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What's Flying Out The Ozone Hole? Billions Of Dollars

Economic Viewpoint


Get ready for a big hit on your wallet: On Dec. 31, 1995, production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as freon, the primary cooling agent in air conditioners, refrigerators, and freezers, will be banned, necessitating replacement or retrofitting that could cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

A colleague who serves on the board of a cooperative apartment building in Arlington, Va., recently received a notice from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urging owners of air-conditioning equipment to "act now and prepare for the phaseout of CFCs. Owners are advised to begin the process of converting or replacing existing equipment with equipment that uses alternative refrigerants." The estimated cost of retrofitting the 12-story building's air-conditioning system: $400,000.

Offices, shopping malls, hospitals, hotels, schools, supermarkets, colleges, churches, factories, and owners of homes, cars, refrigerated trucks, railroad cars, and ships all face expensive cooling-changeover costs.

Car air-conditioning repair costs have already exploded. What was once a minor expense can now cost as much as $1,000--more than fixing a failed transmission. Many home air-conditioning systems will have to be replaced when they lose their existing coolant.

Invented in the 1930s as safe, nonflammable, and inexpensive alternatives to deadly air-conditioning coolants, such as one that leaked and killed 100 people in a Cleveland hospital in 1929, CFCs were once highly esteemed. In the 1970s, however, they were demonized on the basis of speculative theorizing. Allegedly, CFCs percolate up into the stratosphere, release chlorine, and destroy the ozone shield against ultraviolet radiation from the sun, causing increased skin cancer among humans.

NO DEPLETION. H.L. Mencken said that "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Ozone depletion seems to be such a hobgoblin. Fred Singer, the University of Virginia scientist who invented the satellite ozone monitor, has noted that no global reduction of ozone levels has been detected. Moreover, measurements show a decrease in ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth's surface, and a recent study by Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist Richard Setlow published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that malignant melanoma is caused by a type of ultraviolet radiation not absorbed or blocked by ozone.

The evidence for ozone depletion is the hole in the ozone that has recently been noticed over the Antarctic for a couple of months a year. Whether or not CFCs are involved, most scientists regard the ozone hole as a purely localized phenomenon due to the exceedingly cold polar night that freezes nitrogen oxides (which inhibit chlorine chemistry) out of the stratosphere. When temperatures rise, the ozone hole disappears.

Other scientists believe the ozone hole is a natural and transitory phenomenon related to sea temperatures, volcanic eruptions, tropical wind patterns, and sunspot cycles. Actual historical readings of Antarctic ozone levels are inconsistent with the CFC buildup theory. Ozone levels in the 1960s and 1970s were twice as high as in the 1950s.

"DEADLY RAY GUN"? Whatever the true story turns out to be eventually, propaganda has prevailed over scientific fact up until now, and a government policy that is going to impose undue hardship on us all has run far in advance of the evidence. Vice-President Al Gore has portrayed CFCs as fiends that have turned the sun into a deadly ray gun that threatens all life on earth. "We have to tell our children," he shrilled, "that they must redefine their relationship to the sky, and they must begin to think of the sky as a threatening part of their environment."

Ronald Bailey, former producer of the Public Broadcasting System's TechnoPolitics program, dismisses the dire predictions of global disaster in his book, Eco-scam. Huge financial and bureaucratic vested interests are now interwoven with quack prophecies of ecological apocalypse. Last year, Princeton University scientist William Happer was asked to resign from the Energy Dept. for questioning Gore's apocalyptic line on ozone depletion.

Melvyn Shapiro, chief of meteorological research at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, says: "It's money, purely money. If there were no dollars attached to this game, you would see it played on intellect and integrity." But dollars are attached. In February, 1992, scientists at the National Aeronautics & Space Administration announced at a press conference the discovery of a second ozone hole, this one over the Arctic. It was nothing but a tactic to get some crucial NASA funding past Al Gore's Senate Committee: NASA retracted its "discovery" two months later. But by then, it was too late. A panicked President Bush had already pushed the ban on chlorofluorocarbons forward to 1995 from the year 2000--by which time the ozone-depletion hysteria would have abated under the growing pressure of evidence.PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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