Washington: Political Science


Last spring physicist William Happer found out what happens to federal scientists who ask the wrong questions. He was fired.

Happer, director of energy research at the U.S. Department of Energy for two years, was asked to leave at the end of May. Although he was a political appointee, he had expected to remain until his replacement was nominated, since the Clinton administration had asked him to stay on in January. But he was pushed out two months beforehand. "I was told that science was not going to intrude on policy," he says. Now the DOE's former chief scientist is back at Princeton.

Happer made the mistake of crossing Vice President Al Gore, the Clinton administration's ranking environmentalist. In April, Happer testified before the House Energy and Water Development Subcommittee on Appropriations. "I think that there probably has been some exaggeration of the dangers of ozone and global climate change," he said. "One of the problems with ozone is that we don't understand how the UV-B is changing at ground level, and what fraction of the ultraviolet light really causes cancer."

Happer's cautious testimony was at odds with Gore's alarmist views. "Like an acid," Gore warns in his tome Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, chlorine from man-made refrigerants called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) "burns a hole in the earth's protective ozone shield above Antarctica and depletes the ozone layer worldwide." Gore predicts that ozone depletion will damage crops and raise skin-cancer rates.

Gore's expectation is superficially plausible. Stratospheric ozone stops much of the sun's ultraviolet-B light from reaching the earth's surface, where excessive amounts can harm plants and animals. Sunburn is the type of UV damage with which most people are familiar. And recent satellite data indicate that ozone declined by 3 percent to 5 percent over the United States and Europe between 1979 and 1991.

But such a small decrease is hard to extract from the satellite data, since ozone levels vary widely depending upon seasons, latitude, and sunspot activity. (See "The Hole Story," June 1992.) For example, the amount of UV naturally reaching the ground in Florida is twice as great as that in Minnesota. A 5-percent depletion of ozone would increase UV-B exposure by the same amount as moving a mere 60 miles south. Few people worry about moving from Philadelphia south to Baltimore because of the resulting increase in UV-B exposure.

In any case, if stratospheric ozone is declining, more UV-B sunlight should be reaching the earth's surface. But there's no evidence that the planet is experiencing an increase in surface UV-B, and this is what puzzles Happer. "We have lots of lovely measurements of upper layers of ozone in the stratosphere, but when we look around at what we know about ultraviolet light, the data is very sparse and what data we have shows very little change," he testified. "If anything, it shows a slight decrease." Researchers have found that the amount of UV-B reaching the surface of the United States has declined by between 5 percent and 18 percent over this century.

What's going on? Perhaps UV-B is being blocked by industrial haze or an increase in cloud cover. Whatever the cause, it seems that such a contradiction between the satellite data on ozone and ground measurements of UV-B levels cries out for further investigation. At least that's what Happer thought.

"Why not measure directly the thing that worries you, which is UV-B at the surface, not just reductions in stratospheric ozone?" he asks. DOE, under Happer's direction, developed an Ozone Project to build an improved network for measuring UV-B at ground level. But Happer soon discovered that's not the way science works in Washington, D.C. He says the ozone alarmists in the Clinton administration "want to declare victory and make sure that no one second-guesses them."

Happer's problems were all the worse because he had earlier tangled with America's ozone czar, Robert Watson. Watson was the chief scientist for NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program and served as the head of the Ozone Trends Panel. He is also a favorite of Gore's. In his book, Gore praises Watson for his "steadfast work" on stratospheric ozone. And Watson has now reaped his reward: He has been nominated to become associate director of environment in the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy.

Happer recalls a run-in he had with Watson during a meeting last year of the Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering, and Technology, chaired by Allan Bromley, President Bush's science adviser. Watson made a scary presentation to the council in which he warned that ozone depletion would lead to perilous ecological problems and increases in skin cancer. Watson suggested that an "ozone hole" could open up over Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush's vacation home.

Atmospheric scientists think chemical reactions involving CFCs are responsible for the infamous "ozone hole" over Antarctica, a 50-percent drop in ozone levels during September and October. Chlorine released from CFCs destroys ozone in very cold stratospheric clouds in the presence of springtime sunlight over Antarctica. Ozone destruction stops once temperatures warm up, and ozone returns to near-normal levels during the summer months.

At the meeting, Happer angrily protested Watson's "exaggerations." He pointed out that during the Antarctic ozone hole the amount of UV-B light reaching the surface is far less than that reaching the surface at the equator. Happer noted that the richest fishing area in the world, just off the coast of Ecuador, receives "a thousand times more UV-B radiation than do the oceans around Antarctica during the height of the 'ozone hole.' Yet many of the same species of phytoplankton thrive in both areas with little or no apparent damage." Watson backed down from his most outrageous assertions. But this dispute earned Happer a powerful enemy.

Happer believes that others in Gore's coterie may have been out to get him. "I was told that [Kathleen] McGinty has an enemies list and that I was on it," says Happer. McGinty, a legislative assistant to Gore when he was in the Senate, is now the director of the White House Office on Environmental Policy.

Not only did Happer question the administration orthodoxy on ozone depletion, he also questioned how serious the biological effects of increased UV-B might be. "A thinner ozone layer allows more ultraviolet radiation to strike the earth's surface," Gore warns in Earth in the Balance. "Many life forms are vulnerable to large increases in this radiation, including many plants." But Happer notes that recent work at the Brookhaven National Laboratory shows scientists have been seriously overstating the harm that UV-B causes plants. The Brookhaven biologists exposed alfalfa seedlings to UV-B radiation and then measured the damage to the seedlings' DNA. They found that UV-B damage to the alfalfa was less than half that of the widely used baseline for UV-B damage in plants and between 10 and 100 times less than the damage found in a standard test using unshielded DNA. In a report published in the August 1992 Nature, they wrote: "Our results indicate that plants are not among the most sensitive biological targets" for UV-B. Consequently, the threat posed by reduced stratospheric ozone to plants is far less than the eco-alarmists have claimed.

This good news has not been greeted with universal acclaim. Happer says that one of the Brookhaven researchers "got anonymous phone calls late at night at home calling her a 'Reaganite fascist pig.'"

Happer describes the officially accepted approach to climate policy this way: "When you ask this gang overseeing ozone depletion and global warming how much two plus two is, they first ask,'Why do you want to know?' Then you say, 'Well, I'm interested in finding out what's happening to the ozone layer, and I thought the answer would help.' Then they say, 'Well, how much do you want it to be?'"

In the worst cases, science has been turned on its head. Instead of policy being guided by factual information, the facts are being forced to fit the policy requirements of certain politicians, bureaucrats, and activists. "With regard to global climate issues, we are experiencing politically correct science," Happer says. "Many atmospheric scientists are afraid for their funding, which is why they don't challenge Al Gore and his colleagues. They have a pretty clear idea of what the answer they're supposed to get is. The attitude in the administration is, 'If you get a wrong result, we don't want to hear about it.'"

Contributing Editor Ronald Bailey is the 1993 Warren T. Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. His book ECO-SCAM: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse was published by St. Martin's Press this year.