Posted by: JohnnyRook | January 19, 2009

Cancer, Climaticide and Capitalism: “When will we learn?

In 1952 Joe Farman who was working in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, discovered a large hole in the ozone layer. Five years later, in an unusual show of international solidarity the Montreal Protocol was signed, which began the process of banning chlorofluorocarbons, the chief culprit in the destruction of the ozone layer.

What most people don’t know is how close the ozone crisis came to being an unmitigated disaster for the human race.

As Fred Pearce puts it in his fine book, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Cimate Change.

And things could have been a lot worse. “Looking back we were extremely lucky that industrialists chose chlorine compounds, rather than the very similar bromine compounds, to put in spray cans early in the last century, says [Paul] Crutzen. Why so? Bromine compounds make refrigerants that are at least as effective as their chlorine equivalents. But atom for atom, bromine is about a hundred times better than chlorine at destroying ozone. Pure luck determined that Thomas Midgeley, the American chemist who developed CFCs did not opt for their bromine equivalent. “It is a nightmarish thought,” says Crutzen, but if had chosen bromine we would have had something far worse than an ozone hole over Antarctica. We would have had an catastrophic ozone hole everywhere and at all seasons during the 1970’s before we knew a thing about what was going on.

If Midgeley had chosen bromine there would have been a worldwide epidemic of skin cancer before anyone caught on to what was happening.

More recently, scientists at the University of California revealed the existence [subscription required] of a very potent greenhouse gas, Nitrogen Trifluoride (NF3) that had not been included on the Kyoto list of regulated chemicals. According to Michael J. Prather and Juno Hsu, in their study, NF3, the greenhouse gas missing from Kyoto, NF3 has an atmospheric life of 550 years and the second greatest global warming potential (GWP) of all known greenhouse gases after Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). NF3 has GWP of 12,200, 16,800 and 18,700 at 20 years, 100 years and 500 years respectively.

As the authors explain, there is a lot more of NF3 around than there used to be.

Like other specialty chemicals, NF3 began as a niche product, in this case for rocket fuel and lasers. Now, it is marketed as a plasma etchant and equipment cleaning gas in the semiconductor industry. With the surge in demand for flat panel displays, the market for NF3 has exploded.

Current production of NF3 now exceeds that of SF6 and the PFCs. Additionally, the equivalent Million Metric Tons of CO2 (MMTCO2) for NF3 is now greater than some of the worlds largest and most GHG-polluting coal-fired power plants.

Table 2. Annual Production or Emissions of Greenhouse Gases

Equivalent Million Metric Tons of CO2 (MMTCO2) Equivalenta

2008 Worldwide Production
NF3 67

2005 Annex-I Emissions
SF6 35
PFCs 42
HFCs 232
N2Ob 1,130
CH4b 1,615
CO2b 15,128

3600 MW Coal-Fired Plants
Scherer (Georgia, USA) 25
Tuoketuo-1 (Inner Mongolia, China) 32

aMass weighted by 100-yr GWP.
bWithout land-use change and forestry.

Supposedly most of the production of NF3 is destroyed during the manufacturing process, but the scientists still find reason for concern

While NF3 is ostensibly destroyed during the manufacture of flat screen displays, this destruction cannot be complete. We expect that some fraction of the NF3 produced will escape to the atmosphere during production, transport, use, or disposal. The maximum potential release of NF3, assumed here to be its production, is equivalent to approximately 67 MMTCO2 (million metric tons of CO2, see Table 2). Thus, in terms of climate change, annual production of NF3 is now larger than emissions of PFCs or SF6 reported by the developed nations (Annex I) for 2005.

Experience with the ozone-depleting gas CFC-12 [Rowland et al., 1982] has shown that emission inventories from the chemical industry cannot be relied upon. Once released to the atmosphere, gases like CFC-12 and NF3 will take centuries to clean out. Given this potential, the production of high-GWP, long-lived, greenhouse gases like NF3 should be included in the national greenhouse gas inventories once global usage exceeds a threshold, e.g., 5 MMTCO2, no matter what the claim for containment. Returning to the intent of UNFCCC Article 3.3 (‘‘. . . policies and measures should . . . cover all relevant sources, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases . . .’’), it seems prudent to expand the list of greenhouse gases for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. [emphasis–JR]

The doubts raised by Prather and Hsu have been confirmed in a recent paper, Nitrogen trifluoride in the global atmosphere [subscription required] published by Ray F. Weiss and a team from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California

Background atmospheric abundances and trends of nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), a potent anthropogenic greenhouse gas, have been measured for the first time. The mean global tropospheric concentration of NF3 has risen quasi-exponentially from about 0.02 ppt (parts-per-trillion, dry air mole fraction) at the beginning of our measured record in 1978, to a July 1, 2008 value of 0.454 ppt, with a rate of increase of 0.053 ppt yr−1, or about 11% per year, and an interhemispheric gradient that is consistent with these emissions occurring overwhelmingly in the Northern Hemisphere, as expected. This rise rate corresponds to about 620 metric tons of current NF3 emissions globally per year, or about 16% of the poorly-constrained global NF3 production estimate of 4,000 metric tons yr−1. This is a significantly higher percentage than has been estimated by industry, and thus strengthens the case for inventorying NF3 production and for regulating its emissions.

What the ozone story, and now the NF3 story, illustrate are the similarity between our regulatory system for manufacturing and a game of Russian Roulette.

Joe Farman, the scientist who discovered the hole in the ozone layer, has expressed the problem quite clearly:

There are many more difficult environmental problems than the ozone layer. The lesson in a sense has been learnt and put forward. There’s a thing called “The Precautionary Principle” – which is, simply, in essence that you don’t invest big money in new industry until you’re really convinced that the thing is – I was going to say – safe. But then that’s the problem. You can’t prove something’s safe. All you can do is prove it hasn’t yet been shown to be dangerous. If something’s dangerous, you’ve only got to do one experiment and kill someone – to be really cynical – and that’s the end of the matter. You’ve proved it’s dangerous. But to say it’s safe – you’re so clever, you’ve thought of every possible way in which it can do some harm. And there just aren’t people like that. We can’t do it. CFCs, you have to remember, are substances which essentially were synthesised by man. And they haven’t been in nature before. People have forgotten it. Everyone knows the hole in the ozone layer is there, but it should horrify them. You know, this is something which man did in 15 years. And one simply has to say: if you invent something, let’s take it slowly until we’re reasonably satisfied we can’t see how it can be dangerous. And then you can start to build up. You mustn’t start to build up straight away. [emphasis–JR]

In the quote above Farman has identified a key problem with industrial development under any economic system–we quite simply do not know what the consequences of our inventions will be. As he points out, given that reality, we ought to move quite slowly and cautiously with all of our new inventions. But we don’t.

To quote Farman again:

There is still a lack of commitment to prudent long-term goals. We need to break the cycle by assisting new halocarbon-free and energy-efficient technologies to capture mass markets against competition from the obsolescent established giants. We should try to protect the ozone layer, combat global warming and assist developing countries by one-off investment wherever possible.

Such is our industrial capacity that we can, in just a decade or two, affect the world so severely that it may take a century or more to recover. This is what happened over ozone depletion, where we performed what in retrospect will surely be seen as an unnecessary experiment. That the consequences have not been more severe must be attributed to luck rather than good judgement.

When will we learn? [emphasis–JR]

Farman states that “there is still a lack of commitment to prudent long-term goals”. But how can that be, when it seems so logical to make such a commitment? It is because an economic system whose only true goal is maximum production, is by it’s very nature opposed to consideration of question of public safety. The system can be Capitalist or Communist, it makes no difference. Whether one is maximizing production in order to maximize profits or to satisfy the decrees of central planners, the system will inevitably be hostile to regulatory mechanisms which cannot help but be a brake on production.

The implications of the discovery of the Ozone hole or the potent GHG effect of NF3 are that there needs to be an on-going regulatory process for checking on the safety of new inventions.

In such a system, in addition to initial safety studies, all products would be subject to periodic, safety reviews by regulatory bodies in the light of the latest scientific knowledge. This regulatory process needs to be transparent, objective, and completely independent of the businesses whose products are being scrutinized. This means that there can be no tolerance of any non-professional contact between regulators and those whom they regulate. The principal goal of the economic system, as enforced by government regulators, would be the public’s safety and welfare.

Free market Capitalism needs to be tossed on to the same “dust bin of history” as the one on to which Communism was tossed. As recent events have shown us, it is a dangerous, duplicitous monster willing to sacrifice all standards of decency to the god of maximum production. Even regulated Capitalism, because of human greed and the concomitant tendency toward maximum production, is a potentially dangerous monster, always searching for a way to corrupt those charged with containing it, in hopes of casting off its chains and freeing itself of any moral restrictions.

It is a mantra for all business that “public safety is its number one priority”. With rare exceptions this is a lie. From the tobacco industry to mountain top removal, from William R. Grace in Libby Montana to TVA in Kingston, Tennessee, from the coal and oil companies to industrial agribusiness, the real goal of corporate business is to maximize production regardless of the cost to the public welfare.

Unregulated/minimally regulated Capitalism is a product of the 19th century, which saw the world as made up of discrete unrelated parts. The modern, ecological worldview, on the other hand, recognizes the interrelatedness of all things. In other words, in the ecological worldview one expects one’s actions to have unintended consequences because one knows that everything affects everything else and that, although we can do better than we currently do, it is impossible for us to anticipate all the effects of our actions.

One of the consequences of the traditional Capitalistic world view is it’s emphasis on compensation for harm inflicted rather than prevention. Yet, we now know that prevention of harm, although it slows down the maximization of production, is, in the long run more economical and more moral. It is often cheaper to prevent harm through regulation than to attempt to provide compensation for harm inflicted. Moreover it is certainly more moral, because many forms of harm are irremediable–the things or people damaged cannot be restored to their original state. Once a species is gone it is gone forever. Climate change beyond a certain point, is irreparable. Fatal diseases cannot be undone.

I have a personal interest in all of this because I am a cancer patient whose odyssey began with an environmental cancer, and whose doctors regard every day that I remain alive as a surprise and a mystery. I currently have secondary AML a form of leukemia for which all the treatments that I have received,have failed. My leukemia is the consequence of the treatment that I received for lymphoma a cancer known to be caused by environmental factors, even if we cannot say for certain which factors those are (I personally suspect the paper mill in the town that I grew up in, but that’s another story).

I appreciate all the efforts that have been made to cure me, but what I really would like is never to have had cancer at all. Our emphasis on maximizing production, however, means that little effort goes into prevention (by the way, I lived as healthy a lifestyle prior to my illness as one possibly could). Similarly, our precipitous rush to maximize production with its consequent opposition to regulation, as Joe Farman pointed out above in the case of the ozone hole, came close to killing off hundreds of millions of us. And today, in the most egregious example so far of our rejection of regulation in favor of maximized production, we are confronted with Climaticide, the sin qua non of uncompensatable infliction of harm.

So, by all means, let us add NF3 to the list of chemicals regulated by the Kyoto treaty, but if we are really serious about saving ourselves (from cancer, global warming etc., let us also institute a vigorous, independent and transparent regulatory system, a system of inspection, re-inspection and control, in which human and environmental welfare are the prime motivators. The Capitalists may go ahead and maximize production but only within the parameters of a public policy that we define, a public policy that puts our and the planet’s well being first. It is time to make Capitalism the servant of society rather than it’s master.

Crossposted at Daily Kos</em>



  1. Johnny Rook you are a great and wise man.

    And your life and cancer may be the perfect representation of our civilization. Humans – bound by scientific rules – may remain so deluded by political rules, that we may not prevail.

    This is a benchmark time of momentous change, an end of human history, or the beginning of serious survival struggles, but certainly radical change – whether by our hands or by our inaction.

    These are interesting times that deserve the kind of attention you give.
    Thank you for all that you do.

    • Thank you, Richard for your kind words and enthusiasm. Your commitment to solving the Climaticide problem is palpable and I am buoyed up every time I read one of your comments.

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