The legacy of Nobelist Sherry Rowland
by Jeff Turrentine, an OnEarth Magazine repost
F. Sherwood Rowland, the chemist whose work on ozone layer depletion won a Nobel Prize, died last Saturday in California. Rowland earned his place in environmental history by being one of the first scientists in the world to discover that chlorofluorocarbons, or “CFCs” for short, were flying right out of our air conditioners and aerosol cans and combining with sunlight to destroy stratospheric ozone. With his colleague Mario Molina, Rowland published the 1974 article in the journal Nature that blew the lid, so to speak, off the ozone-layer issue.
Meanwhile, the actual lid of the ozone layer was quite literally blowing off, evidence of which finally came to light a few years later when scientists detected a massive hole over Antarctica that was allowing previously blocked ultraviolet radiation to enter the earth’s biosphere. Once people learned — thanks in large part to the scientific foundation laid a decade earlier by Rowland and Molina — that this increase in UV radiation could be responsible for a host of ailments ranging from sunburn to cataracts to cancer, individuals and nations banded together to take decisive action. The chain of events that these scientists’ findings set in motion culminated in a national moment of concerted effort, the likes of which we haven’t seen since.
In the current poisoned political climate, one wonders when — or if — we’ll get to see it again.
The direct result of Rowland’s discovery was the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that attempted to reverse the ozone-depleting trend by severely curtailing its root cause: the production, and subsequent release into the atmosphere, of CFCs. The president of the United States signed the protocol in December 1987. In his accompanying letter to the Senate — a body that would, only a few months later, vote 83-0 in support of the protocol — our nation’s chief executive lauded it as a “historic agreement” and proudly noted America’s “leading role” in its negotiation.
Note the year, please. The Montreal Protocol was signed, of course, by none other than Ronald Reagan as he neared the end of his second term, and right as his vice president was launching a campaign to become the next occupant of the White House. The Senate that lent its unanimous support to the protocol was still reeling, at the time of this dramatic display of bipartisanship, from bitterly contested midterm elections the year before, when Democrats had retaken the chamber from Republicans and wrested control of its powerful committees.
David Doniger, currently the policy director of the climate and clean air program at NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), got to know Sherwood Rowland while working on ozone-layer issues during the 15 years between Rowland’s discovery and the ultimate passage of the protocol. “He was a very good scientist, but he was more than that,” Doniger recalls. “He was a true citizen-scientist, in that it seemed to come quite naturally to him to report on the results of his work out in the public sphere.”
Doniger is quick to note, however, that Rowland and Molina initially were met with a chilly reception when they first published their paper. Manufacturers of products that emitted CFCs sensed the danger that their findings posed and sprang into action. “When scientific findings — even very robust ones — threaten industry, industry pushes back, often with a campaign to confuse the issues and harass the messengers,” Doniger told me. “It happened to Sherry Rowland then, and it’s happening to Michael Mann right now.” (Mann, the climate scientist best known for the much-debated — and repeatedly vindicated — “hockey stick” graphic, was the subject of a two-year investigation launched by Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative Republican who has been highly critical of government efforts to regulate carbon emissions. On March 2, Virginia’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mann, tossing the case out.)
Sherwood Rowland’s legacy is easy to discern. A 2006 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated that “[t]he Montreal Protocol is working: There is clear evidence of a decrease in the atmospheric burden of ozone-depleting substances and some early signs of stratospheric ozone recovery.” The scientific work that Rowland and Molina performed, not to mention the doggedness with which they advocated for action, educated and galvanized people. The impulse to do something about the problem cut across national, cultural, political and demographic lines. Though there was resistance — Reagan’s arm had to be twisted somewhat by members of his cabinet before he would sign — science, and a sense of shared duty, prevailed.
Fast-forward to our current debate over the causes of climate change and the proposed solutions. No, scratch that sentence: fast-forward to our current debate about the very existence of climate change, and whether or not it’s an actual catastrophe-in-the-making or some kind of academic conspiracy designed to topple economies and frighten people unnecessarily. That we’ve gone from arguing over how best to address the problems that science presents to us to arguing over whether science is lying to us is a sign of how degraded our process has become. The notion of a unanimous Senate vote in support of immediate and drastic action on climate change is pretty laughable today — or would be laughable, if it weren’t so dispiriting.
But the science is there — just as it was for our political leaders back in 1987. Sherwood Rowland had to wait a dozen years to see the real-world results of his scholarship. We’ve been waiting at least that long for industry and politicians to cast aside their cynicism and accept the facts as they are, not as they wish them to be. We can’t wait around for another dozen years.
Jeff Turrentine is OnEarth’s articles editor. A former editor at Architectural Digest and reporter for The Washington Post. This piece was originally published at the OnEarth website.