Mario Molina, who won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating the threat posed to the ozone layer by chemicals used in hair spray and refrigerators, passed away on October 7 at his home in Mexico City. His research helped spur one of the most successful multinational campaigns to tackle environmental risk. He was 77.
The Mario Molina Center for Strategic Research on Energy and the Environment, an environmental research and policy institute he created in Mexico City in 2004, confirmed his death, citing a heart attack as the cause.
Former Vice President Al Gore sent out a statement via email praising Dr. Molina, a naturalized American citizen born in Mexico, calling him a “trailblazing pioneer of the climate movement” and saying that his work “to understand and communicate the threat to the ozone layer changed the course of history.”
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are a class of compounds that Dr. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland of the University of California, Irvine, discovered would erode the ozone layer in the stratosphere. Because of their findings, environmental policies around the world were drastically altered. These findings had grave consequences, as an increase in UV radiation without protective ozone would endanger the health of numerous species, including humans.
Via legislative testimony and interviews, the two scientists advocated for a ban on CFCs, kicking off careers spent advocating for environmental causes based on scientific evidence. The business community pounced on their efforts, with one company’s president claiming that the Ministry of Disinformation of the KGB “orchestrated” the criticism of his company’s products.
The Montreal Protocol, an international environmental landmark that began phasing out the production of the chemicals in 1987, resulted from their efforts. Many substances depleting the ozone layer are also potent warming gases. Thus, the pact ended up having a positive effect in ways no one expected. The rate of climate change would have been significantly higher if the deal hadn’t been implemented.
The three men, including Paul J. Crutzen of Germany’s Max Planck Institute, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its announcement of the award that
“The three researchers have contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences.”
Dr. Molina testified before Congress in 2010, saying that climate change skeptics like to pick apart the areas of ambiguity in the field like a house of cards that will fall apart if you take away just one piece. Instead, he used the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle, where the picture emerges before all the parts are in position. His statement regarding global warming was as follows:
“There is little dispute that the overall image is clear – namely, that climate change is a serious threat that needs to be urgently addressed.”
On March 19, 1943, in Mexico City, Mexico, José Mario Molina-Pasquel y Henriquez was born to Roberto Molina Pasquel and Leonor Henrquez Molina. The Mexican ambassador to Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Australia was his father, a lawyer and judge. The breadwinner in the family, his mom, stayed at home to raise him. You can see here that on March 19, 2023. Google Doodle Celebrates the 80th Birthday of Mario Molina, the Scientist Who Revealed the Ozone Threat.
He recalled his early interest in science in an essay on the Nobel site-
“I still remember my excitement when I first glanced at paramecia and amoebae through a rather primitive toy microscope.”
With the help of his aunt, the chemist Esther Molina, he transformed a seldom-used toilet in his house into a laboratory for his chemical sets. In keeping with family customs, he attended a boarding school in Switzerland when he was only 11 years old “on the assumption that German was an important language for a prospective chemist to learn.”
In 1960, he enrolled in the chemical engineering department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, choosing science over his other interests—chemistry and the violin. He first went to school in France and then in Germany before enrolling in graduate school at Berkeley in 1968. In 1972, he went there to earn his Ph.D. in physical chemistry, and he succeeded.
He often reflected on how his time at Berkeley shaped him as a scientist and a thoughtful, politically engaged citizen. He had arrived at Berkeley in the wake of the free-speech movement. Since his early study and activities were in the relatively new field of chemical lasers, he later became “dismayed” to learn that other researchers at other schools were creating high-powered lasers for use as weapons.
“That was important,” Felipe José Molina, Dr. Molina’s son and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School said in an interview. Thanks to Dr. Molina’s experiences at Berkeley, his son said, he felt driven to do work “that had a benefit to society, rather than just pure research, or things that could potentially be harmful.”
Dr. Molina collaborated on the ozone depletion theory with Dr. Rowland and his lab group at the University of California, Irvine beginning in 1973.
As the CFCs rose into the upper atmosphere, where they were destroyed by solar radiation, Drs. Rowland and Molina understood that the chlorine atoms created would destroy ozone. “We were alarmed,” Dr. Molina recounted. In 1974, they released their research in Nature.
Later in his career, he had positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, San Diego, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. While working at the Molina Center in Mexico City, he concentrated on reducing the city’s toxic air pollution.
Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Dr. Molina connected with Luisa Tan, a chemist he met at Berkeley. They tied the knot in 1973, but by 2005 they had already decided to part ways. She is the current executive director of San Diego’s non-profit Molina Center for Strategic Research in Energy and the Environment.
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Guadalupe lvarez, who Dr. Molina wed in 2006, is a medical doctor. Along with his wife and son, he is survived by his three stepsons, Joshua, Allan, and Asher Ginsburg. Four of his six siblings, Roberto, Martha, Luis, and Lucero Molina, and two grandkids.
In 2012, Dr. Rowland passed away. Dr. Molina was described in his New York Times obituary as saying,
“But we started something that was a very important precedent: People can make decisions and solve global problems.”
The two scientists had doubted their ability to succeed in banning CFCs. “Never backed down from political pressure, always speaking truth to power, grounded in science and reason,” Mr. Gore, who won a Nobel Prize in 2007 for his work warning the world about climate change, said of Dr. Molina. He continued, “The world is a better place because of Mario.”