Harnessing Human Ingenuity to Save Our Planet—and Ourselves
The world recently saw the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer unfold on the big screen. Christopher Nolan’s film made accessible to large swaths of people both Oppenheimer’s genius and the horrors that flowed from his achievements.
Oppenheimer is not alone in the annals of history. Other scientists enlisted by governments or corporations to meet difficult challenges have seen their genius change the course of history, seemingly improving it, but ultimately causing great death and destruction.
On this Mount Rushmore of infamy, front and center sits Thomas Midgley, Jr. Far less famous than Oppenheimer, Midgley made two incredible and ubiquitous inventions that brought comfort, safety, and ease to everyday life, with deadly long-term effects. In fact, there is perhaps no single person more responsible for climate change than Midgley. And as we recognize World Ozone Day and Climate Week, Midgley and his inventions – and his genius – are on my mind.
Midgley was a renowned 20th century mechanical engineer and a brilliant inventor, widely praised and granted some of the most prestigious awards in his field. His first major invention was leaded gasoline. Early cars suffered from an annoying “engine knocking” that bothered motorists and threatened the success of the automobile industry. Midgley realized that adding lead to gasoline would eliminate this grating noise, and he and General Motors set out to make a fortune by doing just that. Never mind that lead was a known toxic element that poisons humans and damages their brains, and never mind that cars and trucks would eventually account for nearly 15% of the total carbon emissions leading us to the brink of catastrophic climate change.
In the 1920s, Midgley was called into the booming business of refrigeration. He was tasked with finding alternatives to ammonia and other gases that had been used in refrigerators since the late 1800s. Most of them were flammable or explosive, and people commonly kept their refrigerators in their backyards as a safety measure. Midgley worked with Frigidaire, General Motors and DuPont to search for a substitute that would allow for “air conditioning” to be safely used in homes and automobiles. The “miracle compound” he eventually discovered was dichlorodifluoromethane – the very first of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – and most commonly known by its brand name “Freon.” It worked well, was neither toxic nor flammable, and it soon took off. By 1935, eight million refrigerators using Freon had been sold, and these man-made “cold boxes” were now a wondrous purveyor of the dream of an advancing lifestyle.
Unfortunately, Freon and all other CFCs turned out to have devastating effects on our planet. So do their sister refrigerants, hydrochlorofluorocarbons. All of these compounds are potent greenhouse gases as much as 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And all of them devastate our ozone layer. By 1985, scientists discovered that the ozone layer over Antarctica had lost more than 30% of its thickness due to these refrigerants and the connection between ozone depletion, increased sun exposure and skin cancer was becoming increasingly clear.
World Ozone Day commemorates the day in 1987 that countries all over the world signed the Montreal Protocol, coming together to start to phase out production of Midgley’s harmful gases.
Writing the Next Chapter of the Story
We can and should continue to remember inventors like Oppenheimer and Midgley and tell their stories as cautionary tales. We can and should use them to ask questions about technology and science and the responsibility that comes with new inventions. We can and should use them to develop moral guidelines for inventors moving forward.
But is that all we can learn from them? Are these the only lessons to draw from these infamous inventors?
On this World Ozone Day and during Climate Week, I propose that we think about Oppenheimer and Midgley and focus on what scientific genius can achieve if we set our minds to it. Not to absolve these historic figures of their sins. But rather, to save ourselves.
Climate change is wreaking havoc on our world and causing unprecedented death and destruction. Refrigerant gases are responsible for about 10% of the historic greenhouse gas emissions that have caused global temperatures to rise. Moreover, the world is literally littered with appliances and equipment and cylinders and cans filled with ozone-depleting, climate-heating refrigerants. Indeed, while we started to phase out production of Midgley’s refrigerants in 1987, many countries still rely heavily on these gases and do not plan to completely phase them out until 2040.
And we simply don’t have time to wait.
Without refrigerant management and a global transition to environmentally-friendly technologies, the impact from the eventual release of these gases (and other refrigerants) is estimated to equal more than 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide between now and 2050.
And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. We are experiencing the hottest temperatures in history, and access to air-conditioning (the source of warming) will be needed to save lives—at least in the short term.
Human ingenuity is unbounded. Oppenheimer invented and tested the atomic bomb in less than four years. The U.S. used tremendous resources and scientific brilliance to see the Manhattan Project to a rapid conclusion with huge impact on the entire world. In less than a decade, Midgley helped invent both leaded gas and Freon. General Motors found ways to finance and profit from both inventions in record time and with tremendous success.
Why don’t we act at these levels of ingenuity and intention to mitigate climate change and save our planet?
The answer is that we can and we should. We are smart enough and creative enough. We have both the intelligence and the ingenuity to invent new ways of doing things that can change the world quickly. And if we have the will, we can unlock the inventions that will become the script for a movie about the next brilliant scientist or global, collaborative effort that changes the world—one we hope our future generations will be proud to reflect on.