Interview with Sherwood Rowland – Climate Change, Ozone, misleading Campaigns

Sherwood Rowland interview 2010Twenty five years ago, the discovery of the ozone hole above the Antarctic made waves. The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, which protects Planet Earth from 90% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, diminished. Only two years later, in 1987, the Montreal Protocol was signed. There would not have been a chance to stop this ongoing reduction unless some chemists had described the possible reactions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other substances with ozone in the 1970s. These findings by Paul Crutzen, Mario José Molina and Frank Sherwood Rowland, who all were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995, led to the Montreal Protocol.

At the Lindau Meeting I had not only the chance to listen to Sherwood Rowland’s lecture about “Greenhouse Effect and Climate Change”. I even had the opportunity to talk to the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry together with two young researchers from the Global-Young-Faculty

BL: Today 196 countries have signed the Montreal Protocol to ban the use of a range of chemicals which destroy the ozone layer, and it is predicted that if restrictions are followed, Antarctic springtime ozone levels could return to 1950s levels by 2080. In my eyes, this is the most successful environmental international agreement ever and it was a very fast reaction by governments.

SR: The Montreal Protocol has not been the first decision to ban chlorofluorocarbons. This is the ‘European version’ of the background. The point at which there was any discussion of action was a full decade before. In June of 1975, the state of Oregon banned the use of CFCs as aerosol propellants. At that time, about two-thirds of CFCs were used as aerosol sprays and one-third for refrigerators and more. In 1978, the rest of the United States and other countries in Scandinavia, namely Sweden and Norway, joined this ban. Until the article about the growing ozone hole in 1985, the Europeans mainly did not worry about CFCs. This is the opposite of the situation with global warming today – now Europe is promoting the cause and the US is dragging.

BL: A solution could be found quite easily for CFCs; one just had to change the chemical reagents.

SR: Yes, this was one of the key elements. We had good chemical substitutes for aerosol propellants. Alternatively, one could just use air pressure. These were the arguments that were being made by people like me. People in the industry were arguing that discontinuing the use of CFCs would cost up to a trillion dollars and result in huge damage for the industry. There was no limit to the cost that they could dream up.

But at least, arguing which propellant to use was rather trivial to society. One could replace CFCs and still use existing technology. This is quite different from having fossil fuels as our primary energy source for the whole world.

BL: Also, the evidence of the influences of greenhouse gases on our climate is well proven, as you clearly demonstrated in your lecture.

SR: It is really simple. Greenhouse gases are directly responsible for global warming because their molecules are able to absorb energy radiation into space from the earth. And when you block of the avenues of escape, you trap this energy down in the troposphere and directly warm the planet.

Everybody could understand this. So I don’t generally feel that the problem is a lack of scientific knowledge. There is a lack of public conviction. As the science of global warming has grown more certain over the last two decades, the attack on that science has grown more and more shrill. I recommend reading the book Merchants of Doubt (1). It should finally settle questions about the science of climate change.

The book tells about a special group of scientists and scientific advisers with deep connections in politics and industry running effective campaigns to mislead the public about the validity of certain scientific topics, beginning with tobacco smoke and moving to acid rain; the ozone hole; and climate change. These scientists worked to cast doubt about the science behind these topics. Some of these people were senior physicists who did not have expertise in the area of climate change, but they also did not have any expertise in the area of acid rain or smoking either.

In the 1970s, environmental groups started to become powerful. Around 1980, tobacco companies established think tanks of scientists to counter the growing environmental movement. Soon the fossil fuel industry also funded these think tanks at a very important level. This was the beginning of the misleading public information campaigns.

And there is another problem: the media. The habit of the media is that they want to have each position stated, which results in a false picture. They fail to get a clear understanding through.

BL: What do you do yourself to try to limit your CO2 production?

SR: I haven’t spent much time worrying about how I could be a good example and my lifestyle has not changed. I drive an automobile that gets 40 miles to the gallon, which replaced one that probably got 32 miles per gallon. And certainly since I fly to conferences and meetings like this, my carbon footprint is not trivial.

But when the first discussions came up about the propelling gas in aerosols, my wife’s and my reaction was to get rid of all aerosol cans – and that we did. It is much more difficult to take something out, for which there is not a ready substitute.

BL: Who should try to act then?

SR: It depends on the people who are convinced about climate change. There are strong environmental companies and groups. They have been present all along, but now they are much stronger and more widespread than they were two or four years ago.

And the competition in the US between business as usual and strong action is moving in the direction of doing something. For instance, the number of solar panels being installed in the US is now greatly increasing. Overall, the market for wind farms and solar cells is growing–and not just in the US. China, for example, is trying to go into the wind farm business which has been developed in California.

The question, ultimately, is whether countries as a whole change their habits by switching over to sustainable methods of energy production and reducing their energy consumption by using new technologies with higher energy efficiency.

BL: So protocols like the Kyoto Protocol aren’t that helpful?

SR: Well, the Montreal Protocol completely was! And it happened in a prime period. In the lifetime of an individual, it might seem that a long time passed between suggesting that we should control CFCs and actually having them controlled. Today, the measurements in the atmosphere show that the Montreal Protocol succeeded. But in this case, the society did not really have that much objection.


Florian Leese from the working group Climate of the the Global-Young-Faculty allowed me to upload his short video snippet in this post. The group particularly deals with the consequences of changing climatic conditions on biodiversity as well as with technical potentials and options for climate change mitigation and adaptation.


(1)Merchants of doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. By Naomi Oreskes und Erik M. Conway.

Beatrice Lugger

About Beatrice Lugger

Beatrice Lugger is a science journalist and science social media specialist with a background as a chemist. She is Deputy Scientific Director of the National Institute for Science Communication, NaWik – – and a consultant for this blog. @BLugger is her twitter handle, Quantensprung her own blog.

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