Widespread Misinformation on Strat Ozone History?

This will probably appear in a few places, so apologies if you see this more than once.

Andrew Dessler notes the following in the notorious recent article by Nisbet:

According to climate scientist Mike Hulme and policy expert Roger
Pielke Jr., climate change remains misdiagnosed as a conventional
pollution problem akin to ozone depletion or acid rain— environmental
threats that were limited in scope and therefore solvable. In these
cases technological alternatives were already available and the
economic benefits of action more certain—both conditions that allowed
policymakers to move forward even in the absence of strong scientific

and observes

It’s hard to believe one could get this many errors into two
sentences. First, there *was* a strong scientific consensus on both
of these issues — just as there is on climate. But more important
is the new false narrative that solving ozone depletion was easy
because we had the technology ready. That’s simply not true. I
e-mailed my colleague Ted Parson (U of Michigan Law School), who knows
everything about the history of ozone depletion,

Parson’s response is as follows:

Yes, the claim that Montreal Protocol was easy because there was a substitute in hand is simply wrong, and the detailed evidence showing why and how it’s wrong is in my ozone book. (Protecting the ozone layer: science and Strategy, Oxford Press, 2003) This is one of the half-dozen major things that “everyone knows” about the stratospheric ozone case that are simply erroneous.

Here’s the summary:

As soon as CFCs came under suspicion in 1974, any competent chemist could, and many
quickly did, figure out that there are a couple of dozen similar chemicals that would be plausible alternatives less destructive of ozone — the 1, 2, and possibly 3-carbon HCFCs and HFCs. A few years of research allowed labs at Dupont, ICI, Allied, Atochem, and a couple of other CFC producers to verify that there were possible synthesis routes for these, and to do preliminary investigation of the thermodynamic and other properties that would determine their suitability for applications formerly served by CFCs (e.g., to identify the vapor-pressure curves for those that were not already established). Du Pont issued a report in 1979 that said, more or less, that “these are possible in principle, but there are serious problems and obstacles with every one of them, they would cost twice as much as CFCs or more, and developing any of them as a serious CFC alternative would require ten years of research.” Most relevant audiences heard this message, as DP intended, as equivalent to “this would be really hard and uncertain of success”. The brief threat of comprehensive CFC regulation (which reared its head for a few months near the end of the Carter administration) receded in 1979-1980, and Du Pont and all the others stopped their alternatives research programs within a year.

The threat of comprehensive regulation came back in 1986. DuPont, asked to present what it knew about alternatives at an EPA workshop in mid-1986, repeated exactly the same message as they said in 1979 — after all, they had done no more research in the interim. But this time, due to some skilful spinning by environmental advocates and EPA officials, most people heard the message as “with several years of further development effort and a higher price, we could probably make some of these work.” This was not a big part in the forces that contributed to enabling serious control negotiations to proceed, but it did help a little. Du Pont and the other major US CFC producers and users also, through their industry association, cautiously endorsed mild international controls in an August 1986 announcement – something resembling a freeze at current emissions levels – but this was ALL about responding to scientific evidence for the risk, not a bit about availability of alternatives.

So the negotiations took off, with the US delegation advocating elimination of CFCs, and within 18 months we got the first Montreal Protocol with its 50% CFC cuts. Throughout this period, DP and the other US firms that had cautiously said “maybe a freeze would be OK” screamed bloody murder that they had never said anything about elimination or even 50% cuts, and that alternatives were not proven, let alone fully developed for specific applications. The industry perception through this period was very much that they were being punished for their good deed of accepting the need for some limited degree of regulatory control.

They kept shouting this until early 1988 — i.e., throughout the entire period of negotiating the Montral Protocol and the first few months afterwards — even while they ramped up their alternatives development programs at high intensity. There were no major breakthroughs in proving the viability of alternatives in any major CFC application through this period, nor were there by March 1988 when Du Pont reacted in panic to another high-profile scientific risk assessment (the Ozone Trends Panel) by announcing it would cease production of CFCs. The key breakthroughs – of which there were many, pertaining to particular chemicals in particular applications, no single blockbuster — came from early 1988 through the following couple of years, then kept on coming.

Key point: The crucial technological advances that demonstrated the viability of alternatives all came after, not before, the political decision to impose 50% CFC cuts — and the effort to generate these advances was motivated by the imminent threat of these regulatory restrictions — not the reverse. This is widely misunderstood and misrepresented — not just by those who are careless with the truth, but also by many who have read or heard the contrary claim and remember it because it just makes sense given people’s priors about regulation and corporate strategy. (For what it’s worth, the original in-print claim of the false alternative came from a 1993 paper in the journal International Environmental Affairs, in which a couple of researchers investigated the factors leading to the Montreal Protocol by interviewing executives at the British CFC producer ICI, and uncritically repeated what their sources told them — that DuPont had a secret breakthrough, so the US delegation pushed the Protocol through to use international regulation to advantage DuPont relative to its European competitors.)

So … You would do me, and rational management of climate change, both a big favor by brushing up on some tight talking points to rebut this nonsense whenever it comes up — which is often — and crediting my book when people ask how you know.

I have not read Parson’s book . Another instructive book on the subject is Ozone Diplomacy by Richard Benedick.

Update: RP Jr responds.


17 thoughts on “Widespread Misinformation on Strat Ozone History?

  1. Andy S says:

    Similar ideas to Nisbet's are expressed in the Hartwell Paper (page 15) where climate change is identified as a "wicked" problem, whereas ozone and acid rain are "tame" problems. A lot of the drivel about post-normal science and policy stems from this kind of analysis, it seems to me.Comparisons of scientific uncertainty and availability of technological solutions are not relevant, I think, to the distinction between the two sets of problems. It's the orders of magnitude difference in the scales of the threats–and the scales of the required solutions–that differs.

  2. But as I understand it, there was significant controversy until the Leesburg workshop about how badly CFCs would disrupt the ozone layer and how significant this would be in terms of melanoma incidence and suchlike. (see, e.g., Richard Benedick, "Ozone Diplomacy," Ch. 2 and Karen Litfin, "Ozone Discourses")According to Litfin a lot of the reason was that whereas the US, Germany, and Netherlands had lots of good atmospheric photochemists who could, as Parson writes, figure this stuff out easily, UK, France, and Italy were pretty short in that department, so their environmental chemists were less capable of working out the photochemical kinetics. As chemists from the US/Germany/Netherlands bloc started holding workshops with chemists from the UK/France/Italy bloc and teaching them how to think about stratospheric photochemistry, a consensus gradually emerged.Moreover, Litfin also writes that another big factor in producing consensus was reframing the problem from asking about melanoma rates in 2100 to ozone depletion for a stated CFC loading (this lesson was later applied in the IPCC process by working with climate projections along given emissions scenarios rather than trying to guess what the actual BAU emissions trajectory would be).So if Liftin's history is correct, then there was more dissension in the scientific community in the late 70s and early 80s than Parson suggests. Nevertheless, it's also significant that the US public immediately accepted the need to ban CFCs as aerosol propellants (in fact, market pressure drove CFC propellants out a few years before government regulation), but other nations (France, Australia, etc.) were far more reluctant on this score. Cagin and Dray's "Between Earth and Sky" quotes a Revlon executive saying that American women might accept inferior non-CFC propellants in their cosmetics, but French women would only accept CFCs.That said, it is true that there was pretty complete scientific consensus by the time the Vienna treaty was signed.As to technology to replace CFCs. Pielke's and Hulme's point makes sense despite Parson's point about the timing of DuPont developing HCFC replacements: CFCs had a total global market of something in the neighborhood of ten billion dollars in the early 80s. No matter how expensive replacements would be, banning CFCs would have a small impact on the entire global economy. This is completely different from CO2.

  3. The "wicked" vs. "tame" terminology mentioned in Hartwell paper is certainly of Hulme, which is described in more detail in his book "Why we disagree about climate change" published in 2009. I basically agree with Hulme in the following understanding. Even though the issue of ozone depletion is a real global environmental problem, it can simply be solved as a global environmental problem, without chainging the industrial-economic system of the 20th century world. That's "tame". The issue of anthropogenic climate change is also a global enviromental problem, but it cannot be solved just as such. We must change the industrial-economic system. That's "wicked". (Excuse me, I have not read Nisbet, and it seems to me that I do not need to read his writings.)

  4. I added a question mark to the title. I'm informed in email that RP Jr plans a rebuttal.I will say that there is little doubt that DuPont acted in DuPont's best interests at every turn. That is what publicly held corporations are supposed to do and there is nothing inherently scandalous about that, presuming they stay within appropriate bounds.

  5. Steve Bloom says:

    Wicked v. tame is just more of Hulme's usual unhelpful obscurantism. Large vs. small does very nicely.As has been noted elsewhere, the common thread connecting almost all of this drivel (thanks Andy S) is the Nathan Cummings Foundation. AFAICT Nisbet's report, while thanking NCF, neglected to mention the common history of NCF funding with at least two of the paid reviewers (I haven't checked all of them).

  6. Andy S says:

    Yes, the wicked/tame distinction is mentioned in Hulme's book but he gives the origin of the idea as Horst Rittel in 1973.Hulme and Pielke Jr were among the authors of the Hartwell Paper.To be clear, my "drivel" remark was aimed at the commentary around the Lisbon Conference, not at Hulme or Pielke. Although I must say that I failed to find anything that was, at the same time, non-trivial and true in Hulme's book.

  7. Andy S: Regarding wicked vs. tame problems. Don't you think there's a serious difference between a problem like CFC's, with a total US market of $1 billion in the mid-80s (0.02% GDP), and GHGs, where fossil fuels have a total US market of around $1 trillion (7% GDP)?For reference, the 2009 recession entailed less than a 2% drop in GDP and the Stern Review's estimate of the most likely cost of global warming on a business-as-usual trajectory is around 5% of world GDP.To me, the three-order-of-magnitude difference in economic impact between CFCs and fossil fuels is part of what separates tame from wicked problems.Don't get me wrong: It's imperative to curtail fossil fuel consumption. I'm only saying that it won't be nearly as easy or painless as eliminating CFCs and contrary to Parson, I continue to believe that quitting CFCs was quite painless for the average citizen of the world (or the US).

  8. EliRabett says:

    Jonathan, believe Eli, there are and were a ton of really good atmospheric photochemists in the UK then and now. If that is what Liftin is saying she simply does not know what she is talking about. Norrish and Porter practically invented modern photochemistry. The UK chemical kinetics community has always been tightly collaborative with their colleagues in Germany and the Netherlands with students going back and forth. British names you could drop which span the period since 1970 and before include Brian Thrush, Richard Wayne, Mike Pilling, Gus Hancock, Ian Smith, etc and their students. Oh yes, if no one else Dobson.

  9. Andy S says:

    Jonathan: There is a difference between the problems of GHG's and CFC's but I think that the this is quantitative rather than qualitative.On the other hand, I believe that it was Stalin, in WW2, who said that quantity can have a quality all of its own.

  10. Michael:Nice to see you, Eli and Chris Mooney all on the same page. I am sure it is not deliberate, but what Nisbet's done with his niche has sometimes degenerated to "the scientists, as a body, are always at fault." Framing is a meta-discipline, and you must teach by example.Jonathan Gilligan:What a great comment.

  11. Steve Bloom says:

    Jonathgan, the point is that the tame v. wicked rhetoric adds nothing other than an opportunity for people like Mike Hulme to have fun explaining it since no one knows exactly what it means. Unless, maybe, it refers to the Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch of the West, in which case many will be clear on it. Otherwise, not so much. If OTOH you really think it adds something that words like bigger and harder fail to encompass, please explain.There is an aspect of climate to which "wicked" might reasonably be applied (although I don't think it's what Hulme had in mind), and that is the aerosol-GHG balance problem that Jim Hansen just wrote about, but again in that case existing phrasing like "damned if we do, damned if we don't" works better.At risk of my continued sanity, I went ahead and skimmed the Hartwell Paper to locate the key passages:"Rather than being a discrete problem to be solved, climate change is better understood as a persistent condition that must be coped with and can only be partially managed more – or less – well."(…)"What makes a problem ‘wicked’ is the impossibility of giving it a definitive formulation: the information needed to understand the problem is dependent upon one’s idea for solving it. Furthermore, wicked problems lack a stopping rule: we cannot know whether we have a sufficient understanding to stop searching for more understanding. There is no end to causal chains ininteracting open systems of which the climate is the world’s prime example. So, every wicked problem can be considered as a symptom of another problem."Can only be? Impossible? IOW, the problem is undefinable and unfixable? Yeesh. I'm going to guess that these folks don't care much for the 350 movement e.g. But anyway, I'm happy to listen if you think you can find any glints of usefullness, Jonathan.

  12. @Eli: Thank you for the reality check. I was being an idiot. I was summarizing Litfin from memory and got some important parts completely wrong.I re-read it yesterday and Litfin's argument, more accurately, is both that (a) the US diplomats were paying more attention to the US scientists and the UK diplomats were not paying much mind to UK scientists; and (b) while both sides had some good scientists, the US had much better models so US estimates of ozone depletion were more consistent than UK ones."[Robert] Watson, along with a few others, perceived the need for greater international participation. … In particular, [according to Ralph Ciccerone] some of the scientists were 'getting very tired of what the British government was putting out'" which has the following footnote: "A good example are the reports written by the Stratospheric Ozone Review Group for the British government. … Five years after Rowland and Molina linked CFCs to ozone depletion, the British Meteorological Office speculated that ozone losses could be counterbalanced by carbon dioxide emissions." (Chapter 4, note 3)I don't think my errors undermine my main point which was, in many ways, more clearly stated by Benedick in his Chapter 2 (especially pp. 11-18 and 20-22): in the early years, the scientific predictions of year 2100 melanoma rates were all over the place and very inconsistent because of uncertainties in emissions trajectories and in the quantitative relations between stratospheric ozone –> ground level UVB –> melanoma.This is similar to the much greater uncertainties today between global temperature rise and impacts. The strong scientific consensus that Parson writes about emerged in part because of reframing the problem to focus on ozone depletion, not quantitative melanoma predictions.This is all a bit peripheral to the bulk of Parson's comment, which is about the science of CFC replacements, not the science of ozone depletion, but I wanted to acknowledge my error lest Litfin be blamed for my sloppiness.A final note: It occurs to me that the fact that there was so much more scientific uncertainty about ozone depletion, even in 1986 on the eve of the Vienna convention, than today about AGW, strengthens, rather than weakens, Parson's case that there is today at least as strong a reason to move forward with serious mitigation of GHG emissions as there was then with CFC emissions.From the mid-1980s, Benedick quotes a 1986 NASA study saying "disturbing detailed disagreements [between models and measurements] … limit our confidence in the predictive ability of these models." A 1987 NOAA report concluded that the "scientific community is currently divided as to whether existing data on ozone trends provide sufficient evidence … that a chlorine induced ozone destruction is occurring now." And Sherry Rowland saying in 1989, "statistical evaluation through 1986 gave no indication of any trend in global ozone." (all of these are from Benedick, p. 18)Compare these uncertainties—in spite of which a binding and successful treaty was signed and ratified—to the state of climate, where a clear temperature trend has been observed and tied, in the opinion of the vast majority of scientists who've studied it, to anthropogenic greenhouse gases.So regarding the scientific basis of claiming a human impact on the global environment, AGW has been on much more solid ground for the last ten years than ozone depletion was at the time of the Vienna Convention. But I do continue to think Pielke and Hulme have an important point that the policy question what to do about AGW is much harder than what to do about ozone. Eliminating fossil fuels is qualitatively a completely different game than eliminating CFCs was in 1986, largely for the reason Andy S suggests in his Stalin quotation: quantity can have a quality of its own.

  13. Clarification: in my last, lengthy, comment, I scrambled a sentence."This is similar to the much greater uncertainties today between global temperature rise and impacts" should read "This is similar to the much greater uncertainties today about impacts of climate change than about global temperature rise."

  14. Steve Bloom says:

    Jonathan: "But I do continue to think Pielke and Hulme have an important point that the policy question what to do about AGW is much harder than what to do about ozone."*sigh* Except that that's not really their point (although of course not in conflict with it). Go back and read the core argument I quoted. Let's put it in the form of questions:Is climate change a problem subject only to partial management, not solution?Is climate change not even subject to accurate definition?(This isn't a central point IMHO, but maybe you can explain what the hell they mean when they say that the "information needed to understand the problem is dependent upon one’s idea for solving it." Spin, wheel.)I understand the desire to be polite to your fellow academics, but at some point pseudointellectual claptrap need to be called out for what it is.(wv, suitably: rebust)

  15. Steve Bloom:You're right that my last didn't address your question. Climate change doesn't fit every aspect of Rittel's "wicked problem" but it fits many.We don't know what level of CO2 would be safe. 550 ppm? 450 ppm? 350 ppm? Since we don't know where thresholds may lie for runaway warming or other tipping points means that we don't have an immediate test for whether a given policy would solve the problem. It also stops us from learning as we go along by trial and error.Conversely, we know with reasonable precision that there is a threshold stratospheric chlorine concentration above which an Antarctic ozone hole appears, so there's a clear target for CFC abatement.Cutting global CO2 emissions to zero over the next 50 years would surely satisfy any criterion for solving global warming, but the harm this would cause in the poorest nations of the world—the very ones that are also most vulnerable to climate change—makes it impossible for me to see this as an unambiguously satisfactory policy.We are talking about applying big perturbations to two highly nonlinear systems that we understand only incompletely, both of which have significant inertia: the world climate and the world economy. With both climate and economy applying a perturbation and waiting to see what happens may mean, in the words of the Charney report, "waiting until it is too late."So I do see the climate problem as wicked: there are no easy solutions. There is no good way to tell in advance whether a given action's benefits are greater than its costs.But what the minimalist policy crowd misses is that this uncertainty applies equally to business as usual as it would to drastic GHG emissions curtailment. When a problem is wicked, there is no basis to conclude that doing nothing is therefore a satisfactory policy.To address the phrase that bugs you from the Hartwell paper: "climate change is better understood as a persistent condition that must be coped with" consider that even if we stop emitting GHGs immediately, what's in the atmosphere will remain for a long time. Moreover, as Hansen emphasizes, as aerosols precipitate out there will be significant increase in radiative forcing and thus an acceleration of temperature rise.Regarding the bit about every aspect of a wicked problem is a symptom of another problem: Poor countries are much more vulnerable to climate change than industrialized countries, so part of the climate change problem (vulnerability) is a symptom of the problem of global poverty. Greenhouse gas emissions are a symptom of problems with our energy supply. Pielke and Hulme would like to take these points and redefine the problem of climate change to be completely about other things, but I take a different tack: the wickedness is worth considering in that we have to consider the problem of climate change as fundamentally interconnected with these other problems.There are also important connections between feminism and climate change that there isn't room to go into here, but which mean that any policy regarding climate change needs to consider gender relations.I'm rambling, but the key is that to me wicked problems are defined in large part by the fact that they are fundamentally interconnected with other big nasty problems and require making tradeoffs between potentially sensitive things about which we have at best very limited predictive power.I don't want folks to read this in the spirit of what Albert Hirschman criticized as a the rhetoric of futility—that because it's a hard problem we can't do anything about it. On the contrary, because it's such a hard problem we need to work especially hard to solve it.But in comparison, solving ozone depletion was tame because focusing on one small industry was sufficient to both understand and manage the global threat.

  16. Steve Bloom: Two things that wouldn't fit in my previous comment that are very concrete aspects of how the wickedness fits into my work.When I work with feminist human rights scholars and activists regarding climate change and the third world, one thing that comes up frequently is the tendency for (mostly men) in the developed world to connect climate change with population growth in a way that threatens women's hard-won rights to control their own bodies and fertility.A second aspect: colleagues of mine who work on economic development and justice in the third world are concerned that mitigating greenhouse gas emissions not condemn poor countries to perpetually having lower standards of living than the highly industrialized world.Thinking about these problems beyond the disciplinary bounds of energy technology and atmospheric science (something the wickedness of the problem pushes us to do) allows us to try devising policies that might simultaneously address concerns for climate and concerns for economic and gender justice.One good example of this, which I did not contribute to, but which exemplifies this kind of thought is B. Ackerly and M.P. Vandenbergh, "Climate Change Justice: The Challenge for Global Governance," Georgetown Int'l Law Rev. 20, 553 (2008)

  17. Andy S says:

    I have changed my mind on the "wicked problem" issue, although not for the reasons put forward by Hulme Pielke Jr and co. I'm part of the way through Stephen Gardiner's new book A Perfect Moral Storm and am convinced by his argument that climate change is a qualitatively different kind of problem because it has the characteristics of a global scope, an intergenerational timescale and complex uncertainties. Humans do not posses the instinctive ethics nor the cultural conventions nor the institutions to deal with a problem of this nature.I'm more pessimistic than ever.

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