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 #152  

October 1996

 

The Real Danger from Ozone Hype

 

by Dr. Thomas P. Sheahen

 

Vice President Al Gore has accused the Republican Congress of waging "jihad" -- a holy war -- against the environment and of employing "Stalinist" tactics to silence "real science." At the center of the controversy is federal policy on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), man-made chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners, whose production must stop by the end of this year.

Why does Al Gore resort to such intemperate language to describe critics of regulatory excess? Perhaps because he has staked out such an extreme position on environment in the past and his position is now at risk of being exposed as fraud. As a U.S. Senator, for instance, Gore pushed for the ratification of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the international treaty to ban substances like CFCs. He did so despite the fact that there was no solid evidence that CFCs had any impact on stratospheric ozone levels. There was only an incomplete theory suggesting that CFCs might cause such depletion.

It is well to remember that the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three professors who pioneered the study of man-made effects ozone layer. The prize was not given to Al Gore and the hypesters who inflated that research into a doomsday scenario, thereby rationalizing government intervention. The reality is that the ozone-CFC relationship is a chemistry problem with over 150 variables, and nobody has the definitive answer. Methane, ice crystals, sulfate aerosols, and other chemicals all contribute to the complexity of the problem. The Nobelists would be the first to agree that the question is by no means settled.

During the campaign of 1992, Gore promoted the "ozone hole over Kennebunkport" scare. Though the hole never materialized, it led directly to the decision to speed up the phase-out of CFC production by five years. Predictably, Gore's book, "Earth in the Balance," gave credence to such environmental hoaxes as blind sheep and rabbits in the Antarctica, supposedly caused by increased levels of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation as a result of ozone depletion.

Ill-informed editorial writers have been quick to echo the Vice President's charge, vilifying such champions of regulatory common-sense as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Representatives John Doolittle (R-CA) and Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) for giving a hearing to both sides of the ozone debate. The New York Times, for example, railed against these "conservative critics" and warned its readers to ignore "dissident scientists." Never mind that these "dissident scientists" include many of the nation's senior scientists, such as Dr. Frederick Seitz, the former President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

"Dissident scientists" is a term from the old Soviet Union, where courageous scientists took a stand against an intolerant regime. Similarly, America's "dissident scientists" are frequently targets of smear campaigns led by extreme environmental groups and advanced by their allies the media and now by Al Gore himself. Apparently, it is easier to go after the messenger than to dispute the message. As any good trial lawyer knows, when your client is guilty, attack the police department to divert the jury's attention.

It is Al Gore, not the Republican Congress, who is attempting to squelch science. What Gore and his allies are really worried about is that there is still no good evidence of ozone depletion and no evidence at all for a long-term upward trend in UV levels. The public is starting to get wise to this fact. Therefore, they are attempting to confuse the public -- and a good many journalists -- by mixing up unproved global ozone trends with the well-established localized ozone hole, which is simply a temporary thinning in the Antarctic region every October.

A quick "reality check" using actual numbers is helpful. Even if the feared depletion of ozone did occur it would raise UV levels by only 10%. But the natural increase in UV levels in moving from New England to South Texas is 300%. This is because the sun's rays pass through the earth's atmosphere at an angle (which equals the latitude) and in this way the "thickness" of the atmosphere (and ozone layer) is effectively greater at high latitudes, and is thinnest at the equator. A 10% increase would translate then into a move of about 60 miles to the south -- Washington to Richmond, for example.

The incredible thing is that for this potential "threat," still unsupported by data, the nation will be forced to spend upward of $100 billion for a campaign to get rid of CFCs (freons) used as a refrigerant, halons used to fight fires, carbon tetrachloride used as a solvent and methyl bromide used as an agricultural fumigant. Surely more good could be accomplished in some other way with this money.

Vice President Gore should be worried, but for a different reason: He and his party may pay a high price at the polls when people find out they can no longer buy freon for their cars and will be forced to pay between $200 and $800 to get their cars retrofitted for freon substitutes. These costs will fall particularly hard on disadvantaged Americans, who simply don't have the money.

 

Dr. Thomas P. Sheahen is a research physicist concerned with environmental issues, and is President of Western Technology, Inc. of Derwood, Maryland.

 


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