In 1974, two scientists at the University of California, Irvine, made a discovery that would change the course of history and our relationship to the planet.
F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina were studying chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs — chemicals then in widespread use as coolants in air conditioning systems and as propellants in aerosol spray cans. They found that when CFCs are exposed to sunlight in the earth’s atmosphere, they set off a chain reaction capable of rapidly destroying stratospheric ozone, which shields us from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays.
But outside of the scientific community, people had their doubts. Ozone concentrations fluctuate naturally from season to season and place to place. The high atmosphere is difficult to get to, and instruments to measure ozone had to be carried by balloons, aircraft, or earth-orbiting satellites, which in the 1970s were still in their infancy. Industry critics argued that the evidence against CFCs was too weak to support banning such useful and valuable chemicals — at the time, annual sales of CFCs were valued at over $5 billion in today’s currency.
The tipping point in public understanding came a decade later, when scientists found that stratospheric ozone over Antarctica had decreased sharply — by 40 percent in less than a decade — prompting widespread concern over skin cancer risk and demands for policy makers to take action. The findings were published in 1985 — just two years later, the United States led 55 other countries in signing the Montreal Protocol, an agreement that paved the way for a total ban on CFC production.
The story of ozone and public health casts scientists as vigilant and courageous heroes on a quest for understanding in the service of the public good. Society must again turn to scientists for solutions if we are to restore reason and calm to the crises facing humanity — from COVID-19 to climate change. The US failure to confront the coronavirus pandemic is a glaring example of what can go wrong when policy makers make decisions based on partisanship rather than scientific facts.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the implications of ignoring the science are far more dire and will have lasting and far-reaching impacts on human health, the economy, and national security. As with ozone, the scientific understanding is definitive and has been for years: Carbon dioxide emissions cause climate change. Now it is up to the public, the private sector, and policy makers to use this knowledge to take immediate action.
Scientists have been deciphering the ocean’s role in global climate, finding new tools to forecast hurricanes and droughts, and documenting the impact of climate change on fisheries, agriculture, and wildlife. We have a proven track record of identifying problems, from melting Greenland glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets to shifting currents and rising sea levels.
Scientists are also risk-taking innovators, eager to find solutions. In Massachusetts, scientists sparked the biotechnology revolution; our sonars guide New England’s commercial fishing fleets; our turbines power the country’s first offshore wind farm, off the coast of Rhode Island. We are partnering with New England fishers to measure warming in coastal waters and its impacts on commercially important species, helping the local industry adapt. The Massachusetts “Blue Economy” — led by coastal tourism and recreation — accounted for $6.4 billion in gross state product in 2018. Nationally, that marine economy figure is close to $373 billion.
Ocean waters have absorbed most of human-caused global warming and just under one-third of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities. Ocean scientists are tracking how much and how quickly carbon dioxide moves from the atmosphere into the surface waters, filtered down through the ocean twilight zone, and into the deep ocean, where it can remain sequestered out of the atmosphere for hundreds or even thousands of years.
We have linked the saltiness of ocean surface water to the likelihood of rain in the African Sahel and floods in the US Midwest. We fly airplanes into hurricanes to measure the effects of ocean surface temperature on storm intensity. And we are developing technologies to enable a “networked ocean” that — like meteorological stations on land — will provide crucial information about water temperature, biological activity, and currents in real time, around the clock, every day.
Science has no political party or partisan agenda. By definition, science seeks to avoid bias, remain independent, refute falsehoods, and seek answers based on evidence, reason, and consensus. America needs the calming influence of fact-based scientific reasoning. Our future depends on it.
Peter de Menocal is the president and director, and Richard W. Murray is the deputy director and vice president for research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.