The death of the legendary Nobel prize-winning chemist F. Sherwood Rowland reminds us of the value of “alarmism” and the scientific duty to speak out in the face of impending disaster.
As UC Irvine physical sciences dean Kenneth C. Janda wrote in an e-mail to faculty Sunday:
“He saved the world from a major catastrophe: never wavering in his commitment to science, truth and humanity, and did so with integrity and grace.”
Rowland is one of the true scientific heroes of our time — both for his research and for what he did with it:
Nearly 40 years ago, Rowland and post-doctoral student Mario Molina made a shocking discovery: a single chlorine atom byproduct from aerosol hair sprays, deodorants and other popular consumer products could chew up 100,000 ozone atoms in the stratosphere. The stratospheric ozone layer, 12 to 30 miles above Earth, protects life on the planet from harsh solar radiation.
“Mario and I realized this was not just a scientific question, but a potentially grave environmental problem involving substantial depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer,” Rowland said later. “Entire biological systems, including humans, would be at danger from ultra-violet rays.”
They decided they had to advocate for a ban on consumer products that were earning billions annually. Industry representatives fought back: At one point Aerosol Age, a trade journal, speculated that Rowland was a member of the Soviet Union’s KGB, out to destroy capitalism. Even some fellow scientists grumbled that he was going overboard with a hypothesis.
Of course, even in the face of industry attacks, we lived in a different political time and within just a few years of Rowland’s finding, many US aerosol spray-can manufacturers reformulated their product and the federal government put in place a ban for ozone-destroying gases in spray cans. Eventually, a hole in the ozone layer was discovered and the world (including the Reagan Administration) agreed to mandate sharp cuts in chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) use — a mandate that drove the “crucial technological advances” needed to address the problem.
The Nobel Committee noted in 1995, “It was to turn out that they had even underestimated the risk.”
By 2008, Rowland was warning that given humanity’s apparent inaction on climate, “his best guess for the peak concentration of carbon dioxide” was a staggering “1,000 parts per million.” That would be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions and the end of modern civilization as we know it today, according to the recent scientific literature.
While many in the mainstream media pooh-pooh or ignore scientists like Rowland who have been warning of the climate crisis today — even as the right-wing media and fossil fuel industry continue their assault on the science and the scientists — it was good to see even the Washington Post today acknowledge the value of sounding the alarm:
… Molina said his former mentor never shied from defending his work or advocating a ban on CFC.
“He showed me that if we believe in the science … we should speak out when we feel it’s important for society to change,” Molina told the Associated Press.
Rowland felt it was his duty to speak out on ozone depletion and then on climate change — and his words on the subject are a clarion call for action by climate scientists, indeed, by all of us:
“Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn’t it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’t it your responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?” Rowland said at a White House climate change roundtable in 1997. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”