Monday, March 12, 2012

F. Sherwood Rowland (June 28, 1927 – March 10, 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.


hvw said...

I find it strange that Rowland's engagement to inform the public about climate change and to influence politics towards GHG emission reductions is not mentioned in this otherwise nicely written obituary here on Klimazwiebel.

@ReinerGrundmann said...


you are welcome to post Rowland's engagement with regard to climate change.

He did not strike me as a main protagonist in climate change debates, neither was climate change his main area of research. He was very much interested in questions of air pollution, examples are Mexico City and methane leaks from pipelines. In all these cases he made policy proposals that were practical. And he did the same the CFC case.

ghost said...

it was an important discovery... thank you for your really nice, personal post. I read a bit in your book about the ozone hole debate.

Therefore, I have a question, Reiner, because you are quite an expert. IMHO, the same people and organization who attacked Rowland during the Montreal process are also climate change "skeptics" now. The very same, like Singer, Seitz (who is dead) and other wingnuts and the corresponding "think tanks". Most ozone hole "skeptics" are also climate change "skeptics" and vice versa. Even the rhetoric tools are the same: scientists and alarmists want to destroy free market and democracy, the actions will destroy the economy, and the scientist want to have just funds, science is not settled,etc. Even the word "nazi" was used against scientists like Rowland and it is used today.

But, all the "ozone hole skeptics" were proofed to be wrong. All claims are proofed to be wrong. We still have a free market and the economy did not collapse, and Rowlands work is still valid.

Do you see also these parallels, too? Would you agree? And where do you see the differences, apart of the IPCC? Of course, the greenhouse problem is much more complicated because energy consumption is everywhere and necessary. And last: why should I listen to people like climate change and ozone hole "skeptics"? They were totally wrong before and it is clear now that they were only politically motivated. Where is the difference?

@ReinerGrundmann said...


some parallels are there, no doubt. But other sceptics have entered the scene who are different from the previous group, such as McIntyre and others, mainly operating in the blogosphere.

Another aspect is not parallel but worth thinking about. As this is largely a political controversy, in which scientific arguments are used as tools or resources, you should try to convince your opponent on the political level. Rowland was good at this, the activist climate scientists not so good. They rather follow the Monthy Python approach from The Black Knight which I posted some time ago. They should realize that you need to win over bystanders (and, perhaps, eventually opponents) not to "kill" your opponent.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Have a look at this NYT obituary. Especially the last two or three sentences should be required reading for those aspiring climate scientists who think they could inherit Rowland's legacy. Think again

EliRabett said...

The statement that Sherry was not very politically involved is strange, given the pivotal role he played in getting CFCs banned from aerosol containers in the US, the International Ozone Commission and in the establishment of the Montreal Protocols.