Quietly, Now, Let's Rethink The Ozone Apocalypse

In this space one year ago ("What's Flying Out the Ozone Hole? Billions of Dollars," June 13, 1994), I raised questions about the scientific basis for the expensive phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as freon, the primary cooling agent in air conditioners, that leaves the U.S. and other world economies facing large near-term costs. The column generated a tremendous response. Businessmen wrote to me from as far away as India asking why policymakers are permitting an unproven theory of ozone depletion to impose such heavy costs on the global economy.

It is a good question--and one that is finally beginning to get some response from lawmakers now that the ban on CFC production is only six months away. Representative Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has introduced a bill, H.R. 475, to repeal the provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act that regulate the production and use of CFCs. Representative John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) has asked Administrator Carol M. Browner to revise the Environmental Protection Agency's outdated 1987 cost-benefit analysis in light of new scientific evidence.

The fear of deadly skin cancer, malignant melanoma, is the reason for phasing out CFCs. The public and lawmakers have been told that CFCs destroy stratospheric ozone, which filters out ultraviolet-band (UV-B) radiation. According to an EPA prediction, ozone depletion will result in an additional 3 million skin-cancer deaths by 2075.

BASELESS HYSTERIA. S. Fred Singer, the scientist who invented the satellite ozone monitor, recently wrote in Technology: Journal of the Franklin Institute that the CFC phaseout was "based mainly on panicky reactions to press releases...rather than on published work that has withstood the scrutiny of scientific peers." And Sallie Baliunas, an award-winning astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote in a paper, "Ozone and Global Warming: Are the Problems Real?": "The scientific facts clearly indicate, first, that there is no observational evidence that man-made chemicals like CFCs are dangerously thinning the ozone layer over most of the world and, second, that the kind of ultraviolet that would be let through by a thinner ozone layer, UV-B, is not the UV that causes melanoma. On two counts, the hysteria and costly regulations are entirely unfounded."

Interested readers can obtain Baliunas' paper from the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington. She makes the facts accessible and does not equivocate: "There is no observed change in global ozone concentrations or mean temperature that is outside the bounds of natural variability. There is no scientific merit to the claim of an ultraviolet catastrophe by precipitous ozone loss. There is no scientific basis for a catastrophic global warming produced by the buildup of greenhouse gases from fossil-fuel burning." She believes the next step could be extremely costly and unjustified fossil-fuel and carbon dioxide restrictions.

MEDIA HYPE. The ozone scare appears to be based more on hypothesis than on fact, and no fear is too farfetched to be enlisted as a weapon against CFCs. Melanie Duchin of the Greenpeace Ozone Protection Campaign even links ozone-destroying chemicals with "reduced penis size." Gregg Easterbrook, in his new book, A Moment on the Earth, documents the role played by unsubstantiated press releases. In February, 1992, NASA scientists spread fear that an ozone hole was opening over populated regions of the U.S. and Europe. Time magazine hyped the scare to the hilt with a cover story, "Vanishing Ozone: The Danger Moves Closer to Home." Vice-President Al Gore gave an impassioned Senate speech about "the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced." Duly panicked, the Senate voted 96-0 to accelerate the CFC ban by five years.

As Easterbrook notes, it was a speculative apocalypse, not a real one. When I criticized NASA for its scare tactics, Associate Administrator Charles F. Kennel denied that NASA had predicted a second ozone hole. A case could be made that the media ignored NASA's hedged language and ran away with the story, but no one at NASA lifted a pen to correct the phony scare sparked by the press release or to forestall the Senate vote that fear and misinformation propelled.

Dr. Singer believes that ozone policy rests on unproven assumptions that are being protected by such means as denial of research funds to dissenting scientists and the muzzling and dismissal of government scientists who demand evidence before implementing an expensive policy. If we are to be well-governed, Congress must take an objective look at ozone depletion before we experience the biggest tax increase in history.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE