December 19, 2012


Naomi Oreskes: Merchants of Doubt


Supersonic Transport






Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University.

  • Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury, New York, 2010.
    Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway.


    [In 1971] Congress financed $21 million for a Climate Impact Assessment Program [(CIAP). …]
    This three-year effort involved nearly a thousand scientists across many agencies, universities, and several other countries, [sought] to assess the potential [atmospheric] impact of [supersonic transport (SST). …]
    [It] found that a fleet of five hundred Boeing-type SSTs was likely to deplete the ozone layer by 10 to 20 percent [overall, with] vastly worse depletions over the highly traveled North Atlantic routes.

    But [due to a Department of Transport whitewash] the report's Executive Summary … didn't say that.
    [It] claimed that an improved SST, to be developed in the future … wouldn't deplete the ozone layer. …
    The resulting newspaper headlines said things like SST CLEARED ON THE OZONE.
    But the report hadn't cleared the Boeing SST, or the Concorde …
    [It] had only cleared an imaginary technology that didn't exist. …

    Columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Pittsburgh Press promptly [went on the attack:]
    Pittsburgh Press:
    [The CIAP shows that concerns about ozone depletion are] unscientific nonsense.
    The phony ozone argument has no place in rational scientific discourse and no place in the SST debate.
    The CIAP scientists were furious about the misleading presentation of their work.
    [Harold] Johnston [Atmospheric Chemist, University of California] and Thomas M Donahue of the University of Michigan tried to publish corrective letters in several newspapers, but without success.
    [The newspapers] simply declined to publish their letters.
    (p 110)

    [Donahue] finally got Science to publish a letter laying out the correct interpretation of the study.
    This forced the Department of [Transportation to acknowledge] the misleading nature of the summary.
    But … once again, scientific claims were being published in scientific journals, where only scientists would read them …
    [Meanwhile the] unscientific claims were being published in the mass media.
    The public was left with the impression that the ozone layer was fine, and the "alarmists" had got it wrong. …

    In 1970, British scientist James Lovelock had documented the widespread presence of chlorofluorocarbons in the Earth's troposphere (the lower portion of the atmosphere).
    (p 111)

    The Ozone War

    Harold Schiff [Chemist, York University, Toronto]:
    [The CFC industry] challenged the theory every step of the way.
    They said there was
    • no proof that fluorocarbons even got into the stratosphere,
    • no proof that they split apart to produce chlorine,
    • no proof that, even if they did, the chlorine was destroying ozone.
    Each of these claims was defeated by evidence during 1975 and 1976.
    (p 115)

    Holes in the Ozone Layer

    In 1985, the British Antarctic Survey announced the existence of an area of severe ozone depletion over Antarctica …
    The British scientists had actually detected it four years earlier, but had disbelieved their own results.
    (p 118)

    Creating an Adaptive Regulatory Regime

    The 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) imposed no restrictions on CFCs at all.
    It was simply a procedural framework for future negotiations on a protocol … which might include actual production cuts.
    [Two] more years of negotiations [resulted in the] Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer [which] specified cuts of 50 percent by the CFC-producing nations. …
    (p 122)

    The combined results of [further research later] caused the Montreal Protocol to be renegotiated.
    The results … convinced the industry that their products really were doing harm, and opposition began to fade. …
    In a series of meetings culminating in London in June 1990, the protocol was revised to include a complete ban on the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons …
    CFC production was scheduled to cease in 2000 …

    Constructing a Counternarrative

    If environmental regulation should be based on science, then ozone is a success story.
    It took time to work out the complex science, but scientists, with support from the US government and international scientific organizations, did it.
    Regulations were put in place based on the science, and adjusted in response to advances in it.

    But running in parallel to this were persistent efforts to challenge the science.
    Industry representatives and other skeptics doubted that ozone depletion was real, or argued that if it was real, it was inconsequential, or caused by volcanoes.

    [In 1987] President Reagan's secretary of the interior, Donald Hodel … proposed a "personal protection plan" … against ozone depletion: wearing hats and long-sleeved shirts. …

    During the early 1980s, anti environmentalism had taken root in a network of conservative and Libertarian think tanks in Washington.
    These think tanks — which included the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Marshall Institute, variously promoted business interests and "free market" economic policies, and the rollback of environmental, health, safety, and labor protections.
    They were supported by donations from businessmen, corporations, and conservative foundations. …
    [The] Heritage Foundation was supported by a wide range of corporations and banks, including General Motors, Chase Manhattan, and Mobil Oil.
    (p 125)

    One aspect of the effort to cast doubt on ozone depletion was the construction of a counternarrative that depicted ozone depletion as a natural variation that was being cynically exploited by a corrupt, self-interested, and extremist scientific community to get more money for their research. …

    [S Fred Singer] a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1980s [and later] CHIEF SCIENTIST for the US Department of Transportation … first protested what he called the “ozone scare" in an article that the Wall Street Journal ran on page one [in April 1987. …]

    [Among other things he] recycled the old tobacco tactic of refutation by distraction, noting that there are many causes of skin cancer, including
    viruses, genetic predisposition, environmental carcinogens, population shifts to the Sun Belt, changes in life style, earlier detection of melanomas, and even diet.
    All true, but beside the point ..
    [The point being] that if ozone depletion continued, it would lead to additional skin cancers, on top of those already generated by other causes. …

    [He] claimed that scientists had wrongly worried that water vapor from [Supersonic Transport] would destroy ozone.
    [That they] had overreacted before, were overreacting now, and therefore couldn't be trusted.
    [This mechanism for ozone depletion had been considered in 1970 and found to be of minor significance.]
    (p 126)

    Singer argued that the real cause of the [ozone] hole was the stratospheric cooling, and this cooling was just part of the Earth's natural climate variability.
    [He claimed that ozone depletion was not due to man made CFCs but natural stratospheric cooling, when in fact stratospheric cooling was also anthropogenic but by a different mechanisms — greenhouse gas pollution. …]

    [Singer insisted] that replacing CFCs was likely to prove difficult and expensive — even dangerous.
    [CFC 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. …
    How could Singer know that, if substitutes hadn't yet been developed?
    (p 128)

    Singer was doing just what he had done for acid rain — insisting that any solution would be difficult and expensive, yet providing scant evidence to support the claim.
    In fact, he was going further, making bold assertions about the nature of technologies that did not yet exist. …

    Singer's story had three major themes:
    • the science is incomplete and uncertain;
    • replacing CFCs will be difficult, dangerous, and expensive; and
    • the scientific community is corrupt and motivated by self-interest and political ideology.
    The first was true, but the adaptive structure of the Montreal Protocol had accounted for it.
    The second was baseless.
    [And] the third, considering Singer's ties to the Reagan administration and the Heritage Foundation, and … the venues in which he published, [amounted to rank hypocrisy. …]

    Non-CFC refrigerants are now available that are more energy efficient … than the materials they replaced, and they aren't toxic, flammable, or corrosive. …

    WITH THE AMENDMENTS to the Montreal Protocol adopted in 1992, ratified by the US Senate, and even accepted by the DuPont Corporation, the debate over ozone depletion had come to a practical end. …

    … Singer did not give up.
    In 1990 he had established his own non profit organization, the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP) …
    (p 129)

    While we don't have access to SEPP's tax returns for the 1990s, in 2007 it netted $226,443, and had accumulated assets of $1.69 million.
    (p 134)

    The outfit was initially affiliated with the Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy, which was itself financed by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church [— an organization] known for its passionate anti-Communism …
    The church owned a newspaper, the Washington Times, and … publisher, Paragon House.
    In the years to come, Singer would use both to [propagate] his views. …
    Dixy Lee Ray [Zoologist and former Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission]:
    [The] eruption of Mount 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.
    Mount Erebus … has been erupting, constantly, for the last 100 years, ejecting more than 1,000 tons (907,184 kg) of chlorine per day …
    (Trashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things), 1990)
    (p 130)

    Ray cited a 1989 article by Singer in his Global Climate Change [in which] he presented no original data.
    He had simply cited other papers, without explaining what those papers actually said.

    The details about Mt Erebus and Mt Augustine [were] published in 1989 [by] Rogelio Maduro, in a political magazine called 21st Century Science and Technology
    [Maduro's source] that Mt Erebus erupted more chlorine into the atmosphere in a week than CFCs released in a year [was Reid Bryson:] an expert on paleoclimate studies using pollen and tree rings — nothing to do with ozone …

    Mt Erebus did produce substantial chlorine emissions, but it did not erupt explosively, so whatever chlorine it released did not get injected into the stratosphere …
    (p 131)

    [Ray later insisted in her] 1993 bestseller, Environmental Overkill … that CFCs were too heavy to rise into the stratosphere in the first place! …

    Sherry Rowland:
    [CFCs have been measured] in literally thousands of stratospheric air samples by dozens of research groups all over the world.
    (AAAS Presidential Address, 1993)
    [Rowland] debunked the 1980 Science paper that had argued that a single eruption of Mt Augustine, Alaska, in 1976 had put as much chlorine into the stratosphere as the entire 1975 CFC production.
    That claim was based on the chlorine content of ashfall, not on what had actually reached the stratosphere.
    Sherry Rowland:
    No actual evidence was presented in this … paper to show that any hydrogen chloride had … reached the stratosphere in this volcanic plume.
    [The] eruption of El Chichon in April 1982 had produced an increase of hydrogen chloride in the stratosphere of less than 10 percent, and … the June 1991 eruption of Pinatubo — a much larger eruption — had increased it even less.
    Yet hydrogen chloride levels had increased steadily between those two eruptions, despite the lack of any other explosive eruptions during the interceding nine years. …

    In March 1994, Singer repeated the now-refuted claim that the evidence
    [The evidence suggested] that stratospheric chlorine comes mostly from natural sources.
    (p 132)

    In September 1995, Singer served as a star witness in hearings in the US Congress, sponsored by Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher — on “scientific integrity." …
    [There is] no scientific consensus on ozone depletion or its consequences.
    [When Sherry Rowland was awarded] the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen for their work on the understanding of stratospheric ozone chemistry … Singer attacked the Nobel committee …
    Tom DeLay [Republican House Majority Leader, 2003-2005]:
    [My assessment of ozone depletion] is from reading people like Fred Singer.
    (p 133)

    What Was This Really About?

    [According to Singer the] "real" agenda of environmentalists — and the scientists who provided the data on which they relied — was to destroy capitalism …
    [That] environmental regulation was the slippery slope to Socialism. …

    To fight environmental regulation, Singer and Ray told a story in which science was corrupt and scientists could not be trusted. …
    Fred Seitz … in a 1994 Marshall Institute "report" on ozone depletion and climate change [implied] that CFCs couldn't reach the stratosphere [—] a claim even a freshmen physics major would know was wrong … much less a former president of the National Academy of Science.
    Patrick Michaels, an agricultural climatologist at the University of Virginia … reiterated the volcanic argument as late as 2000. (p 134)

    The Wall Street Journal kept up the drumbeat for several years with articles and editorials having titles such as “Bad Climate in Ozone Debate," and “Ozone , CFCs, and Science Fiction," “The Dreaded Ozone Hole," and, after the Nobel award to Rowland and his colleagues, "Nobel Politicized Award in Chemistry."
    (p 135)

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