The congressional ozone follies

October 16, 1995|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON -- The latest Nobel Prize in chemistry confirms that 1995 is shaping up as a vintage year on Capitol Hill for the denigration of knowledge.

Prior to the Nobel, announced last Wednesday, the legislators killed their own think tank, the Office of Technology Assessment, and also voted to terminate or financially cripple several government agencies that collect information about environment and health. Now still playing out is the latest episode, the ozone follies, starring an improbable legislative foray into the triumph of chemistry that won the big prize this year.

Congress and chemistry don't usually intersect. But the old ways are changing. Influential Republicans have attacked the research that explains the depletion of the Earth's ozone shield and the ensuing risks of skin cancer and other maladies. Citing financial burdens on business, the doubting legislators want to roll back the laws that were passed just a few years ago to head off the dangers.

Scientific validation

The recently announced chemistry Nobel honors the scientists who identified the cause of ozone depletion -- Mario Molina, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, F. Sherwood Rowland, of the University of California, and Paul Crutzen, of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. They discovered that when chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), standard coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners, leak out, as they often do, they rise heavenward and destroy ozone molecules that shield the Earth from the sun.

The research, dating back to the 1970s, evolved from a scientific curiosity into a worrisome problem in 1985, when a big hole in the ozone layer was discovered over the Antarctic. Fearing that it would spread over heavily populated areas of the globe, the world got together, and in a remarkable demonstration of cooperation, agreed in 1987 to phase out the use of CFCs over a decade or so and develop safe substitutes.

The response to the ozone problem, embodied in what's known as the Montreal Protocol, is thus a great triumph of international environmental collaboration. So it would seem. But then came the new Republicans and their anti-regulation Contract with America.

Legislation that would end American compliance with the Protocol and its amendments was introduced by Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the Republican House Majority Whip. As part of a campaign to discredit mainstream scientific research on the ozone problem, Mr. DeLay recently testified at a House hearing unexceptionably titled: ''Scientific Integrity and Public Trust: The Science Behind Federal Policies and Mandates.''

''The science underlying the CFC ban,'' said Mr. DeLay, a former businessman, ''is debatable.'' The agreement to terminate the use of CFCs, he added, ''is the result of a media scare.'' He acknowledged the existence of the ozone hole, but expressed confidence in the recuperative powers of ''Mother Nature.''

Another author of legislation against the ban, Rep. John Doolittle, Republican of California, said that the CFC-ozone link is ''still very much open to debate.'' Several scientists testified that the research identifying the link had recently been reviewed and endorsed by some 300 scientists with relevant expertise, working in universities, industrial firms and government laboratories around the world. With flying colors, the research had passed ''peer review,'' the standard of quality control in science, it was noted by a congressman supporting the CFC ban. The opposing Congressman Doolittle, a lawyer, was unimpressed. ''I'm not going to get involved in peer-review mumbo-jumbo,'' he said.

Other supporters of the ban stressed that the scientific dissenters were few in number and had scant track records in the relevant fields of research. The opponents responded that scientists who disagree with the establishment line are denied research funds and opportunities to speak out, though they didn't offer evidence to support their claim of a blackout on dissent.

Thanks, no thanks

The chairman of the hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, a great skeptic of the CFC ban, appeared keenly interested and said he would hold another hearing to explore the accusations of suppression.

A couple of weeks later, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in announcing the Nobel Prize in chemistry, praised the three recipients for having ''contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences.''

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of Science & Government Report, a Washington newsletter.

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