Climate change is not the first planetary pollution crisis we have faced. That distinction belongs to the depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer.
This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the world’s most successful environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol. That’s the treaty that saved the ozone layer, saved millions of lives, and avoided a global catastrophe.
We too often take the rescue of the ozone layer for granted. A whole generation has grown up not hearing much about it, except maybe once each September when the return of the Antarctic ozone hole gets a brief mention in the news.
As we struggle to curb the carbon pollution that’s driving climate change, it’s worth remembering, and learning from, our success in solving the ozone crisis.
The story begins nearly 40 years ago when two chemists, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) released from aerosol sprays could rise miles over our heads into the stratosphere. There the sun’s harsh rays split the CFCs apart, triggering reactions that destroyed ozone molecules. As the ozone shield weakened, more dangerous UV rays could reach the earth’s surface. That would have condemned millions of people worldwide to die from skin cancer, go blind with cataracts, or suffer from immune diseases.
Their discovery made big news and galvanized Americans. Aerosol sales plummeted, as millions of consumers switched to pump sprays and roll-ons. Some companies quickly redesigned their products. But others dug in. For more than a decade, the chemical companies that made CFCs reacted much like today’s coal and oil companies: They denied the science, attacked the scientists, and predicted economic ruin.
But scientists and lawyers at NRDC – well before I got here – fought back. They helped Rowland and Molina tell their story to Congress and the news media. They pushed for bans on CFC aerosols here at home, and pressed the U.S. to demand the same from other countries.
In the next few years, Congress added ozone layer protections to the Clean Air Act, federal agencies mopped up the last aerosols, and the State Department began working with other nations on a treaty. In 1980, EPA issued an “endangerment” finding, saying that the other uses of CFCs in refrigerators, air conditioners, and industrial processes also posed a threat to the ozone layer and to public health.
But when Ronald Reagan took office, things bogged down. Those of you who remember Anne Gorsuch and James Watt will know that protecting the ozone layer was not a priority in Reagan’s first years. EPA did nothing, treaty talks stalled, and CFC use rebounded, so by the mid-1980s, production was back to its 1974 peak and rising fast. The danger was growing again.
So I and an NRDC colleague sued EPA under the Clean Air Act, because EPA was obligated by the endangerment finding to issue CFC regulations. To its credit, the Reagan administration followed the science and settled our lawsuit with a plan of action. EPA worked with NASA and other agencies to amass a compelling, peer-reviewed scientific assessment. EPA brought together industry and environmentalists and others to agree on alternatives. The State Department restarted treaty talks.
Congress held hearings under the bipartisan leadership of Senators Max Baucus, John Chafee, and Al Gore, and Representatives Henry Waxman and Sherwood Boehlert, keeping the danger in the public eye. And the news media covered the story, without giving equal time to marginal skeptics.
The discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole added new urgency. By 1986, even the chemical industry acknowledged CFC limits were needed.
In 1986 I proposed the idea of a 10-year global phase-out – to start using available alternatives immediately and to create market incentives to rapidly perfect and deploy solutions for the remaining uses. Again to their credit, Reagan’s EPA Administrator Lee Thomas and Secretary of State George Schultz put such a plan on the international negotiating table.
Yet not everybody was on board. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel urged President Reagan to tell people to just wear hats and sunglasses. His plan became a punch line. Reagan continued to back the treaty.
And 25 years ago this Sunday, countries reached agreement on the Montreal Protocol. By 1990 it had been amended to become a global phase-out agreement. That same year Congress added strong ozone safeguards to the Clean Air Act.
Every president since Reagan has supported the treaty; every country on earth, from China to East Timor, is now a full party.
It is not easy to convey the scale of the catastrophe that was avoided, the disaster that did not happen. This is what NASA scientist Dr. Paul A. Newman has accomplished in his extraordinary analysis, “The World Avoided.” You can read about it here, and you can watch Dr. Newman’s presentation at an NRDC press event yesterday:
Millions of lives saved. Hundreds of millions of cancers averted. Agricultural disaster avoided. These are big achievements.
But our work is not done. Here are a few thoughts on what we still need to do under the Montreal Protocol, and on lessons from the ozone treaty for the fight against climate change.
First, as Dr. Newman has shown, the ozone layer is healing. While countries have committed phase out the last ozone-depleting chemicals, we have to keep our eye on the ball to make sure it happens on schedule. And while national compliance with Montreal commitments has been extraordinarily high, governments have to work harder to crack down on law-breakers and smugglers. If we stick with it, scientists expect the Antarctic ozone hole to close up for good later this century.
2012 Antarctic Ozone Hole through September 11, courtesy NASA
Second, we can do more under Montreal to fight climate change. There’s already been a climate change bonus. The CFCs were also extremely powerful heat-trapping pollutants, and replacing them has slowed climate change by a decade. Had we not acted, the world would already be suffering even more severe droughts, floods and storms. This summer’s extreme weather would have been even worse.
But one group of CFC replacements, called HFCs, poses a big problem. HFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases, and Dr. Newman’s science panel has estimated that if we let them keep growing, by mid-century they’ll trap as much heat as CFCs did at their peak.
Wisely, the Montreal treaty gives the parties the responsibility to ensure that replacement chemicals are safe – and that includes ensuring that they don’t magnifying climate change. So two groups of countries – the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and a group of island nations led by Micronesia – have proposed using the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs. The vast majority of developed and developing countries want to move forward on this, but currently three countries – China, India, and Brazil – are blocking the start of negotiations. I’ve written about this here. We’ll be looking for a breakthrough at the next meeting, in Geneva this November.
Despite the current stand-off on HFCs, the Montreal Protocol is proof positive that the earth’s nearly 200 countries can effectively cooperate to protect their citizens from a planetary pollution crisis.
We saved the ozone layer. We can save the climate.
Image: Earth’s Surface via Shutterstock