Where did the political will to ban CFCs come from? (II)

In the first of this series I expressed my incredulity at Reiner Grundmann’s position that industry players in the CFC regulation debate were acting in good faith, i.e., that they were acting on the basis of their understanding of objective evidence independent of their economic self-interest. Granted Grundmann was writing as part of “the UN Vision Project on Global Public Policy Networks” and therefore he himself was subject to his own bias — the need to argue that “public policy networks” can achieve agreements at least partially through their ability to persuade. But if you follow his “evidence” for DuPont’s “good faith,” you begin to wonder if he is an industry retainer. He acknowledges that DuPont acted as “spokesman” for the “core of the anti-regulation network” (p9). He notes that DuPont publicly “denied the risk posed by CFCs” but he counterbalances this fact (which he seems to give little weight to) with the assertion that DuPont “financed research which should produce knowledge about the very problem.” He evidently believes that all research is a neutral search for truth and that an employer’s business interest does not bias the researcher, because he emphasizes Du Pont’s good faith by concluding that “Du Pont tried to keep abreast with the latest state of the art knowledge, even recruiting scientists to the company.” (p9.) Possibly the most gullible explanation Grudmann credits is DuPont’s supposed rationale for beginning to cede ground on regulation; namely, so that it would not tarnish its brand: “As environmental manager of Du Pont’s Freon product division, Joe Steed, explained: ‘We couldn’t let the whole company get a bad name just because of those chemicals'” (p10; citation omitted). One needn’t point out that an “environmental manager” worrying more about the public image of the company than environmental concerns says more about the role of “environmental management” at DuPont than anything else. The fact is that no manufacturing company ever had a worse public image than the maker of napalm, agent orange, and any number of toxic and contaminating chemicals. It is almost a sure bet that anytime there is a significant product liability case for an industrial chemical DuPont is behind it.

But Grundmann describes DuPont’s role in this crisis just as DuPont’s own public relations people would have us believe they acted. In a one page “news background,” “DuPont and the CFC/Ozone Depletion Issue,” DuPont describes its role in these terms: “DuPont provided industry leadership, sought scientific understanding of the potential impact of the existing technology, responded to the rapid advances in the science, and developed alternative products.” In an unabashed attempt to contradict the record (even the description of as friendly and gullible a reporter as Mr. Grundmann) DuPont says: “With recognition in the early 1970s that CFCs were accumulating in the atmosphere, DuPont led the organization of an industry-sponsored research effort to gain a better scientific understanding of the environmental fate and potential impact of CFCs. When the possible role of CFCs in ozone depletion was recognized, DuPont established its own atmospheric modeling research program and helped focus the industrial effort in this area.”

This is quite different from the conclusions drawn from another business observer. In “Ethics of Du Pont’s CFC Strategy 1975-1995,” 17 J. of Business Ethics 557 (1998), Britte Smith comes to this conclusion about DuPont’s actions from 1975 through the 1986 signing of the Montreal Protocols: “Du Pont during this period led industry opposition to further CFC control, set up an industry group for that purpose, and made public statements denying that scientific evidence supported the need to reduce CFC outputs. Du Pont’s  behavior during this phase is similar to that of several petroleum companies in the 1990s with respect to the greenhouse effect” (at 560).

Smith’s description of Du Pont’s conduct is more accurate than Grundmann’s or DuPont’s own revisionist history. Consider how in 1975 Irving S. Shapiro, Chairman and CEO of DuPont since 1973, characterized to Chemical Week (16 July 1975) the concern that CFCs were depleting atmospheric ozone: “a science fiction tale … a load of rubbish … utter nonsense.” DuPont went on an all out advertising blitz that year taking out full-page newspaper ads in major papers asserting there was no science behind the ozone-depletion theory. If you were one of those scientists newly hired “to gain a better scientific understanding of the environmental fate and potential impact of CFCs” exactly how hard would you push to make the case?

DuPont had early began a campaign to vilify the two scientists who proposed the CFC-ozone depletion model, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland, whose article in Nature in 1974 initiated the investigation of the relationship. It would also garner them (together with Paul J. Crutzen) the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995. The fact that Rowland had been a professor of Chemistry for over 20 years (at Princeton, Kansas and finally University of California at Irvine) of course entitled him to no respect from industry scientists. “The two were viewed as something akin to renegades, traitors to their profession. Scientists and officials at DuPont, the world’s largest producer of the chemicals involved, were particularly caustic, suggesting there was something inherently wrong with their colleagues’ computer models.” (Froelich, “Ozone Hole May Be Omen: South Pole Discovery Worries Some Scientists,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 9, 1986.)

Of course as the founding member of the Fluorocarbon Program Panel of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (founded before the Molina-Rowland paper) DuPont didn’t have to make all the accusations against academic scientists itself; other manufacturers across the globe acted in lockstep. The CFC industry hired the world’s largest public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, who organized a month-long U.S. speaking tour in 1975 for British scientist Richard Scorer, author of several books on pollution, who attacked Molina and Rowland personally, calling them “doomsayers.” The industry as a whole attempted to vilify academic scientists as prostituting for grants. An industry publication in 1975 stated: “The whole area of research grants and the competition among scientists to get them must be considered a factor in the politics of ozone.” A publication by the libertarian think tank, The Cato Institute, founded by the notorious polluters the Koch brothers, claimed that NASA’s 1992 warnings of a potential ozone hole opening up over the Northern Hemisphere “were exquisitely timed to bolster the agency’s budget requests.” See Masters, “The Skeptics vs. the Ozone Hole,” in Weather Underground. Aside from the naked projection of greed, the statements never explained why environmental “doomsaying” warranted grants or budget increases over science that supported American industry (which gets by far the greater proportion of grants to universities).

Nevertheless, the industry began losing public support. Chemical Week, July 11, 1975, reported on declining aerosol sales in the US. Producers of aerosol products, as a result, began responding to customer anxiety. US News and World Report, September 29, 1975, reported that Johnson Wax Company had replaced the aerosol products in its line that used fluorocarbons and its spray cans thereafter bore the label: “Use with confidence; contains no Freon or other fluorocarbons claimed to harm the ozone layer.” Sherman-Williams discontinued CFC propellants as well (Chemical Week, July 16, 1975).

This seemed little enough customer pressure, however. And hardly enough either to cause DuPont to support CFC regulation or indeed cause the Reagan adminstration to appoint a strong advocate for regulation as its international negotiator on CFCs. How that came about, we’ll try to figure out in the next post.

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