Saturday, March 17, 2012

Failure of a lobby

Sherwood Rowland, one of the scientists responsible for discovering that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer and fixing the problem, has died. Realclimate has a good write-up, as does Eli Rabett, who makes the excellent point that we needed to invent quite a bit of the chemistry involved before we could discover there was a problem. Perhaps more telling is this NASA web page, which describes the output from the Goddard Space Flight Centre's Chemistry-Climate Model given inputs corresponding to a world that kept using the stuff. It's either utterly terrifying, or enormously inspiring, depending on how you look at it. Rowland, Paul Crutzen, the British Antarctic Survey people who did the fieldwork...they essentially saved the world.

But what really interests me was how they got the Vienna and Montreal protocols passed. I had the vague impression that something had changed since 1989, that the ex-tobacco industry unscience industry was only cranked up later to bash the climatologists. In fact, I'm wrong. A comment at Realclimate points out that they were indeed targeted by the usual suspects. Rowland was accused of being a KGB agent trying to destroy capitalism.

Jeff Masters of Wunderground has a really handy rundown of the pushback campaign against the ozone scientists, who were subjected to direct smears as above, plus a barrage of general-purposes PR, psuedo-scientific doubt-mongering, all with the assistance of Hill & Knowlton, Tom DeLay (for it is he) and (interestingly) some of the same characters who turn up both in Big Baccy and later on in the climate wars.

But here's the interesting question, though. In the case of CFCs, it didn't work. Thatcher's late swing towards environmental issues is fairly well known, and prime ministers are certain of ratifying treaties they sign. Something must have induced Reagan to sign and Congress to ratify, though. Did the CFC makers just not give it one more heave, a few more millions?


Philip Eagle said...

I think there is some scientific reality element here. CFCs were used in specific technologies, and there were already alternatives that could substitute for them in most contexts. By contrast, doing something effective about climate change means either massively reducing societal energy use in ways that will cause major short-term dislocations, or rapidly developing energy sources that are still technically quite difficult and far from mass-scale applicability.

EliRabett said...

One of the things was that Dupont and ICI management was still full of chemists and that Thatcher herself (although they are reluctant to take credit) was an Oxford chemistry BA. So even though they didn't want to believe the science they had the tools to understand it.

In his one discussion with Rowland in the mid seventies, this point came up

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