Christine Todd Witless

It's an American tradition for incoming presidents to nominate completely unqualified individuals for cabinet posts. John F. Kennedy put Robert McNamara—the father of Ford's Edsel—in charge of the Pentagon. Ronald Reagan was something of a master at this practice, having installed James "I don't know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns" Watt as interior secretary and longtime political crony Edwin Meese as attorney general.

Now George Bush the Younger has made his own contribution to the cabinet Hall of Shame: New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman is his choice to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA enforces the nation's myriad anti-pollution regulations. For the past eight years, Carol Browner—an environmental attorney, former head of Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation and a staunch environmentalist —has headed the agency.

Whitman's tenure as governor had a decidedly anti-regulatory edge: in addition to naming state environmental policy "Open for Business," she dismantled numerous state pollution-monitoring and -reduction programs. It's also clear she doesn't understand environmental science.

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Consider the Dec. 21 New York Times article detailing what happened when a reporter asked for her assessment of global warming.

"Still somewhat uncertain," she told the reporter. "Clearly there's a hole in the ozone—that has been identified. But I saw a study the other day that showed that that was closing. It's not as clear, the cause and effect, as we would like it." Later, Whitman added that global warming and ozone depletion were "interrelated" and that she wasn't "sure that there's a scientific consensus on how to deal with them."

For environmentalists, Whitman's answer is extremely unsettling. Not only did she confuse ozone depletion with global warming—two very different and distinct problems—but she also grossly understated scientists' current understanding of both phenomena.

UC Irvine research professor F. Sherwood Rowland agrees. "The answer is a non sequitur," he said after listening to the Times quote. Rowland explained that while distant interrelations do exist between global warming and ozone depletion, the two phenomena occur independently of each other.

Rowland is in a unique position to comment on Whitman's statement, having been one of three research scientists to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for work isolating the damage chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) do to the planet's ozone layer. Currently the Donald Bren research professor of chemistry and earth system science at UCI, Rowland is one of the "environmentalist gods" so often derided by religious zealots and pro-business ideologues.

That's understandable, considering Rowland's pissant credentials. He earned his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Chicago in the late 1940s, having studied under such legendary physicists as Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi. His mentor was Dr. William Libby, who eventually won his own Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1960 for his development of the carbon 14 dating technique.

As such, he is uniquely qualified to give governor Whitman a much-needed lesson in atmospheric science.

"Ozone depletion is unrelated to global warming," said Rowland. "Ozone depletion allows more ultraviolet radiation, which causes skin cancer. It is all very well understood."

Simply put, the ozone layer is a natural shield protecting surface animal life from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation, which can cause skin cancer. The work by Rowland and his colleagues that earned them the Nobel Prize showed that CFCs, emitted for decades by air conditioners, refrigerators and aerosol cans, destroy stratospheric ozone.

As for the "study" Whitman mentioned concerning the ozone hole's eventual disappearance, Rowland explained that there is now consensus in the scientific community that CFC controls enacted over the past decade have finally begun to slow the release of ozone-depleting chemicals into the upper atmosphere.

Indeed, global agreements such as the 1987 Montreal Protocol have cut CFC emissions throughout Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States. But these gains have been partially offset by increased CFC emissions throughout Asia, particularly China.

"The ozone hole should go away permanently in the next 50 to 75 years," he said, explaining that the hole waxes and wanes naturally over the course of a year. "We've put a cap on [CFC releases], and now we have to let natural processes repair it."

That's ozone depletion in one very brief lesson. But global warming is something completely different.

"Global warming concerns the escape from Earth of infrared radiation," said Rowland. He explained that the buildup of carbon dioxide and methane in the lower atmosphere traps the heat released by the Earth like a greenhouse, heating the planet.

"It is a much more detailed subject than ozone depletion," Rowland said. "The complications are very elaborate. But there is no doubt that carbon dioxide and methane are increasing in concentration."

Rowland said it's common for him to hear people confuse ozone depletion and global warming. As for our future regulator, he said, "It just means the learning curve for her is very steep. It's only disconcerting if she hasn't learned better [once] she's confirmed."

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