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The Journal Gazette

Monday, October 17, 2016 10:00 pm

The march of science - pretty cool

Christer Watson

Strong presidential leadership: What does it mean? People often use the phrase as code for using military force. However, I like to think of it a bit differently. Strong leadership means helping to guide the actions of other countries in a productive direction. We had a great example of strong leadership last week in the new agreement to set a limit on greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons.

HFCs are principally used in air conditioners and refrigerators. Briefly, they help move the heat from the inside to the outside. HFCs are used because they have several nice properties: They move heat efficiently, they don’t require excessively high pressure and they are generally safe (they don’t catch fire easily).

In a standard cooling cycle, the HFC fluid is kept sealed in strong pipes to ensure that it doesn’t leak into the air. If it does, then the air conditioner or refrigerator stops working. If a system breaks, however, it is easy for the HFC to evaporate into the air. When it does, it acts as a strong greenhouse gas, similar to carbon dioxide. Because HFCs are much less common than carbon dioxide, they account for roughly 1 percent of the total warming now, although most scientists expect HFCs would have increased significantly without the agreement.

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, it could be that you are remembering the debate about the ozone layer in the late 1980s. Back then, similar chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons, were commonly used in cooling systems. CFCs were found to be destroying the ozone layer, a part of the Earth’s atmosphere that absorbs cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation before it reaches the ground.

To prevent ozone layer damage, CFCs were banned from use and eventually replaced with HFCs. This process was mostly accomplished through a treaty called the Montreal Protocol, which was ratified by every country in the United Nations, including the United States. In fact, the Senate approved it 83-0.

So, CFCs were out because of the ozone layer and HFCs were their replacement. Now we are switching away from HFCs because of climate change. This dance of switching from one technology to another, and then again to another, is sometimes portrayed as confusion on the part of scientists.

I agree and disagree with this sentiment. Yes, in 1987, during the Montreal Protocol talks, scientists did not know everything possible about the science.

Not terribly shocking, really. As we learn more about a topic, we should change our behavior.

When Intel Corp. figures out how to fit more transistors on their microprocessors, they change their behavior. When Apple figures out how to make a more intuitive iPhone, they change their behavior. These are good things. Government regulations should be thought of in the same way.

I suspect the actual reason some complain about the change away from HFCs is that they don’t like that the change must be mandated by government regulation.

For example, when Todd Young, the Republican candidate for Senate in Indiana, describes his position on climate change, he emphasizes his opposition to government regulations.

The effort to portray scientists as confused is really just an effort to obscure our better understanding of the science.

So strong leadership in this case required the willingness to change course away from HFCs, and to lead other countries in that change. It’s a shame the opposition party hasn’t even seriously entered the debate on these issues. The first step would be admitting the ever-improving results from the science.


Christer Watson, a Fort Wayne resident, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.