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Chairman's Articles

“If not us, who? If not now, when?”

Wrong. Those were the words of a Nobel Laureate, in 1997. He was not inspiring the troops and ordering the march of the military to attack the enemies. He was, in a high level meeting of the scientists, urging the world community to march for the action against the common enemy: climate change! His discourse and his emphatic words had no shade of rhetoric and no shadow of grandiloquence. He was speaking with confidence emanating from the success of the Montreal Protocol.

Prof. F. Sherwood Rowland He was Prof. F. Sherwood Rowland, a chemist with a grit and grace. He not only sounded the alarm on the thinning of the Earth’s ozone layer and but crusaded against the use of man-made chemicals that were harming earth’s atmospheric blanket. He passed away on 10th March 2012. He laid his life at the age of 84 after saving all of us from one of the worst environmental catastrophe.

Prof. Rowland was born when the refrigerators were using absorption technologies and in some cases Sulfur Dioxide and Methyl Fromate as refrigerants. Soon the so called ‘Freons’ –CFCs were introduced. In a way, in his life, Prof. Rowland saw the ‘rise and fall’ of CFCs. His unwavering commitment to unfolding science, and grit to face inconvenient truths was displayed with unusual integrity and a grace of angel.

Atmospheric research of Prof. Rowland had its origin in his love for nuclear and atomic reactions- popular hunting ground of chemists at that time. Elements in seventeenth group of the periodic table have abundant cloud of electrons that engulf the nucleus of each of these elements. They were the favorite ‘ guinea pigs’ of the scientists. One of those elements was Fluorine- otherwise wonders element till humans manipulate it to chemically combine with some other elements. While working on the atomic dimensions of these elements, he stumbled upon the fact that some of the F-chemicals like CFCs have longer life and hence have potential to reach to Stratosphere-humanity’s barrier for the flood of UV-rays.

Rowland was among three scientists awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize for chemistry –nearly two decades after he, along with his post-doctoral student Mario Molina, hypothesized how the ozone is formed and decomposed through chemical processes in the atmosphere and if human use of chlorofluorocarbon, used in of aerosol sprays, deodorants and other household products was to continue at an unaltered rate, the ozone layer would be depleted after several decades.

I was studying Chemical Engineering in Indian Institute of Technology-IIT Mumbai, when the postulation of ozone depletion due to CFCs formulated by Prof. Rowland, Paul Crutzen, and Mario Molina caught enormous attention. It was a time in when Indian Chemical Industry was entering second phase of takeoff. The prediction of these scientists was strongly challenged partly because the non-toxic properties of CFCs were thought to make them environmentally safe. Then came the debate of the developed and developing country’s ‘common but differentiated responsibility’. I was fortunate to be part of that debate in which I took part at close quarters. Fortunate, because I was able to contribute to some extent in resolving the impasse by suggesting ‘ strategic cooperation’ between developed and developing countries. The technology and financial cooperation was initiated under auspices of United Nations Environment Programme –UNEP. Rest is the history of success that started with Prof. Rowland’s courage to speak on his scientific findings.

"Isn't it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn't it your responsibility to do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?" Rowland said in that White House climate change roundtable in 1997.

I recall very interesting and telling remarks by the Nobel committee while citing the coveted award to Rowland, Molina and Crutzen. It said, "It was to turn out that they had even underestimated the risk".

It looks like history repeats more in failures than in successes. Early warning on climate change by scientists is also being debated and argued for decades now. Implementation to save our earth from climatic catastrophe is still eluding us. There is ample support by the climate-scientists that the present assessment of the risk is even underestimated.

Prof. Rowland has departed but considering the underestimated risks, his words will continue to resonate:

“If not us, who? If not now, when?”


Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE, Former Director, UNEP

Rajendra Shende

Chairman TERRE
Former Director, UNEP