Thursday, April 20, 2006

Nice Dream

Patt Morrison has written a bizarre account of the history of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) regulation.

ONCE , IT ACTUALLY worked. About 30 years ago, science pointed its solvent-stained finger at something that humans were doing wrong, something that would kill us if we kept it up. And the politicians listened and said: Whoa — let's stop doing that.

It's 1973. A pair of UC Irvine scientists discover that the chemicals putting the spritz into deodorant and hairspray and the chill into air conditioning are chewing away the pancake-thin ozone layer that protects the planet from radiation. A year later they publish their findings. A year after that, Oregon bans the stuff, then the rest of the nation and Canada follow suit.

Bada boom, bada bing. Chlorofluorocarbons, RIP.
This is absolutely insane. The ban Morrison's talking about only applied to CFCs in "nonessential" aerosols (sales of which had already plummeted in response to news stories about ozone depletion). It didn't apply to CFC refrigerants or solvents, the use of which increased steadily throughout the decade and well into the Reagan years. Widespread calls for total phaseout didn't happen 'til the mid-1980s, and even then the goal was an eventual 50-percent reduction of five CFCs (from the much higher 1986 levels).

Morrison tries to present this as an exemple of politicians listening to scientists and taking their advice, instead of treating their findings as "opinion." But the nationwide ban on CFC propellants went into effect in 1978, when Carter was in office, and it was limited to propellants largely because of the lobbying efforts of the chemical industry. DuPont official Raymond L. McCarthy argued:
All we have are assumptions. Without experimental evidence, it would be an injustice if a few claims--which even the critics agree are hypotheses--were to be the basis of regulatory or consumer reaction.
CFC regulation effectively ended during the Reagan years; disgraced EPA chief Anne Gorsuch said in 1981 that the link between CFCs and ozone was "highly controversial." DuPont, the largest producer of CFCs, immediately discontinued research into alternatives. And Reagan's Interior Secretary Donald Paul Hodel was famously reported as saying that the best response to ozone depletion was to wear a hat and sunglasses.

There's also a plausible argument that the Montreal Protocol was successful only after DuPont had positioned itself to profit handsomely from the new regulations; the company itself acknowledges that after a certain point, adaptation was in its best interests, though it had previously been staunchly in the denialist camp.

All things considered, Morrison's picture of CFC regulation is a wee bit rosier than the facts justify.


Anonymous said...

Messy though the politics might have been, CFCs are now mostly banned, their concentrations in the atmosphere are decreasing, and it looks like the ozone hole may be healing.

So the overall story is: scientists listened to, they were right, moving toward solving the problem.


Phila said...

All true, and I'm happy about that outcome. But the messiness of the politics shouldn't be overlooked, especially since the strategies employed by the Reagan administration and by industry in the case of CFCs are still being used today (e.g., on the related issue of climate change).

Morrison's heart seems to be in the right place. But as someone who remembers all too well the endless stonewalling on CFCs, and the "personal protection plan" suggested by Hodel, I couldn't let her simplistic version of the story go. If DuPont hadn't folded, for whatever reasons - and if Gorsuch hadn't been driven in disgrace from the EPA - I'm not convinced we would've seen a phaseout anywhere near as quickly as we did.