Monday, March 12, 2012
It is sad to write about the death of F. Sherwood ('Sherry') Rowland who died last Saturday after suffering from Parkinson's disease. He was a true legend. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, together with his co-worker Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen. Their work alerted the world public of the danger to the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). A famous Nature piece published by Molina and Rowland in 1974 started passionate discussions throughout the 1970s and 1980s, leading to various policy changes which ultimately led to a ban on CFCs and other ozone depleting substances.
Andy Revkin in his obituary for the New York Times emphasizes Rowland's advocacy which was born out of a sense of urgency. He quotes Rowland's statement at a 1997 roundtable discussion of climate change at the White House:
"Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn’t it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’t it your responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?… If not us, who? If not now, when?"
It was above all Rowland who publicly engaged for ozone curbing policies, with support from others, to be sure. But as his great adversary of the time, James Lovelock, recognized, it was Rowland who was most active, determined, and inventive. He came up with practical policy proposals as the controversy unfolded, and even invented the powerful metaphor of the 'ozone hole'.
I was lucky to have interviewed Sherry for my book on ozone science and policy (Transnational Environmental Policy). I visited him in his office in Irvine where he not only gave me ample interview time (on more than once occasion), but also access to his office. He allowed me to spend one weekend there for research, giving me access to his private files. I often thought about this generosity ever since, especially in the light of recent revelations of rather secretive behaviour of some climate scientists. This is all the more remarkable as he did not know me at time.
His advocacy probably serves as role model for some activist climate scientists. There is one big difference. Rowland operated as individual scientist, not as part of a wider institutionalized body (such as the IPCC). He was an open advocate for CFC controls and did not hide behind 'the science'. He knew that there was controversy about the science and that his research was not shared by many, for quite some time. This did not deter him from making his case patiently, without trying to demolish his adversaries. And adversaries he had many, both inside and outside academia.