apr. 2000.

Global Effects of Environmental Pollution, AAAS Symposium, 1968 (Springer 1970)

The Changing Global Environment, Springer 1975, ed. S. Fred Singer

Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought To Be (Pocket Books 1992)

D.A. Smith, K. Vodden, L. Rucker and R. Cunningham, Global Benefits and Costs of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, report for Environment Canada, 1997.

T. Londergan and S. Vigdor, “Debunking Denial: The Ozone Layer Controversy”

T. Londergan and S. Vigdor, “Debunking Denial: Scientific Tipping Points: The Ozone Layer”

Wikipedia, Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS)

World Meteorological Organization, Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2018 Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project – Report 58.

NASA “Ozone Watch” Website

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Web pages.

Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol:

Twenty Years of Ozone Decline: Proceedings of the Symposium for the 20th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, ed. Christos Zerefos, G. Contopoulos and Gregory Skalkeas (Springer, 2009)

Floy Lilley (Murchison Chair of Free Enterprise, College of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin); Website reprints comments by Lewis DuPont Smith.