Remembering John Hoffman, Ozone Defender and Climate Protector

John Hoffman, brilliant leader of the EPA team that saved the ozone layer, founder of the hugely successful Energy Star programs, and climate protection pioneer, passed away last week.  He was only 62 years old.  

While the battle to curb the ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons had many heroes, in my mind John stood head and shoulders above all.  The best book about saving the ozone layer is Between Earth and Sky, by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray.  They introduce him this way:

Hoffman possessed an ideal background for an EPA official:  a master’s degree in systems modeling from MIT, which combined course work in engineering, business, and urban planning with sophisticated computer programming. 

As a young EPA staffer in the early 1980s, John headed a small team focused on “strategic studies.”  This was early in the Reagan administration, before Anne Gorsuch and James Watt had been disgraced and dismissed.   It was not a hospitable time for thinking honestly about big environmental challenges.  But John had the courage to stay focused on things that would matter, and he undertook crucial studies of ozone depletion and global warming. 

I met John in 1984.  I had just brought an NRDC lawsuit to compel EPA to take action on CFCs under the Clean Air Act.  Our suit was to force EPA to follow up on its 1980 finding that CFCs endanger the stratospheric ozone layer and, as a result, public health.  One day my phone rang and John introduced himself.  He rather brashly explained that if we pressed our legal rights for a court order forcing EPA to make an immediate decision on CFC limits, “you’ll get the wrong answer.” 

I didn’t know it at the time, but John had already helped quash an internal EPA effort to revoke the 1980 science finding, which would have knocked the legs from under our lawsuit.  John confidently told me he needed two years to conduct a comprehensive new scientific assessment and to hold a series of domestic and international meetings designed to build a consensus for action among EPA’s senior appointees, other Reagan administration officials, and the governments of other nations.

His pitch struck me as both extraordinarily audacious and surprisingly dilatory.  Who was this guy with such a grandiose plan?  We had already waited years for action, and we had every reason to expect a forceful court-ordered deadline.  Now we were supposed to sit on our heels for another two years? 

But on reflection, John’s proposition made sense.  We had a better chance of getting the right answer if we gave them the time. 

So, we settled the case with EPA’s commitment to a “Stratospheric Protection Plan,” designed with his friend and colleague Stephen Seidel.  The plan, adopted into a court order, had three elements:  a timetable for the scientific assessment, a timetable for domestic and international conferences, and firm deadlines in 1987 for EPA to propose and promulgate regulations based on the information gathered.

That science assessment and those conferences proved crucial.  With full peer-review by the nation’s best atmospheric scientists, cancer specialists, and other experts, John and his team demonstrated that letting CFC production and use keep growing would lead to hundreds of millions of skin cancers, millions of them fatal, as well as millions of cataracts and immunological diseases, and untold damage to crops and natural systems.  John had an amazing ability to work across a wide range of disciplines, shifting seamlessly from debating discount rates with economists, dose-response functions with epidemiologists, and ozone depletion models with atmospheric scientists.  When push came to shove in the skeptical Reagan cabinet, John’s risk assessment carried the day over scoffers like Interior Secretary Don Hodel, who favored hats and sunglasses over a treaty to protect the ozone layer.

The domestic and international conferences, small and large, brought participants from governments, industry, and environmental organizations into productive dialogue.  These meetings narrowed disagreements on the science, revealed the existence of alternative chemicals, and moved towards consensus on effective policies. 

As I’ve written here, positions slowly changed.  NRDC and, later, the U.S. government proposed phasing out the CFCs and related chemicals.  The industry offered limits on growth and, eventually, conceded the need for a scheduled transition to new chemicals.

Fast forward to September 1987, when 24 industrialized nations signed the Montreal Protocol and agreed to a 50 percent reduction in CFC production over 10 years.  Shortly after, I recall walking with John through the corridors of one of the Congressional office buildings, lamenting that a huge opportunity had been lost, and that we’d be stuck with this half-way measure for a decade or more before the world came together on a full phase-out.  “You’re wrong,” John said, with characteristic certainty.  “We’ll be back at this and have that phase-out agreement within three years.”

Sure enough, driven by proof that CFCs were responsible for the Antarctic ozone hole – proof that came right after the Montreal agreement – the parties came together on a full global phase-out in the 1990 London Amendments, which brought in major developing nations as well as the industrialized countries.

John’s astonishing creativity did not stop there.  As far back as the early 1980s, John realized that climate change was the pre-eminent environment threat, and he began EPA’s work on strategies to slow global warming. During the George H.W. Bush years he also designed Green Lights, a voluntary program working with industry to deploy millions of energy-saving light bulbs.  This rapidly expanded into the suite of Energy Star programs – now run in the U.S. by EPA and the Department of Energy and by many other governments abroad – that have transformed dozens of consumer products and appliances, helping American consumers and businesses save huge amounts of energy and billions of dollars. 

The brilliant premise of Green Lights lay in helping companies see that something as mundane as cutting their lighting energy expenses could be a profit center.  The companies saved money at a high rate of return and earned EPA’s “green recognition” as well.  And with Energy Star, John took it to another level – building an EPA (and now also DOE) trademark that consumers can trust for products that save energy, save money, and protect the environment. 

John was the first to see the opportunity in the Energy Star programs for a new relationship between EPA and the private sector – a partnership based on sharing information on existing energy-savings technology, helping companies see the profit potential, and helping them re-organize themselves to seize the opportunity.  To be sure, EPA is business’s pollution regulator.  Through Energy Star, EPA demonstrated that it could also be a business-friendly partner. 

I’ve heard many testimonials to John’s influence on those who worked for him.  His vision, commitment and innovative approach to problem solving were inspiring and motivational. He was both a very demanding boss and a very compassionate colleague. He cared about the people who worked for him and helped many EPA employees advance in their careers and grow professionally.  John spent time getting to know those who worked for him and challenged people to set goals, work hard, deliver their best.  

And he became my friend.  Our families gathered for dinners or parties several times a year.  He’d call me at home and spend a half hour quizzing my then high-school daughter (now seeking her PhD in economics) on U.S. history, math, or whatever – and only when they were done would I find out he was on the phone.

The Talmud says that he who saves one life has saved the whole world.  John’s wife Lucinda and his daughter Alla can be immensely proud that their husband and father saved millions of lives.   

Update October 30th. A memorial service for John, scheduled for yesterday, had to be cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy, the huge storm made all the more deadly by extra ocean heat and higher sea levels. John would have appreciated the irony.

Related Issues
Climate Change

Related Blogs