Sherwood Rowland: when good science is not enough

If you want to spur action, you need a disaster - as the case of ozone-destroying CFCs shows.

If you want to spur action, you need a disaster - as the case of ozone-destroying CFCs shows.

After his death on Saturday, much will be written about chemist Sherwood Rowland's triumph in getting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-destroying chemicals banned. The truth about Rowland's story is a little less inspiring than the legend, however.

Rowland and his colleague Mario Molina published the first paper on the threat to the ozone layer in June 1974. It took thirteen years before the Montreal Protocol, limiting the industrial production of those chemicals, was finally ratified.

Those were extremely painful years for Rowland. His colleagues shunned him for his activism in support of a ban. Almost no university chemistry departments would have him come and speak for nearly a decade -- unthinkable for a chemist of his calibre. Twelve years passed without him being invited to speak to industry groups. James Lovelock, now practically a saint, thought Rowland was going too far: he called for a "bit of British caution" in the face of Rowland and Molina's "missionary" zeal for a ban on CFCs.

If the science establishment doesn't come off too well in that era, Rowland was not without fault either. It may have been in response to pressure from his colleagues, but part of the reason the ban took so long to achieve was that, at a crucial time in the debate, Rowland announced results that cast doubt on the case against CFCs before checking them thoroughly or offering them up for review by others.

In 1976, CFCs' defenders had suggested that the ozone-attacking chemicals might get mopped up by nitrogen in the atmosphere. They would then be rendered safe. Rowland entertained the idea and declared that his estimates of likely ozone depletion by CFCs had been between 20 and 30 percent too pessimistic.

The pronouncement threw the whole issue into confusion at an extremely delicate time. The US National Academy had been about to issue a report into what should be done about CFCs; now they said they needed more time. The Observer declared that the "Aerosol scare 'may be over'". Chaos ensued, and the scientists fell upon each other.

Two months later, Rowland had discovered a mistake in his calculations, but the damage was already done. Because of the confusion, the furore and the persistence of doubts, the National Academy eventually issued its report with significantly weakened conclusions -- so weak in fact, that the following day's New York Times reported the Academy as recommending a curb on aerosols, while the headline of the Washington Post screamed out "Aerosol Ban Opposed by Science Unit".

In the end, it wasn't the carefully-honed arguments of scientists that got CFCs banned. In 1985, scientists announced they had discovered an enormous hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. There was a public outcry and the politicians leapt to their feet. The Montreal Protocol was signed two years later. If there's a lesson to be learned from Sherwood Rowland's work, it's that science isn't enough. If you want to spur action, you need a disaster.

In fact, the scientists carried on debating CFCs long after the politicians had moved on. In 1992, five years after Montreal, a group of MIT scientists organised a scientific forum ahead of the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro. They invited Mario Molina to give a talk. But they scheduled a Brazilian meteorologist to talk first; to Molina's shock, the Brazilian declared to the assembly that the ozone depletion theory was a sham. If there was any depletion, he said, it was due to chlorine from sea spray and volcanoes.

In many ways, the cautious nature of science is its trump card, its ace in the hole. We trust science precisely because it has got things wrong in the past, gives ear to corrective viewpoints and slowly put itself right. But when something is important, we can't wait for all the scientific arguments to be resolved -- because, as the case of Sherwood Rowland shows, that can take longer than any of us can afford.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496