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Sound Science, Sound Policy: The Ozone Story

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Remarks by
Dr. John H. Gibbons
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology
Sound Science, Sound Policy: The Ozone Story
University of Maryland at College Park
September 19, 1995

Good morning. I'm delighted to be here to talk to a group that includes the next generation of environmental scientists and engineers. It's appropriate to be talking today to those who will be conducting research and developing policy in the future because what is happening now in Washington will shape your opportunities. This is Ozone Awareness Week and the ozone story is one of the best examples I know of sound science leading to sound policy. However, at the same time that we celebrate this success, investments in environmental science and technology are under attack in Congress under the guise of balancing the budget.

Achieving a balanced budget is also a priority for the Clinton Administration. We're in our third year in a new era of deficit reduction, and that hasn't happen since Truman was President. But this Administration is committed to balancing the budget while maintaining investments in the future, in education and science and technology. We believe that deficit reduction and wise public investment are totally consistent goals. It's no accident that industries that grew out of federal investment in science and technology -- industries as diverse as agriculture, aeronautics, computers, biotechnology and medical equipment -- today dominate the world's markets. In fact, economists estimate that over the past fifty years, innovation has been responsible for as much as half of our Nation's economic growth. Science and technology are key for a strong economy, for public health and safety, and improving environmental quality. We must continue a strong commitment to environmental R&D so we can better understand how the global environment -- our life support system -- actually works, and how to be wise stewards of that support system. Over the long-term this kind of investment pays enormous dividends to the people.

Let's look at an example of one such payoff - the stratospheric ozone story. I'm sure most of you know what ozone is -- a fascinating, highly reactive, unstable molecule consisting of three atoms of oxygen. Ozone occurs both near the Earth's surface -- where it is a major constituent of smog, and in the region of the upper atmosphere six to thirty miles above the surface. Paradoxically, while surface ozone is harmful to human health and the environment, the "other" ozone - that in the stratosphere - is absolutely necessary for life.

Research has been key to understanding stratospheric ozone which blankets the Earth and helps make it a liveable planet. Stratospheric ozone forms an invisible shield protecting us from the hazardous ultraviolet - or UV - radiation that streams towards the Earth continuously from the Sun. UVB radiation can directly harm people. For every 1% increase in UV-B radiation, there will be an about a 2% increase in non-melanoma skin cancer in light-skinned people. We currently have about 750,000 new cases each year in the U.S., of which between 1/2 to 1% will result in death. Increased exposure to UVB can also cause cataracts--already the 3rd highest cause of blindness in the US. Increased UV-B is also associated with decreased immune system response in all populations.

Without the Montreal Protocol and its amendments (international agreements to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals), we would be facing future increases of 40-50% of UV-B in the next century as opposed to expected peaks of 6-7% in the summer/fall and 13-14% in the winter/spring.

The story of how we reached these international agreements began twenty years ago when two research scientists, Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland, hypothesized that chlorofluorocarbon molecules (CFCs) are stable enough to diffuse to the stratosphere where the sun's ultraviolet radiation would split off the chlorine atom, whereupon each chlorine atom would act as a catalyst, destroying thousands of molecules of ozone.

Back then there was little but laboratory data to support the theory. No one had looked for an ozone hole in the sky- - we didn't even have the tools to try. There was no long-term record demonstrating that ozone levels were declining on a global basis. There were no satellite, aircraft or balloon-based measurements of trace gas species showing the intermediate steps in the process leading to chlorine-driven destruction of ozone. In fact, all we really knew was that CFC concentrations in the atmosphere had been rising and that a seemingly plausible, but unproven, hypothesis existed that chlorine from CFCs could destroy ozone.

CFCs were invented in the early 1930s as a replacement for hazardous compounds like ammonia then widely used as refrigerants. CFCs are odorless, extremely stable, relatively non-toxic and nonflammable. Not surprisingly their use quickly spread to a wide range of industrial and consumer applications, from refrigeration to aerosols propellants to foam products and eventually as solvents in the electronics industry.

Given the scientific consensus that now exists, it is hard to imagine the controversy that surrounded this theory two short decades ago. In part, this controversy was driven by the lack of clear and convincing evidence in support of the theory, but also largely because of concern that CFCs were critical to our quality of life and no substitutes existed to replace them.

How then did we quickly evolve from a politically charged situation in the late 1970s to today where 150 nations of the world have agreed to phase-out CFCs by the end of this year in all developed countries and soon thereafter in developing countries?

First and foremost, this issue has been driven by major and definitive advances in our scientific understanding. We have gone well beyond our rudimentary knowledge in 1974 of the impact of CFCs on ozone chemistry. While uncertainties remain, we are confident about the atmospheric processes that control stratospheric ozone and the role that CFCs and other chlorinated and brominated compounds have on those processes.

The most striking example of this concerns the so called Antarctic Ozone Hole. When ground-based and satellite data were first published showing the existence of this ozone hole, which opens in the Antarctic spring, the scientific community, not to mention the public at large, were taken completely by surprise. No models or theories had predicted any such phenomenon. At first, the scientific community was at a loss as to explain its cause. Was it due to CFCs, the result of some meteorological conditions, or was some other unknown factor at work here? Was the condition unique to Antarctica, to polar conditions in general, or likely to affect global ozone levels?

These were more than interesting questions for the scientific community to debate. Just about the same time news about the ozone hole surfaced in the scientific literature, nations were coming together to discuss what actions they should take to protect the ozone layer. But a definitive policy decision was dependent on a sound scientific understanding of the issue.

In what must be considered record time and with broad international and public and private sector cooperation, two major scientific campaigns were organized in 1987 and again in 1988 to collect data concerning the Antarctic ozone hole. Based on extensive field measurements, lab experiments and modeling, the consensus view emerged that CFCs cause the depletion of ozone over Antarctica.

This finding brought a sense of urgency to policy makers. As we all know, ozone is a global issue and requires a global response. Reductions in the use of CFCs in the United States -- even though the United States was the major source of CFCs -- were not going to solve the problem if other nations continued to expand their own use. Subsequently, a series of international scientific studies were conducted. These reviews began in the 1970s and were formally brought into the Montreal Protocol when it was signed in 1987. They have become the bedrock against which policy decisions are taken.

The original Protocol called for a 50% reduction in CFCs by 1998, but also called for periodic review of scientific and technology issues. The first such review was issued in 1989 and lead to the Parties agreeing that on the basis of new scientific information that even greater reductions were needed to protect the ozone layer, and that chemical substitutes had advanced enough to make practical the full phase-out of CFCs by the end of the century. I'd like to emphasize that extraordinary technological progress in developing CFC alternatives by the industrial sector permitted a faster phase-down. A similar process in 1992 led to agreement that CFCs would be phased out in the developed world by the end of this year. The recent 1994 international assessment of the situation confirms the soundness of the science and phase-out policy.

Let me summarize the evidence that is now very clear and broadly accepted by experts around the planet:

1. There is no doubt that the major source of atmospheric chlorine and bromine is from human activities (e.g., CFCs and Halons), not from natural sources such as volcanoes or sea spray.

2. There is no doubt that downward trends of stratospheric ozone are occurring at all latitudes, except the tropics, during all seasons. Extensive ground-based data and satellite data have shown that since 1970 ozone has decreased by about 5-6% in summer and 9-11% in winter/spring in northern mid-latitudes, and by 8-9% at southern mid-latitudes on a year-round basis. The weight of scientific evidence suggests that the observed mid- latitude downward trends of ozone are due primarily to anthropogenic chlorine and bromine.

3. There is no doubt that the spring-time Antarctic ozone hole is due to anthropogenic chlorine and bromine---based on combining ground, aircraft, balloon and satellite data, with laboratory data and theoretical modeling.

4. During periods of declining ozone, stations in Antarctica, Australia and mountainous regions in Europe, have shown that ground-level UV-B increases, as expected.

5. The rate of increase of atmospheric chlorine and bromine in the atmosphere has slowed considerably in the last few years, demonstrating the effectiveness of actions taken under the Montreal Protocol and its amendments. Even so, and if everything goes forward smoothly, the mid-latitude ozone loss and the hole over Antarctica are not expected to disappear until the middle of the next century.

While the story I have told so far shows science, technology, and policy moving forward in harmony, I must also report that recently a discordant note has been struck. Amazingly, there are those today on Capitol Hill who don't want to believe that the ozone hole exists, who won't trust the evidence of startling observations year after year showing a hole over Antarctica the size of the United States. Just last week, the World Meteorological Organization announced that the hole is beginning to open again, as predictable as Old Faithful. Within a few weeks, some 60% of the total overhead ozone will be depleted.

Even as the hole opens, Congress is holding hearings tomorrow to question the science of ozone depletion and the soundness of the phaseout. Incredible. The scientific community has spoken time and time again, with a virtually unanimous voice, that the phenomenon is real, and the problem is immediate and that fortunately, due to early action, effective chemical substitutes for CFCs are available. Industry agrees.

Yet, tomorrow, Congress will give a few vocal skeptics equal standing with the hundreds of scientists represented by the international assessments. Such ideologically driven attempts to paint a distorted picture of the scientific consensus on climate change and ozone depletion are highly regrettable. You can not wish ozone holes away. Refusing to face the facts won't change the facts. Healthy skepticism is an essential and treasured feature of scientific analysis. But willful distortion of evidence has no place at the table of scientific inquiry.

I firmly believe that the American people expect the federal government to support science and technology so that we can continue to discover, learn about, and deal with phenomena like ozone depletion. The American people do not want this country to put its head into the sand and hope that problems simply go away. They understand that ignorance is assuredly not the route to our salvation!

Congressional leaders have said they want to fully support basic scientific research. But their proposals to cut the funds for global climate change research - including funds for stratospheric ozone research - suggest their deeds do no match their words. For example, though over a trillion dollars of insured property along the U.S. Atlantic coast is vulnerable to sea level rise caused by global warming, Congress is proposing major cuts in the research needed to help protect this investment. Despite one of the worst hurricanes seasons in decades, scientific research at NOAA aimed at understanding climate is targeted for cuts of between 30 and 40%. NASA's Mission to Planet Earth, which combines satellite measurements with ground-based research and analysis in the first comprehensive study of the planet we live on, was slated for a $300 million (25%) cut next year by the House of Representatives. Fortunately, and due in no small part to the leadership of your Senator, Barbara Mikulski, the Senate has not gone along with this extreme action, limiting their cuts to $60 million.

Proposals to eliminate the National Biological Service and the Environmental Technology Initiative, eviscerate the Superfund research budget, and slash more than 40% of the funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy research rest on the same know-nothing stance as do proposals to gut the effective enforcement of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Unbelievably, just last week Congress attached riders on to the budget reconciliation bill that would disband all Department of the Interior surveying and mapping activities by October 1996. If enacted, it would end research on water quality, natural hazards, land use, and ecosystems. Does Congress really think we don't need maps to chart our way forward?

Although Congress continues to profess support for regulatory decision making based on sound science and credible economic analysis, their actions belie their rhetoric. They say they favor more risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis, yet they are cutting the very research programs that provide the scientific information required to do such analysis.

Not only does Congress not want to know some of the answers, they also don't want you to know. For example Congress has proposed to severely limit the public's right to know by limiting expanded information on chemical releases into communities. We think citizens have the right to know. The House Appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation even includes a rider prohibiting the labeling of tires for rolling resistance so that consumers won't know which will help them save gas -- and money.

But we know that lack of information is always more expensive in the long run. A successful market economy fundamentally depends on the availability of accurate information. We in the Clinton Administration believe that rather than putting our heads in the sand and blindly groping for short-term budget savings, we recognize and protect key investments for the future - investments that are just as important as debt reduction and will lead to real, long-term improvements in the economy, environment, health, and security.

Some crises in the global environment, like ozone depletion, climate change and loss of biodiversity have long time constants--on the order to decades to centuries to develop and, if they can be reversed, the time needed for recovery is much longer--on a time scale somewhere between human and geological time. Political time scales are more often on the scale of hours to days.

Rene Dubos recognized our focus on fast-changing or short-term phenomena as one of the great tragedies of humankind. Adlai Stevenson spoke about Americans in particular as "those people who never really see the handwriting on the wall until their backs are up against it." The crises I see developing cannot be solved by ignoring them. In fact, they will continue to grow worse as long as we refuse to address them.

Those of you sitting in this room will be part of the group that must address, and I hope, help us solve these problems. But we today must assure that you have the tools for that task tommarrow. If our nation is to be a leader in the 21st century, it must excel in education, science, and technology. The nations that are able to take advantage of new opportunities and that can respond to environmental and economic challenges will be our future leaders. They will be nations geared toward the future, not the past.

Many members of Congress are acting upon the general impression that government is inevitably intrusive and wasteful. This Administration disagrees. We believe that the government can be a force for good in the life of the nation -- that government can help create, for the future, a more perfect union -- and we will stand by that conviction no less fervently than the Founding Fathers. The lessons of stratospheric ozone: scientific discovery and analysis, innovative technology, invention of substitutes, and diplomatic agreements of cooperation between governments can combine to avert major planetary problems. Let us see this episode through successfully and apply its lesson to the other challenges that beset us. To do less would be to betray ourselves and our children.

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