By Donella Meadows
–July 3, 1997–
You would think that if any publication would NOT receive letters enflamed with political opinion, it would be Hemmings Motor News.
This magazine for folks who like to restore, buy, sell, and ride around in classic old cars normally has a letters page studded with proud pictures of a reader’s spiffed-up 1946 Dodge fire truck, newly acquired 1987 Porsche 911 Targa, or mid-70s muscle car.
But there in last December’s issue is a letter that sounds like a replay from the Rush Limbaugh show. “From what I’ve read, the theory of ozone depletion is a hoax,” it starts. “When the US signed the so-called Montreal Accord, pop science won out over common sense.”
Ozone is of interest to car buffs because Freons or CFCs, the chemicals that eat up the ozone layer, are standard cooling agents in car air conditioners. By international treaty, new CFC production has been banned in the rich countries and must soon be phased out in the poorer countries. As a result, says the incensed Hemmings reader, the cost of a pound of Freon has risen from $1 to $45.
He goes on to say why he thinks ozone depletion “is a knee jerk reaction based on an unproven theory.” CFCs are heavier than oxygen, so they can’t rise to the stratosphere, where the ozone layer is. Human production of CFCs is just “0.02 percent of natural sources.” Ozone levels go up and down with sunspots and volcanic eruptions. Scaredy-cat environmentalists made up this panic, and big business went along with it in order to make a bundle on expensive CFC substitutes.
These arguments could sound reasonable if they were all you had ever heard. They would be all you had ever heard if you listen to just one narrow band of the political spectrum. The ozone situation is thoroughly documented in the scientific literature. I have never read or heard one practicing scientist anywhere in the world express doubt about ozone depletion (which this year in the northern hemisphere hit record levels). Chemical companies fought the CFC ban at first, but admitted more than a decade ago, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that human-made CFCs cause the depletion.
No other environmental problem is based on as firm a scientific foundation as ozone depletion is, and no other problem is so scary. Billions of years ago, before there was an ozone layer, life on earth was confined to the oceans, where creatures could hide from the sun’s powerful ultraviolet rays. Only after the ozone layer formed and filtered those rays, could earthlings creep up onto land. As that layer thins, the problem is not just human skin cancer, it’s damage to most plants and animals that lift any part of themselves above water during daylight.
Where does that Hemmings reader get his information, and what’s wrong with it? If you’d like a thorough answer to that question, check Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1996 book “Betrayal of Science and Reason.” The Ehrlichs have assembled the “brownlash” arguments fervently repeated by that narrow political band, traced them back to their sources (in every case non-scientific), and countered with the refereed scientific literature. Their section on ozone begins on page 141.
“Gases of the atmosphere are not layered like a lasagna,” the Ehrlichs point out. Heavy CFC molecules rise to the stratosphere because our swirling planet with its turbulent weather patterns constantly stirs its atmosphere. CFCs have been detected, says Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Sherwood Rowland, in “thousands of stratospheric air samples by dozens of research groups all over the world.”
The idea of “natural sources” such as volcanoes started with a brownlash book by Dixy Lee Ray, which was then further exaggerated by Rush Limbaugh. Ray and Limbaugh confuse CFCs, which are made in chemical factories, with hydrochloric acid, which volcanoes emit. The difference is solubility. Hydrochloric acid dissolves in water and quickly washes out in rain, rarely rising high enough to hit the ozone layer. CFCs are not soluble. They can hang around in the stratosphere for a hundred years.
CFCs are indeed a very minor component of the stratosphere, as the Hemmings reader says, but each CFC molecule can destroy hundreds of thousands of molecules of ozone. Even if all nations phase out CFC production according to the agreed-upon schedule, the ozone layer won’t begin to heal until 2025, and the ozone hole won’t close until 2060.
Unfortunately the agreement is being violated. Russia and some developing countries, among them Mexico, are making illegal CFCs and smuggling them into the U.S. Smuggling CFCs is now more profitable than smuggling cocaine.
Imagine the utter frustration of the scientists who have spent decades sorting out the chemistry of the ozone layer, sent sampling balloons up into the stratosphere, flown through the ozone hole taking measurements, conducted thousands of lab experiments, published their results in precise language, testified to governments, shepherded a world treaty that has half a chance of saving life on earth — and then who run into smugglers and skeptics who circulate rumors so numerous and so blatantly wrong that one hardly knows where to start correcting them.
“The cost of replacing CFCs worldwide could top $5 trillion,” says the Hemmings reader, without documenting that fantastic number. “Rational human beings do not base $5-trillion decisions on speculation and pop science.” More to the point, rational human beings do not endanger their health, their food crops, and all terrestrial species in order to have cheap coolants for their cars. Even beautiful, beloved, classic cars.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997