by David Doniger, via NRDC’s Switchboard
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.