The Ozone Layer: The Environmental Victory Everyone Forgot

Imagine this: there’s a terrifying environmental threat caused by chemical emissions that could destroy all life on earth. The companies producing the emissions put out all the disinformation they can to keep their businesses going. However, the governments of the world unite to remove those chemicals from production, and the world, miraculously, heals.

This isn’t a fairytale about climate change. This is the real story of a grave environmental threat that was at the top of everyone’s mind in the 1980s, but has been largely forgotten by the public today. Here’s the story about how the people won a victory and protected our planet from the holes in the ozone layer.

The ozone layer is a layer in the atmosphere that reduces the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, protecting the Earth and every living thing on it. And in the 1970s, scientists discovered something seriously frightening: common household chemicals had been thinning the ozone layer for years, causing an intermittent hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. And that hole was growing.

The holes in the ozone layer were already causing awful health effects in the Southern Hemisphere. It was linked with an unusually high rate of cataracts in sheep in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the high rates of skin cancer in those countries. 

But chemical producers didn’t want to stop producing the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were causing the hole. The CFCs cooled air conditioners and were a cheap way to make hairspray and deodorant spray out of a can. They insisted that the science was flawed. Because the hole in the ozone layer is seasonal, they were adamant that it wasn’t the chemicals they produced that were causing it.

For years, the disinformation from the chemical producers seemed to be working. American government officials said Americans should just wear more sunscreen. But on one side of the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher, a former research chemist, saw the science and was “spooked.” On the other side of the ocean, nature-loving President Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with a melanoma on his nose. If his well known love of the outdoors had not been enough, his skin cancer sealed it: the issue became personal for him. He also learned the business case for getting rid of CFCs: companies were waiting in the wings to offer up a replacement chemical. 

Reagan decided to create a signature piece of legislation, an international treaty that would rapidly phase out CFCs. He had the support of international leaders including Margaret Thatcher and Canadian conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, who offered to host a summit about the ozone layer as a sign of his support. Many members of his cabinet were staunchly against it. He added a provision to the legislation to appease them, stating that the science would be reviewed over the course of the treaty to see if it still appeared to be valid. Reagan told those who opposed the regulations that they could be correct, but if they were wrong the Montreal Protocol provided an insurance policy against future harm to the Earth.

The treaty, called the Montreal Protocol, started small; only about 25 nations signed on. But that was enough for a start. With bipartisan support, the treaty was unanimously ratified by the US Senate in 1988. When it seemed like the agreement might collapse in 1989, Thatcher gave a rousing speech to the UN General Assembly that created overwhelming support. The treaty has been so effective that more countries have signed onto it than are members of the UN.

The Montreal Protocol Reduced Climate Change

The ozone layer reduces the effects of solar radiation on life on Earth. It also helps keep the planet from heating up. Scientists believe the slowdown in global warming in the 90s and early 00s was the result of the Montreal Protocol. 

At the time the Montreal Protocol was instituted, scientists had no idea how much CFCs increased climate change. Over the past several decades, research has revealed how strong an effect these chemicals have, and it’s frightening. Scientists believe CFCs are the reason the Earth’s poles are heating at a dramatically faster rate than the rest of the world. In 2007, researchers published a paper saying the reduction in CFCs was projected to reduce climate change by 50% through 2010. A more recent study backs up that claim, and states that climate change over the next decade would be twice as bad without the Montreal Protocol. (So if you were wondering, “Could climate change be even worse right now?”…now you know!)

The Montreal Protocol has become a tool for combating future climate change by banning other greenhouse gases. The replacement for CFCs, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), also turned out to be a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. A phaseout of HFCs was added to the Montreal Protocol in 2016. Phasing out HFCs quickly will slow the heating of the Earth from climate change. HFCs are only one of many factors in climate change, but every factor matters.

Why Won’t Nations Take Action On Other Polluters?

Many scientists and politicians involved in the Montreal Protocol regret not pushing harder on other factors related to climate change while they had momentum. At the time, climate change was not as well understood. Now there’s even some difficulty gaining support for the new additions to the Montreal Protocol in the US; even though politicians of both parties and US businesspeople support it, Trump will not ratify the amendment and pass it to the Senate for ratification.

Why was the world so quick to take actions on the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, and yet governments have dragged their feet on climate change ever since? 

  1. The hole in the ozone layer is easy to visualize. There were pictures. It was scary. For many skeptics, climate change still means little more than, “I won’t have to shovel my driveway as much in winter.” 
  2. The issue became personal for the leader of one of the largest countries in the world. Climate change is not personal for many of the world’s leaders; they have enough money that they think they can escape climate change’s effects. Leaders must be elected for whom climate change is a personal battle.
  3. Many political conservatives adopted the cause, encouraged by Reagan to see the Montreal Protocol as a form of insurance and by Margaret Thatcher to join the treaty. This created support across the political spectrum for the Montreal Protocol.
  4. The businesses that were fighting to keep CFCs were relatively small as compared to the gigantic petroleum interests that wield so much financial and political power today.
  5. The companies causing the problems were successfully stimulated to provide the solutions.

Lessons From the Montreal Protocol

The Montreal Protocol included financial assistance to developing countries for phasing out CFCs, as well as the potential of trade embargos for nations that did not phase them out. It shows what a universal climate treaty should look like and demonstrates that a toothless agreement like the Paris Agreement is not enough.

The Montreal Protocol is substantive enough that countries work together when they see an infraction. Scientists from around the world worked together a few years ago when they detected CFCs in the air, and they tracked it to illegal foam insulation production in China. Scientists were shocked to recently discover another spike of HFC-23, covered by the Kigali Amendment. It seems to be from China and India. If the HFC emissions can be eliminated, it would have as much of an effect on climate change as removing three years of Spain’s carbon output. 
Amazingly, in 2019 the hole in the ozone layer was the smallest it’s been in three decades. The Montreal Protocol proves that nations can work together to heal the Earth. Now it’s up to us to force our own nations to do the same for climate change.

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