Remembering Dr. Mario Molina: Scientist, Nobel Laureate, and Climate and Clean Air Hero

The CCAC remembers Dr Molina for his advocacy for fast action on climate and as an early proponent for reducing short-lived climate pollutants. His scientific legacy will continue to inform our work.

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Mario Molina presents the compelling reasons to take fast action on short-lived cliamte pollutants at COP21, Paris, 2015.

Mario Molina was eleven years old when he decided to become a research chemist. As a child he converted a bathroom into his own little laboratory, using toy microscopes and chemistry sets, then looked up to the sky and saw not only beauty but the fragility of all things.

During his post-graduate studies in physical chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley he said he saw how science and technology can impact society after seeing chemical lasers being weaponized, and resolved then “to be involved with research that was useful to society, but not for potentially harmful purposes”.

He didn’t know it then, but his work would have profound real-world significance for humanity. In the 1970’s as a post-doc at University of California Irvine, Dr. Molina played a pivotal role in discovering the threat chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases played in depleting the Earth’s ozone layer, which protects the planet from incoming solar radiation.

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Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland at the University of California, Irvine, January 1975 (Photo University of California, Irvine)

Dr. Molina’s extraordinary career illustrates many important themes: the value of basic science and the power of persistence. In 1974, when he and co-author Sherwood Rowland published their findings, the scientific community pushed back, but Dr. Molina and his colleagues pushed harder. Dr. Molina spoke out with confidence and clarity over and over until his warning was clear. He did not give up until the nations of the world signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which has successfully phased out Ozone Depleting Substances and put the stratospheric ozone layer on a path to recovery. In 1995, for their work CFCs Mario Molina, Sherwood Roland and Paul Crutzen were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Montreal Protocol is regarded as the most successful global environmental treaty ever.

Without Mario’s efforts, CFCs would have continued to destroy the ozone layer, and the incoming solar ultraviolet radiation would have led to countless cases of skin cancer, macular degeneration, cornea and conjunctiva cancer, while also suppressing our immune systems, damaging wildlife, and the environment.  In sum, his work saved millions of lives, and kept many millions healthy.

Dr. Molina’s work over the last couple of decades has helped focus global efforts to speed up climate action and was foundational to the work of the CCAC.

Concerned about crossing climate tipping points that could lead to abrupt change with potentially irreversible and unmanageable consequences, his 2009 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences set out a roadmap for fast mitigation under the Montreal Protocol and other venues to solve the problem. The paper looked at strategies to reduce ‘short-lived non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases and particles’ and defined ‘fast action’ to include regulatory measures that can begin within 2 to 3 years, be substantially implemented in 5–10 years, and produce a climate response within decades. Goals that would be at the heart of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition when it was formed three years later.

Mario Molina’s early involvement in the Climate and Clean Air Coalition laid the foundation for the strong scientific basis that informs our work.
Helena Molin Valdés
Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat

The Coalition is now the only international body working on integrated solutions to reduce ‘short-lived non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases and particles’ – or as they are now known short-lived climate pollutants. And it is working with countries to put in place policy and regulatory measures to implement action in the next 10 years. The Coalition has become a venue for countries and non-government partners to advocate for and work on solutions to rapidly reduce the rate of warming in the near-term.

The Coalition’s partners were instrumental in pushing for a ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down hydrofluorocarbons. Dr. Molina was confident that the protocol could speed its existing control measures and expand them to include other climate pollutants such as nitrous oxide. He also believed the protocol was a model for other targeted treaties that could address the other short-lived climate pollutants. As a member of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Scientific Advisory Panel he generously contributed his time and wisdom to ensure that States will have the best science available on fast mitigation strategies to act to avert an irreversible climate crisis.

Mario Molina passed away suddenly on October 7, 2020, from a heart attack. He was hard at work right up to the end, updating his 2009 paper to show how close the world is to a catastrophic hothouse, and to select strategies that can avoid the most warming in the shortest period of time.

Mario Molina was a brilliant scientist, a tireless advocate, and a gentleman who was always gracious. In times when humanity is being hit by a global pandemic and a climate emergency, we should let his spirit illuminate our path to act at the scale and the speed that we need to reduce climate impacts and build a more just and equitable world.

Many of those who work with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition have reached out to express their condolences and remember Dr. Molina’s life.

Helena Molin Valdés, Head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat, said: “Mario Molina’s early involvement in the Climate and Clean Air Coalition laid the foundation for the strong scientific basis that informs our work. He showed how addressing short-lived climate pollutants are a necessary element to solve the climate crisis. Mario was very clear on the need for good policy and his continued involvement as a speaker in our high-level events inspired ministers and government officials to take these issues seriously.”

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Mario Molina and V. Ramanathan at the launch of the CCAC's Talanoa Statement at the Global Climate Action Summit, San Francisco, 2018

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego and close collaborator with Dr. Molina said: “Mario's paper with Sherwood Rowland was a singular event in all of environment sciences. It was the first time a theory and its predictions were verified by observations, with huge implications for humanity. Mario was not only a great chemist but also had a great influence in climate change policy since he advised both the Presidents of USA and Mexico and had a huge role in UN climate negotiations.  He was also a warm and humorous person to be with. It was sheer joy to share a meal and wine with him. He would give out his warm laughter [even at] my silly jokes.”

Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, remembered Dr. Molina saying: “The world lost a giant when Mario Molina passed away. Mario was a brilliant scientist, a tireless advocate for the environment, and an inspiring collaborator. Mario left us with unfinished work. But he laid down the tracks that showed us how we might still slow down global warming quickly enough to avoid the existential chaos we’ll face otherwise. It’s up to his collaborators and friends, and all those he inspired, to carry on.”

Kate Blumberg, Latin America Director for the International Council on Clean Transportation, said: “Dr. Mario Molina was an original member of the Council for which the International Council on Clean Transportation is named. We always felt honored and privileged to have him so deeply engaged in our global work and to work closely with him on cleaning up vehicle emissions in Mexico. The ICCT is forever grateful for his leadership and inspiration. He was so gracious, so brilliant and so dedicated to saving the earth from human short-sightedness.”

Gianni López, Director, Centro Mario Molina Chile, said: "Dr. Molina gave us all the support for the creation of a research center in South America with a focus on air pollution and atmospheric chemistry because this is one of the top priorities in public health in the region. Local information and knowledge produce more government interest for effective policies. The commitment to promote real actions based on solid science is his legacy."

Lena Ek, who in 2012 as Sweden’s Environment Minister helped create the CCAC, tweeted: “He will indeed be missed, a strong voice for climate action and better health. It will be our responsibility to continue his work.”

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