The Brilliant Inventor Who Made Two of History’s Biggest Mistakes

Based on Rowland’s original research in the 1970s, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that continued CFC production at the same rate would destroy 50 percent of the ozone layer by 2050. About a decade ago, an international team of climate scientists created a computer model to simulate what would have happened if the Montreal Protocol had not been put into effect. The results were even more disturbing than previously forecast: By 2065, nearly two-thirds of the ozone layer would have disappeared. In mid-latitude cities like Washington and Paris, just five minutes of exposure to the sun would have been enough to give you sunburn. Skin-cancer rates would have skyrocketed. A 2021 study by scientists at Lancaster University looked at the impact that continued CFC production would have had on plant life. The additional UV radiation would have greatly diminished the absorption of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, creating an additional 0.8 degrees Celsius of global warming, on top of the increased temperature caused by fossil-fuel use.

In his 2020 book on existential risk, “The Precipice,” the Oxford philosopher Toby Ord tells the story of a concern, initially raised by the physicist Edward Teller in the months leading up to the first detonation of a nuclear device, that the fusion reaction in the bomb’s fuel might also ignite a fusion reaction in the surrounding nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere, thus “engulfing the Earth in flame … and [destroying] not just humanity, but all complex life on Earth.” Teller’s concerns touched off a vigorous debate among the Manhattan Project scientists about the likelihood of an unintended atmospheric chain reaction. Ultimately, they decided that the world-engulfing firestorm was not likely to happen, and the Trinity Test went ahead as planned at 5:29 a.m. local time on the morning of July 16, 1945. Teller’s fears proved to be unfounded, and in the hundreds of nuclear detonations since, no apocalyptic atmospheric chain reactions have been unleashed. “Physicists with a greater understanding of nuclear fusion and with computers to aid their calculations have confirmed that it is indeed impossible,” Ord writes. “And yet, there had been a kind of risk.”

Ord dates the genesis of what he calls the Precipice — the age of existential risk — to that July morning in 1945. But you could make the argument that a better origin point might well be that afternoon in 1928, when Thomas Midgley Jr. and his team fox-hunted their way across the periodic table to the development of chlorofluorocarbons. Teller, after all, was wrong about his imagined chain-reaction apocalypse. But CFCs actually did produce a chain reaction in the atmosphere, one that left unabated might well have transformed life on Earth as we know it. Whether Freon was “altogether without harmful effects on man or animals,” as Kettering once claimed, depended on the time scale you used. On the scale of years and decades, it most likely saved many lives: keeping food from spoiling, allowing vaccines to be stored and transported safely, reducing malaria deaths. On the scale of a century, though, it posed a significant threat to humanity itself.

Indeed, it is reasonable to see CFCs as a forerunner of the kind of threat we will most likely face in the coming decades, as it becomes increasingly possible for individuals or small groups to create new scientific advances — through chemistry or biotechnology or materials science — setting off unintended consequences that reverberate on a global scale. The dominant models of technological apocalypse in the 20th century were variations on the Manhattan Project: industrial-scale, government-controlled weapons of mass destruction, designed from the outset to kill in large numbers. But in the 21st century, the existential threats may well come from innovators working in Midgley’s mode, creating new dangers through the seemingly innocuous act of addressing consumer needs, only this time using CRISPR, or nanobots, or some new breakthrough no one has thought of yet.

All of which makes it essential to ask the question: Was it possible for Midgley (and Kettering) to have swerved away from the precipice and not have unleashed such destructive forces into the world? And have we built new defenses since then that are sufficient to prevent some 21st-century Midgley from inflicting equivalent damage on the planet, or worse? The answers to those questions turn out to be very different, depending on whether the innovation in question is Ethyl or Freon. Leaded gasoline, which in the end did far more harm to human health than CFCs, was actually a more manageable and preventable class of threat. What should keep us up at night is the modern-day equivalent of CFCs.

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