Telling little green lies?

Thursday, November 23, 1995

The hole in the ozone layer has more to do with politics than deodorants, a French scientist tells Ian Phillips.

If there is one thing Haroun Tazieff believes in, it is speaking his mind. "When I've got something to say, I say it," he asserts. In the past, France's most famous volcano expert has raged about everything from the Mafia to television presenters, but in recent years he has found a new hobby-horse - the ecological lies he believes Green politicians have invented to scare the electorate into voting for them.

One of his favourites is the disintegration of the ozone layer by the infamous CFC gases. "It's a complete lie," he told me vehemently, when we met in Paris recently. "The ozone hole is a natural hole which appears above the Antarctic at the beginning of October and has disappeared by the end of December. In Europe, I think I'm the only person to refute it, and I have never been officially contradicted, neither by ecologists nor by scientists."

Yves Cochet, spokesman for the French ecology party, Les Verts, admits: "Although the majority of scientists say that DFC gases probably have a lethal effect on the ozone layer, nothing has been proved." He adds: "We are obliged to talk of an ozone hole in the media, because then people get a very visual impression, but of course, it is much more diffuse than that."

At 80, Tazieff remains as clear-thinking as ever. He argues that many of France's leading ecologists have no scientific background. A former boxer, he trained first as an agronomist and then as a geologist, which led to a lifetime study of volcanoes.

One of the founding fathers of the French ecological movement and a former minister for the prevention of major natural and technological risks, Tazieff is well qualified to talk about environmental issues. He has been adviser to most of France's environment ministers over the past decade.

Despite this he asserts that Green parties are running a "campaign of deliberate, untruthful scaremongering," and the imaginary problems they espouse have led to millions of pounds being directed towards "environmental windmills" rather than the real threats of pollution.

It seemed strange to Tazieff that an ozone hole situated above the Antarctic was blamed on CFC gases, when most deodorants were sprayed in the northern hemisphere.

He was surprised to discover an article in the 1950 Annals of Geophysics reporting the existence of ozone holes above Norway in 1926 - years before CFC's were even dreamt of - and was astounded to find that the hole above the Antarctic was not the recent phenomenon ecologists claimed it to be. It was actually discovered as far back as 1957, he says, by the English scientist, Gordon Dobson, but it was only in the mid-eighties that satellite photos began to highlight it in a rather spectacular way.

Tazieff believes that these dramatic images have been used to hoodwink the public. He believes that the hole is due to the low levels of ultraviolet rays (which are necessary to produce ozone) over the Antarctic at the end of the year, and that the large and swift movements of air masses around the continent also play their part.

On September 5, 1987, there was a relatively large reduction of 0.1 per cent in the levels of ozone over a surface of three million square kilometres near the Palmer peninsula in the Antarctic. Tazieff is convinced there is no way that the CFCs could have broken down so much ozone in such a short space of time.

Even if CFCs do have an effect, he asserts that it must be an insignificant one. After all, it is alleged that it is the chlorine in the CFCs which breaks down the ozone molecules. However, only 7,500 tons of chlorine are released from the breakdown of CFCs every year, against 600 million tons from the evaporation of seawater and 36 million from volcanoes.

What is more, the effect of chlorine is to break down the ozone into oxygen plus by-products, and it simply requires the presence of ultraviolet rays to transform the oxygen back into ozone.

Fiona Weir, atmosphere campaigner for Friends of the Earth, does not dispute the role played by natural phenomena, but insists there is also a massive man-made effect. She dismisses Tazieff's arguments as being out of date, and sees the ozone problem as more than a polar phenomenon, claiming that even over mid-latitudes, levels of ozone are being depleted by 3 per cent per decade. "That is absolutely untrue," responds Tazieff. These figures have not been proved, and there are more people that refute them than accept them. Large chemical companies wanted to keep their monopoly on the market. After half a century of being protected by patents, CFCs were on the point of falling into the public domain. To keep the whole of the pie themselves, what better way than to have them banned, requiring the use of a replacement gas, which is difficult to produce and thus remains exclusive to large companies which possess the technical know-how."

Ian Phillips, The Times, 14 October 1994