Issue Date: March 26, 2012
Scientists On Public Policy
I was contacted recently by David Tenenbaum, who writes for The Why Files, an online magazine on science, health, and the environment published by the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was writing a feature about the late atmospheric scientist F. Sherwood Rowland (C&EN, March 19, page 11).
He wrote: “I’m interested in the broader issue of scientists who take their research outside of the lab to influence public opinion. How does Rowland’s example play out in the discussions about global warming? What makes folks like Rowland and Jim Hansen speak out?” (Hansen, a NASA scientist, is a lightning rod for public debate on climate change.)
I responded: Two factors are at play in the different ways society has responded to the challenges of CFCs and stratospheric ozone depletion, and to greenhouse gases and climate change. The first is a matter of scale. CFCs were extremely useful compounds, and their use was pervasive. Some of the uses were rather trivial, others were important. Although manufacturers maintained that there would be dire consequences if the use of CFCs were restricted or banned, it became clear pretty quickly that alternatives could be found in most cases. The discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica demonstrated convincingly that Rowland and Mario Molina’s hypothesis was correct. And everyone is deathly afraid of cancer, which was what people faced if stratospheric ozone were depleted.
The scale of fossil-fuel use is many orders of magnitude larger than the use of CFCs was. Humans consume between 80 million and 90 million barrels of oil every day. All of modern civilization is based on burning fossil fuels. Realistically, there are no alternatives. Actually weaning civilization from fossil fuels would require massive investments in new and often unproven infrastructure and major changes in how people live, none of which humans have any desire to undertake. (C&EN’s Cheryl Hogue addressed this in a Government & Policy Insights story, Nov. 21, 2011, page 29.)
A funny thing about climate change is that at one level people actually like the warmer conditions, at least for now. We didn’t have a winter in Washington, D.C., this year—there was only one day that I’m aware of when the temperature did not rise above 32 °F—and people loved it. Listen to WTOP, the popular all-news radio station, and the announcers are positively giddy about the fact that the temperature was in the upper 80s, on March 15. So people aren’t worried about climate change the way they were worried about getting skin cancer because of ozone depletion. Add in the chorus of climate-change deniers, and you have a perfect recipe for inaction.
The second factor, though, is the intense partisanship that now permeates almost every public policy debate. Rowland and Molina’s theory was disparaged by industry representatives who had an economic incentive to continue to use CFCs, but it was not with the viciousness with which climate-change deniers attack anyone and everyone who maintains that humans are disrupting Earth’s climate. A state attorney general did not embark on a two-year witch hunt to try to discredit Sherry Rowland the way Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II has attempted to discredit Michael Mann, the developer of the “hockey stick” graph of historical temperature fluctuations over the past millennium. No one accused Rowland and Molina of lying to obtain research grants, which is exactly what Rick Perry and other Republican presidential candidates have said of climate scientists.
Why do scientists like Sherry Rowland and Jim Hansen speak out? Because they’re scientists, and scientists are addicted to facts and what facts tell them. I knew Sherry Rowland pretty well—I was the West Coast correspondent for C&EN from 1981 to 1994, and I covered the ozone depletion story for a while. He was a gracious, dignified, reserved individual, certainly not a rabble-rouser. But he knew that his science was solid, and it told him that humans were doing something that would have catastrophic consequences if they didn’t stop. So he spoke out. Simple as that. I think Jim Hansen is in exactly the same position.
Thanks for reading.
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