The Ozone Layer Controversy, Part II

July 20, 2017

8.  Initial Reaction from the Chemical Industry

In 1974, Rowland and Molina suggested that CFCs might need to be banned or restricted.  CFCs were major products of a chemical industry that in the early 70s generated roughly $7 billion in business, and provided employment for up to 200,000 people worldwide.  The chemical industry thus developed initiatives to defend their products.

The Manufacturing Chemists Association established a panel to dispense between $3 million and $5 million in research grants, largely to university faculty. In addition, two public relations efforts were mounted. These were the Aerosol Education Bureau and the Council on Atmospheric Sciences. A third group, the Western Aerosol Information Bureau, was created by companies that produced aerosol spray cans.

The Chemical Specialties Manufacturer’s Association hired the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. This was the company that had essentially invented industrial public relations tactics, when they were hired to represent the tobacco industry back in the 1950s.

The initial response from industry followed a playbook that had been established to deal with issues such as tobacco links to cancer and acid rain, and now applied it to the ozone controversy.  They used a number of the elements of the science denier’s toolbox we outlined in another blog post on this site.

8a.  Deny That the Problem Exists

In 1975, DuPont ran full-page ads in newspapers defending CFCs and denying that any hard data connected CFCs with harm to the ozone layer. The Chairman of DuPont stated that Rowland and Molina’s ozone-depletion hypothesis was “a science fiction tale … a load of rubbish … utter nonsense.”

To be fair, immediately following the publication of Rowland and Molina’s hypothesis, a number of their conjectures needed to be verified and quantified. However, to call their suggestion “utter nonsense” was a dramatic overstatement.

Hill & Knowlton then hired Richard Scorer, a professor of theoretical mechanics at Imperial College, London and an expert in atmospheric pollution. Scorer was an outspoken opponent of any suggestion that human activity might harm the environment.

Scorer claimed that our atmosphere was “the most robust and dynamic element in the environment.” The idea that human-produced chemicals might be capable of harming the ozone layer was a “scare story” based on little or no scientific evidence. Rowland and Molina were “doomsayers,” and their entire hypothesis was “pompous claptrap.”

However, Scorer’s credibility took a significant hit when it was pointed out that he had never published peer-reviewed research on the ozone layer, and after a Los Angeles Times reporter revealed his connections with industry lobbyists and called him a “scientific hired gun.”

Scorer doubled down on the idea that human-produced CFCs might be harming the ozone layer. He stated that this was impossible, since stabilizing processes in the atmosphere would correct any negative effects due to these chemicals.

Coming from a world expert on atmospheric pollution, these were remarkable pronouncements. We know of at least two cases where introduced substances can have deleterious effects on ecosystems. The first is when new substances are introduced into the environment. Since these substances do not occur naturally, the system may have no mechanism for eliminating or neutralizing them.

In a second case, substances might be introduced too rapidly for the system to compensate. A textbook example of this is atmospheric emissions from volcanoes. Under normal circumstances, the atmosphere effectively deals with chemicals such as chlorine and sulfur arising from vulcanism. However, periods with unusually high volcanic activity may overwhelm natural defenses. Thus, geologic periods characterized by rapid extinction of species appear to be strongly correlated with eras of very high volcanic activity.

8b.  “It’s Just a Theory”

A common defense is to rely on the public’s confusion on the meaning of “theory.” The Merriam-Webster definition of “theory” is “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.” This is the scientific definition for this term. However, the general public often assumes the alternative meaning of theory as “an unproved assumption.”

Thus, the aerosol industry issued press releases stating that Rowland and Molina’s hypothesis was “just a theory,” and not a fact. Newpaper journalists often wrote “articles” that simply paraphrased industry news releases. A common theme was to utilize the symbol of Chicken Little claiming “the sky is falling.” In fairness, what Rowland and Molina first published was a theoretical estimate, but following the scientific method, it was followed in less than a decade by significant experimental confirmation, as described in Part I of this blog post.

8c.  Invoke Anti-regulatory Bias

Another tactic denigrated regulations as being burdensome, unnecessary or anti-American. For example, Richard Scorer derided the suggestion that CFCs or similar chemicals should be banned. He claimed that this was inconsistent with the American notion that everyone be free to buy whatever he or she wanted. He also suggested that such actions were typical of Communist or totalitarian regimes.

8d.  Impugn the Motives of Mainstream Scientists

In creating a counter-narrative to combat pressure to regulate the use of certain chemicals or practices, industries often portray the issue as a battle between two groups of scientists. On one side are brave and level-headed individuals who wish to “re-establish a sense of reason and balance with respect to the environment and modern technology,” in the words of Dixy Lee Ray, a noted science denialist and critic of the environmental movement.

On the other side were the scientific community.  S. Fred Singer is one of the most outspoken critics on the ozone layer issue (as well as acid rain and global climate change).  Singer described mainstream scientists as follows. “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.”

Singer then went on to accuse at least some scientists as having “hidden agendas of their own – not just to ‘save the environment’ but to change our economic system. Some of these ‘coercive utopians’ are socialists, some are technology-hating Luddites.”  (In our experience, scientists who “hate technology” are an extremely rare breed.)

In a later article, Singer accused environmental scientists as having “a hidden political agenda against business, the free market, and the capitalistic system.” The true goal was not to protect the environment, but instead to “foster international action, preferably with lots of treaties and protocols.”  Thus did the industry-supported deniers work to transform a scientific issue into a purely political one.

8e.  Overstate the Consequences of Regulation

A common defense by industries in defending products that are alleged to cause environmental and/or health damage is to predict dramatically exaggerated economic consequences.

The CEO of CFC manufacturer Pennwalt suggested that phasing out CFCs would cause “economic chaos.” DuPont predicted that economic costs in the U.S. alone could exceed $135 billion and that “entire industries could fold.”

The Association of European Chemical Companies claimed that phasing out CFCs could cause “redesign and re-equipping of large sectors of vital industry … smaller firms going out of business … and an effect on inflation and unemployment, nationally and internationally.”

S. Fred Singer claimed that if CFCs were banned, their substitutes “may be toxic, flammable, and corrosive, and they certainly won’t work as well. They’ll reduce the energy efficiency of appliances such as refrigerators, and they’ll deteriorate, requiring frequent replenishment.”

This is a remarkable blanket prediction, since it preceded the introduction of any CFC substitutes. Singer also attacked “the huge cost, estimated at over $200 billion worldwide, of replacing capital equipment that cannot accept the substitutes.”

Estimates of the costs required to replace CFCs did not calculate any of the benefits associated with replacement. Thus, they never offset the cost of replacing CFCs with the probable costs associated with treatment of additional cancers arising from a depleted ozone layer.

For example, a study done for Environment Canada and presented to a U.N. conference in 1997 estimated that net economic benefits (savings minus costs) resulting from the phaseout of CFCs through the Montreal Protocol (see Sect. 9 below) would total $224 billion. “These savings arose from decreased UV light exposure to aquatic ecosystems, plants, forests, crops, plastics, paints and outdoor building materials.

Note that this report did not include savings due to decreased health costs. The Environment Canada report concluded that the Montreal Protocol had resulted in 19.1 million fewer cases of non-melanoma skin cancer, 1.5 million fewer cases of melanoma, 129 million fewer cases of cataracts, and 300,000 fewer skin cancer deaths worldwide. And the number of avoided cancer cases would dramatically increase with time (see Fig. 14 in Sect. 10, A World Avoided).

Another tactic is to claim that unilateral regulatory action in the U.S. would put our country at an economic disadvantage. With respect to CFCs, both developed countries and third-world countries were reluctant to take regulatory action before the U.S., the world’s major CFC-producing country, was willing to regulate.

8f.  Offer Discredited Alternative Explanations

Another tactic is to claim that any observed phenomena are primarily due to natural causes. For example, in the case of depletion of the ozone layer, denialists such as Dixy Lee Ray and S. Fred Singer suggested that volcanoes were likely a more serious source of stratospheric chlorine than CFCs.

In her book Trashing the Planet, Dixy Lee Ray claimed that “the eruption of Mt. 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 … we cannot be sure where the stratospheric chloride comes from, and whether humans have any effect on it.”

Note that Ms. Ray’s claims directly contradict the analysis of stratospheric chlorine in Sect. 5, where only a few percent of stratospheric Cl originated from volcanoes (see Fig. 10). Ms. Ray’s estimates were based on a misunderstanding of the origin of chlorine in the stratosphere. She confused the total emission of chlorine from volcanoes with the amount that reaches the stratosphere.

8g.  Request More Time Before Taking Action

Between 1974 and 1987, the CFC industry and some government officials repeatedly asked for three more years of research and monitoring before any action was taken. Mario Molina referred to this as “the sliding three years.”  This again is a standard tactic of science deniers:  try to postpone any action until it is too late to matter.

9.  Formation of an International Ozone Policy

Following the hypothesis in 1974 by Rowland and Molina, the scientific community  mounted a world-wide program of research and monitoring, summarized in the preceding Sections.

Every element of the Rowland-Molina hypothesis was subjected to extensive testing. While the scientific data required revisions in the models of ozone depletion, the basic elements of this theory were proved to the satisfaction of scientists, government officials and most representatives of industry. The unexpected discovery of an “ozone hole” over the Antarctic required further revisions in the theory.

Once concerns were raised regarding possible adverse effects of CFCs, consumers began to replace aerosol cans with other products. For example, there was a rapid shift from aerosol to roll-on deodorants. Starting in 1978, the U.S. banned the use of CFCs such as Freon for propellants in aerosol cans.

International concerns over CFCs had grown as the Rowland-Molina theory was verified and quantified. The unexpected discovery of the “ozone hole” over the Antarctic dramatically changed public perception of the issue.

In 1985, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, sponsored by the UN Environmental Programme, convened to discuss the recent report announcing a hole in the Antarctic ozone layer. The 1985 meeting did not impose restrictions on CFCs, but established a framework where participating countries would share information about CFCs and ozone depletion.

Following two years of negotiations, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed to in 1987. In the Montreal Protocol, the original signatories agreed to drastic reductions in the production of CFCs.

The Montreal Protocol was an historic document.  As explained on the Montreal Protocol page of Wikipedia:it was the first international treaty to address a global environmental regulatory challenge; the first to embrace the “precautionary principle” in its design for science-based policymaking; the first treaty where independent experts on atmospheric science, environmental impacts, chemical technology, and economics, reported directly to Parties [the ‘Parties’ were the countries that signed the Protocol], without edit or censorship, functioning under norms of professionalism, peer review, and respect; the first to provide for national differences in responsibility and financial capacity to respond by establishing a multilateral fund for technology transfer.”

In 1988, the Ozone Trends Panel reported their results. They found ozone depletion in the mid-latitudes in winter. In May 1988, at the time when the Ozone Trends Panel released its findings, the U.S. Senate voted to ratify the Montreal Protocol. That Protocol went into effect in Jan. 1989.

In 1990, the Montreal Protocol was amended to call for complete elimination of CFC production by the developed countries by the year 2000, with complete elimination from developing countries by 2010. Over the years, more and more countries ratified the Montreal Protocol.  At present, every nation in the world (197 of them) have signed the Montreal Protocol; it is the only environmental treaty ratified by every nation.

In Sect. 8, we noted that the DuPont company, holder of the patent for Freon and in the 1970s the largest single manufacturer of CFCs, was initially sharply critical of any suggestions that CFCs might be responsible for damage to the ozone layer.

However, in 1988 when the U.S. Senate was debating ratification of the Montreal Protocol, DuPont supported a ban on CFCs, announced that they would voluntarily cease production of CFCs within approximately ten years, and persuaded some other CFC manufacturers to support restrictions on CFC production.

There appear to be at least three reasons for the change in DuPont’s position on CFCs. First, DuPont had provided financial support for the Antarctic field expeditions of the Ozone Trends Panel, and a scientist from that company was a panel member. A second reason behind DuPont’s decision may have been the company’s concern over potential lawsuits from people who contracted skin cancer.

A third reason for the change in DuPont’s position was that their own patent for CFCs had expired a few years ago, and they had obtained patents for replacements for CFCs. In particular, DuPont was in position to produce hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), replacements for CFCs that are more reactive. HCFCs break down in the atmosphere much faster than CFCs, and thus are significantly less likely to reach the stratosphere.

Another substitute for CFCs is hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Because HFCs have no chlorine atoms, they do not destroy stratospheric ozone at all. However, an additional consideration for both HCFCs and HFCs is that they are rather potent greenhouse gases. Thus, in addition to concerns for the ozone layer, one has to monitor the replacement gases to assess their contributions to global climate change.

10.  A World Avoided

In the years following the adoption of the Montreal Protocol, scientists continued to monitor chlorine from CFCs and depletion of the ozone layer. It is now clear that the Rowland-Molina hypothesis was correct; however, the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer are significantly higher than were initially realized.

In 2009, Newman and collaborators ran simulations to determine the fate of the ozone layer and effects on human health, if CFCs had not been regulated. Fig. 14 shows their  simulations regarding effects of Cl on the ozone layer, as measured by the “UV index.” The simulation shown was run for Northern Hemisphere (NH) mid-latitudes (30 – 50º N latitude) at noon in mid-summer, when the UV index is highest.

world avoided
Fig. 14. A world avoided. UV index on July 2 at mid-latitudes as a function of year. Black curve: “a World Avoided;” simulated result if CFC production had not been banned. Red curve: expected results with CFC ban.

The black curve shows the projected UV index if no CFC ban had been implemented. The red curve shows the projected result with the CFC ban in place. It is clear that the resulting UV index from continued production of CFCs, and their persistence in the atmosphere for up to 100 years, would have become significant in 2020, but would have produced disastrous increases in following decades.

Had CFCs not been regulated, one would see massive increases in skin cancer.  By 2065, the increased UV-B would decrease the perceptible sunburn time from 15 minutes to 5 minutes.  Newman et al. applied a DNA damage action spectrum to their results, and obtained a 550% increase for NH mid-latitudes from 1980 to 2065.

In addition to catastrophic increases in skin cancers, there would also be many other environmental consequences of drastically increased UV-B levels at the Earth’s surface.

The theory by Solomon et al. suggested that, if CFC production was halted, the Antarctic ozone hole would stabilize and then begin to heal. The most recent data from 2016 shows that, indeed, the Antarctic ozone hole is healing. Simulations predict that by 2050, ozone levels over the Antarctic should return to 1980 levels.

11.  The Heartland Institute Holds Out

Today, the scientific community is in general agreement that the discovery of the depletion of the ozone layer by chlorine arising from CFCs, and the subsequent agreement to ban CFCs worldwide, represents a remarkable success story for science and science-based environmental policy-making.

Atmospheric scientists discovered, just in time, a serious threat to the health of humans and our ecosystem, verified this through an intensive program of scientific research and monitoring, and convinced governments around the world to take concerted action.

This story — from an initial hypothesis to methodical testing, verification of key elements of the theory, revision of models to account for new data, and elimination of competing explanations — serves as a model of how evidence-based science should operate.  It also demonstrates how curiosity-driven ideas can have incredibly important practical consequences.

On the basis of their suggestions and contributions to research, Rowland and Molina shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.”

The CFC-ozone issue shows the value of using the best scientific evidence as the framework for regulatory action.  As reviewed in Sect. 10, such action has brought an exceptional reprieve from a potential global health catastrophe.

However, there are a few notable antagonists to this view of ozone and CFCs. A particularly outspoken and continuing denier is S. Fred Singer, who was chief scientist for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation during the Reagan era. Singer has long claimed that variations in stratospheric ozone were “localized and temporary,” and were most likely due to naturally occurring atmospheric variability.

Although he was not involved in any of the research on CFCs or atmospheric ozone, Singer decried what he called an “ozone scare” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. In 1994, despite the results compiled by researchers and summarized in, e.g., Figs. 2 and 10-14 in this blog post, Singer continued to assert that evidence “suggests that stratospheric chlorine comes mostly from natural sources.”

After Rowland and Molina were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995, Singer claimed that “the country is in the throes of collective environmental hysteria.”

Singer has been a fellow of the Heartland Institute for several years. This group claims to “discover, develop and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”

In Nov. 2010, the Heartland Institute published an article “The Ozone-CFC Debacle: Hasty Action, Shaky Science,” by S. Fred Singer. The article appears to have been written no later than 1995.

The article claims that the Montreal Protocol “was signed in 1987, at a time when published work still indicated little, if any, contribution from CFCs.” The only mention of the research summarized in this post is a series of misleading remarks regarding inconsistencies between various data sets, or claims that natural variability makes it impossible to draw any conclusions from the data.

Regarding the Antarctic ozone hole, Singer asserts that “no theoretical predictions exist that can be tested by future observations.” As we have seen, the theory in fact predicted that a ban on CFCs would lead to the rate of ozone depletion slowing down and the hole gradually healing, which has now been observed.

Singer urges the U.S. to consider withdrawing from the Montreal Protocol. One reason is the “huge cost” that would occur after a ban on CFCs. He asserts that substitutes for CFCs are “often unproven or nonexistent.” In particular, he predicts that “motorists [may find themselves] without air  conditioning – short of paying exorbitant prices.”

These claims seemed ridiculous in 2010 when Singer’s article was published by the Heartland Institute.  Motorists have not been deprived of air conditioning.  CFC substitutes were developed rapidly after the Montreal protocol, and not at huge cost.  In fact, as detailed in Sect. 8e of this post, sensible economic impact studies of the CFC ban have shown that it has produced substantial net benefits.

So, why would the Heartland Institute publish an article that was so easily refuted?  This is a standard technique of the science deniers.  They ignore evidence refuting their claims and hold tight to the conclusions that are predestined by their ideology.  In the Heartland Institute’s case, that ideology is free-market capitalism carried to an extreme, where even regulations imposed to avoid worldwide health catastrophes are viewed as steps down a slippery slope to tyranny.

Furthermore, the ozone layer controversy bears many parallels to the battles the Heartland Institute is currently waging against international agreements regarding climate change.  The connections in Heartland’s thinking, and their common cause of science denial, were revealed by Jay Lehr, Science Director of the Heartland Institute. In 2009 Lehr was asked by a high school student, “What do you think will happen to the ozone layer over the next 25 years due to global warming?”  

Lehr responded, “In fact there is not really an ozone hole. It is an annual thinning then thickening of the ozone layer above the earth virtually every year.” Lehr continues, “It is unlikely that the earth is warming now. It is in fact cooling slightly and will likely continue to do so for a few decades. In any case man’s impact on these climate changes is negligible … it seems quite likely that the Sun and Sun alone controls the climate of the earth and the amount of ozone in the upper atmosphere.”

This is a remarkable statement. It represents a blatant denial of all of the research and monitoring reviewed in this post, and that will be reviewed in additional posts on climate change. It is particularly chilling because this apparently represents the viewpoint of current EPA director Scott Pruitt and DOE head Rick Perry. It also seems to square with an anti-regulatory bias in the current White House and Congress.

Given these viewpoints, it is hard to imagine that the Montreal Protocol would be ratified by the U.S. Senate if it came up for a vote in the current Congress. From this post, one sees that failure to implement the ban on CFCs would have had enormous negative consequences for human health and for our planetary ecosystem.  The current political ascendancy of climate change denial in the U.S., in spite of the stunning earlier success of science-based environmental policy in the ozone layer case, is a cause for great concern going forward.

Source Material for this post:

Wikipedia, The Ozone Layer
EPA, Ozone Layer Protection
NASA, The Ozone Layer
Wikipedia, Ozone Depletion
Wikipedia, Montreal Protocol
Twenty Questions and Answers About the Ozone Layer: 2010 Update
NOAA, Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion 2010
DuPont: A Case Study in the 3D Corporate Strategy, Greenpeace 1997
Ozone Depletion: Uncovering the Hidden Hazard of Hairspray
The Skeptics vs. The Ozone Hole

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