We Saved The Ozone Layer. We Can Save The Climate.

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.

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.

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.

David Doniger is Policy Director of NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air Program. This piece was originally published at NRDC’s Switchboard and was reprinted with permission.

27 Responses to We Saved The Ozone Layer. We Can Save The Climate.

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    Let’s start with what worked. Sue the EPA.

    Next, find alternatives that the government can accept.

  2. Steve says:

    As with secondhand smoke and as will eventually be the case with obesity (because healthcare costs are now a shared burden), society only makes progress when the issue is widely and effectively communicated and understood as an emerging and steadily worsening public health problem and, with climate change, as a public health disaster — both physical and mental public health — that does and will increasingly affect all of us.

    By this I mean — new and widespread diseases, deteriorating air quality, effects of increased UV radiation, heat-related illnesses and deaths, illnesses arising from water-damaged properties, reduced access to affordable and sound nutrition, emotional anxiety/depression/hopelessness as weather events beat down on people and the lessening quality of the planet’s (and each person’s) likely future starts to sink in.

    As long as climate change continues to get bogged down as being a battle betweeen 1) competing economic factions (renewables vs. fossil fuels, for example, or large/showy vehicles vs public transport and hybrids/EVs) or 2) competing political parties and their presumed constituents, or 3) competing nationalistic priorities (US/German vs. Chinese solar panel manufacturers, for example), or even 4) competing moral imperatives and claims (the well-being and happiness of each unto his or her own self in the PRESENT versus the quality of lives of future generations), then people are going to inevitably take sides.

    Taking sides is not productive in the case of mitigating climate change (or even adapting to climate change), unlike when there are conflicts over tax policy, investment in public education, extension of unemployment benefits, ensuring survival of Medicare and Social Security, subsidies for public transportation, and even Fed monetary policy. This is a collective problem requiring collective action, not partisan divides and debates.

    Loyalty to one’s “side” or “ideology” will invariably undercut effective action and intensify opposition to personal, collective and government action on matters which are presumably in our collective best interests. That is happening now. The Left doesn’t understand that the Right doesn’t like “things” simply because they detest how the Left preaches about it and, frankly, wants it. If the Left wants something, the Right wants to deny it. And vice versa.

    So, when one of the primary climate activist discussion points is endlessly demonizing fossil fuel companies (without which, incidentally, the financial markets and world economy would not last for more than 48 hours were they to all shut down at once, meaning we do need them more than, say, tobacco companies or junkfood outlets), then the other side feels fully justified in digging in and waging its war on its own behalf (including demonizing renewables and funding friendly allies in government).

    The White House’s Commerce Dept’s stiff tariffs on Chinese solar panel manufacturers is but one case in point, due to be confirmed by the Commerce Department next month. No one in the domestic solar installation industry, or in states like California, understand this move. It’s counterproductive on reducing GHG emissions; it’s simply federal Democratic party catering to political allies and half-baked economic and legal theory.

    Another example is the idea voiced here not too long ago that, if gasoline gets too pricey for middle-class voters and consumers, then it would be best to release Strategic Petroleum Reserve barrels to bring prices down, even if the price impact were to be short-lived. What? I thought we want people discouraged by price signals from being addicted to fossil fuels, no?

    None of these measures would be seriously proposed if we correctly saw escalating and accelerating climate change as a public health disaster in the making. These policy positions are political. They are “us versus them” battles that actually allow everyday people to say to themselves, “it’s all politics, nothing I can or need to be doing.” In other words, I can use my aerosol hair spray and still be a responsible person at the same time…

  3. Adam Sacks says:

    I would like to have a better understanding of the differences between the Montreal Protocol and a climate treaty. It seems to me that controlling CFCs, as challenging as it may have been, is a far simpler task than controlling carbon emissions, as our dependence on the many manifestations of fossil fuels goes far deeper than our dependence on air conditioning and cooling (notwithstanding the necessity of refrigeration of food in the global economy).

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    So, the author, who takes a rather Pollyanaish view of this disaster, finds a way to blackguard China, naturally, and India and Brazil to boot. That these countries might have some reason to oppose the US ‘ínitiative’ with regard to HFCs is not examined. As far as I can see, the US lead here, and with regard to short-lived greenhouse emissions and that of soot, is a diversionary tactic, cynically designed to hide the USA’s continuing obstructionism when it comes to the big, fossil fuel generated, emissions.

  5. Ian P says:


    You are definitely on the right track, but how do we bring this about? I live in South Africa, where our government has just abandoned its moratorium on fracking. I run a website that opposes fracking and we use it and the social media to get our message across. Our experience suggests that it is the general public that is beginning to show interest in climate change, not the government, who employ the usual greenwash.

    I need ideas on how to reach out to our population, young people especially, the majority of whom have little or no Internet experience. Anyone have a bright idea?


  6. DarthVader says:

    The ozon-crisis and the climat-crisis can, or should, not be compared. It is like fighting the interests of worlds biggest industy and some of the mightiest states on earth, compared to fighting the interests of a lokal store.

  7. BillD says:

    My concern is that our country’s ability to take bipartisan political action against public health and environmental threats has been greatly compromised by the extremes of the Tea Party antigovernment additudes. I’m afraid that if the case for limiting HFCs were presented today, it would be considered “big govenment interference in the economy” today by a big majority of Republicans. It still remains to be seen whether (or hopefully) how much our government can recover from its current disfunction and work together on the economic, environmental and international problems that we face.

    In Indiana, we have a Senate race in which the Tea Part candidate Mourdoch who defeated Lugar promised that he would not compromise with any Democrat if elected to the senate. When that clearly did not work in the polls, he completely changed his tune and is now all for bipartisanism in theory. The question is “who believes his new ads” and “is the new Mourdoch plausible.” It’s evidently a close race, so I don’t understand why the Democrats from outside the state are evidently no chipping in. Please, we have to stop electing idealogues whose only agenda is “government except for defense is bad.”

  8. NJP1 says:

    when cfc’s were phased out, nobody saw any real difference in their day to day lives, we all carried on as normal
    now we’re suggesting changes on an entirely different order of magnitude, and people are going to resist that violently
    we like our comfortable way of life, being told that we can’t have it anymore is going to upset a lot of people

  9. Stephen says:

    Sorry to be less than positive but NJP1 is correct in my view.

    To ‘fix’ the ozone hole we simply had to swap one sort of manufacturing process for another – sorted. People carried on buying stuff and the economy continued its usual way.

    To reduce CO2 on the scale we need we are going to have to radically alter the whole way we live and dramatically cut our energy consumption and reduce manufacturing activity to suit.

    I see that as so opposed to everything most of the West currently sees as what life is about that it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.


  10. David Lewis says:

    One thing that used to be said back then was you could get representatives of all the manufacturers of ozone depleting chemicals in the world into a room.

    Another thing that made the Montreal Protocol an easier thing for nations to sign on to was the basic problem was were they willing to increase the cost of refrigerant in a fridge from $1 to $4?

    Also, the US led on ozone as opposed to whats happening on climate now where the US is the country where opposition to doing the slightest thing is the strongest. The US Senate had no problem ratifying the treaty. Reagan himself interceded to silence the Neanderthals in his Administration (such as Hodel who said let the population wear hats and sunglasses) and he instructed his negotiators to sign off on the treaty.

    And finally, the Antarctic ozone hole scared people. As scientists studied it they realized their previous understanding of what could happen was grossly in error. In climate terms it would be as if the first observed planetary effect that could be attributed to climate change was the sudden change of the US Southwest into a desert resembling the Sahara, poof. Until the Antarctic hole was observed, computer models predicted that global ozone depletion at that time would be too small of an effect to be measured, and analysis of measurements tended to reinforce that idea as there wasn’t a general agreement that ozone depletion of any significance had been measured to that point.

  11. David Lewis says:

    Hansen points out in “Storms of My Grandchildren” that a case he had been advocating for a long time, i.e. that easy to make reductions in non-CO2 GHG emissions such as methane and black soot should be made right away even if the civilization was unable to face CO2 reductions, was taken up by the Bush Administration after Hansen testified to the Bush Climate Task Force.

    Hansen credits the Bush Administration with taking action internationally on methane and inside the US on black soot. ( – page 52, Storms of My Grandchildren)

  12. David Lewis says:

    There is a new question as to whether “we saved the ozone layer”.

    James Anderson is the Harvard atmospheric scientist whose work provided the crucial test used on the historic 1987 NASA flight into the ozone hole, which when analyzed became the “smoking gun” which negotiators used to beef up the Montreal Protocol.

    Anderson has recently announced his discovery that climate change is apparently changing conditions in the global stratosphere that will increasingly favor reactions identical to what goes on in the Antarctic ozone hole only now over the regions of the planet where most people live.

    Anderson has observed water vapor in the stratosphere in greater amounts than anyone has ever observed connected to what looks like changed behavior of thunderstorms in temperate latitudes. Basically the storms look like they have developed more power to punch into the stratosphere to carry water up there. When water vapor is present beyond a certain threshold amount where the ozone layer is, i.e. in the stratosphere, catalytic reactions that destroy ozone molecules accelerate.

    His paper UV Dosage Levels in Summer: Increased Risk of Ozone Loss from Convectively Injected Water Vapor, was published in Science, but is freely available here.

    Anderson says, according to this article: “If the amount of water vapor and the temperature over the U.S. satisfies the conditions for rapid conversion of inorganic chlorine to this free-radical form, we’ve got a real problem, because the chemistry is identical to what we previously demonstrated is taking place over the Arctic.”

    Climate change coupled with the still high levels of Cl and Br in the atmosphere due to the long lived ozone depleting chemicals emitted by humans could thus threaten the ozone layer in a so far unforeseen way.

    Even as some are saying now that geoengineering is inevitable because civilization has so far not been able to act to stabilize the composition of the atmosphere even as the planet slides into a commitment to warming many scientists believe civilization will not be able to survive, Anderson’s work undermines what confidence there is that what most point to as the most likely technique, i.e. stratospheric sulphate injection as originally proposed by Crutzen, could ever be deployed, even by a civilization in extremis.

    In this article, Anderson is quoted as saying: “I’m extremely worried that the entire idea of putting sulfate into the stratosphere is dead on arrival, because the result of putting it in the ozone will be intolerable”.

    Anderson is working with a leading geoengineering researcher David Keith on an experiment to be conducted in the stratosphere that will be completed next year: “if we see what we believe we will see, it will eliminate the possibility of people doing this”.

  13. Ernest says:

    Reducing CO2 is a much heavier lift since it requires a fundamental change to the predominant energy technology which runs our society which is primarily carbon based.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I do not doubt Hansen’s sincerity, just that of US regimes. Their support for reducing these factors (and let’s wait and see if the reality matches the rhetoric)is, I believe, a cynical subterfuge, to hide their ongoing intransigence over the really big greenhouse emissions.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Tea Party is a symptom, not the terminal disease. That is the total control of the planet by a claque of misanthropic and evil capitalist psychotics, who use their total control of the MSM to brainwash the plebs into disbelieving all the myriad ecological crises crashing down upon us. The average Dunning-Krugerite has, as an article of faith, the belief that humanity can go on torturing and destroying Nature indefinitely, without destructive consequences, and without such consequences, apparently, even being possible. It’s not the Mourdochs, but the Murdochs that are the real horror of our self-destruction.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We have been making great progress with renewables, so the genocidal Right has struck back, launching a jihad against solar and wind, promoting fracking and cranking up the hate propaganda against environmentalists to new highs. In other words exactly as one could have confidently expected.

  17. The prediction of radical change in lifestyles is scary but not realistic. Once people realize that greener buildings, convenient public transit, less polluting energy and integrated urban living all cost less and enhance our communities and our lifestyles, we will be eager to change. But they cost less only when integrated, not when they are done in isolation!

    The biggest problem is a lack of understanding of what is possible through collaboration. We all grew up knowing that “two heads are better than one” and that “many hands make light work.” Yet we promote “going it alone,” “winner take all competition” and “keeping our culture pure” as preferable!

    Let’s just compare communities where people work together and value diversity and its contribution to innovation and to continual improvement. We will re-discover what we already knew.– what every great prophet and philosopher in history has pointed out: that we are better off — and happier — when we value community effort and work together.

    One only need go to an orchestral symphony and observe how all the participants are talented unique individuals with great individual skills and how their joint efforts produce great satisfaction and joy for their audiences and for themselves.

    The Clinton Global Initiative this weekend, along with the U.N. Global Good Forum are demonstrating how successful and happy we can be when we pool our talents and resources to create new ways of doing things and building communities.

    Having lived in New York City, Paris, Hong Kong and Beijing, I learned that having a car in such cities is a huge liability and makes life much less enjoyable. When public transit actually works, I am happier without my own car. When it does not, I am happy to rent a car, take a cab, bike or walk.

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    One way or another, your life is going to change and if involuntary, it will be much more ‘upsetting’, ME

  19. Anne van der Bom says:

    Correct, the scale issue is repeatedly ignored when comparing the two problems. Fossil fuels are, what, 15% of the world’s economy? Aerosols perhaps 0.01%.

  20. Anne van der Bom says:

    “being told that we can’t have it anymore is going to upset a lot of people”

    Says who? We have to give up certain privileges perhaps. Maybe temporary, maybe permanently, but that we need to go back to living in caves to ‘save the planet’ is of course the cheap alarmism exploited by those defending their fossil fuel interests.

  21. Anne van der Bom says:

    What NJP say is pure hyperbole. There is a myriad of ways in which we can change our energy systems without going back to a sort of hunter gatherer lifestyle. It is merely a matter of will and the insight that fossil fuels weren’t going to last indefinitely anyway.

  22. Steve says:


    You have an excellent website. Personally, I would run stories that highlight the public health impacts from fracking if that is your specific concern. In the ozone depletion crisis, the activists got out the message that everyone’s health would be impacted. Everyone then had to make a self-interested consumer decision and stick with it. The messaging worked, a critical mass of changed consumer behavior resulted, and the politics followed rather than led (it usually does).

    Fossil fuels are more difficult because the dependence is more widespread. But people have to learn it will hit home soon, that they better prepare for the impacts, and they will be more resilient and content in their lives (as will their children) if they can honestly look in the mirror and say they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

    It sounds simplistic, but people have to change (and adapt) one by one, but the change can mushroom if the message is out there and the way is shown. On the personal level, the big ticket items are: 1) install rooftop solar; 2) own at least one hybrid in the household; and 3) try to move work closer to home or home closer to work. Beyond that, reduce all material consumption, minimize unnecessary travel, recycle, spread the word.

    Personally, I think the writing is on the wall anyway. I don’t get worked up trying to shout people into change or trying to save the planet. Works like Martenson’s “Crash
    Course” and Gilding’s “Great Disruption” put it all in perspective — the planet is going to save itself from the human species, but it will be a rocky road getting there. How are you going to adapt? And how are you going to live an honest, content life in view of all that?

    Good luck with your project.

  23. Ken Barrows says:

    He didn’t say “hunter-gatherer.” However, that is a possibility if we play our cards wrong. I’ll be specific: cut the number of cars in half.

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Extremely bad news on several fronts. We had to bring in strict policies to protect, expecially little kids, from increased UV. It is difficult and no fun, ME

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Évery twist and turn of fate is working agin’ us. And what of methyl bromide, the use of which, I believe, has been declared ‘essential’ by the agri-business bosses?

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    How will the public ever learn the truth when the Rightwing MSM apparatus lies to them in order to brainwash them, every second of every day of the year-every year?

  27. David Lewis says:

    They’re claiming “essential” because there is a clause allowing use of methyl bromide if you can prove this. The ozone treaty has been a real success compared to anything done on CO2.

    Because methyl bromide acts to transport bromine into the ozone layer and bromine has far greater power to destroy ozone than the chlorine found in the more common anthropogenic ozone depleting chemicals such as the CFCs, methyl bromide, and any anthropogenic bromine containing molecule that lives long enough in the atmosphere to reach the stratosphere can significantly add to the forces acting to deplete ozone. Br atoms are thought to be 50 times more powerful than Cl atoms when they are involved in reactions that destroy ozone molecules. Methyl Bromide is listed as Class I, with the rest of the ozone depleting chemicals thought to be the most dangerous.

    Its not much of a GHG, in contrast to some of the CFCs which have greater than 10,000 times the power of CO2 if you compare the effect of adding a molecule of each to the existing atmosphere. Methyl Bromide is only 5 times more powerful at trapping heat than a CO2 molecule if compared on that basis. Because of the GWP of ozone depleting chemicals, the Montreal Protocol has had the greatest effect on limiting GHG power going into the atmosphere compared to any other agreement including Kyoto.

    Methyl bromide has natural sources: “the oceans, wetlands, some plants and the burning of vegetation”, according to NOAA. Chlorine in the stratosphere also has natural sources, i.e. volcanic eruptions especially the large ones that inject large amounts of chlorine directly into the ozone layer.

    Anthropogenic emission of bromine compounds has approximately doubled the natural Br concentration in the ozone layer. I’m not current with the state of present knowledge but it used to be said anthropogenic emission of ozone depleting substances containing chlorine had more than tripled the natural concentration.

    Basically humans have upset a natural balance of forces that created and destroyed ozone, the net effect of which is depletion of the ozone layer.

    Ozone depletion is clearly already having effects on climate, eg. this transcript where Joellen Russell explains that the existence of the ozone hole is why the Southern Westerlies have moved several degrees of latitude further toward the South pole than the Northern Westerlies have been observed to have moved towards the North Pole. She says this is consistent with observations of increased sea ice in places around Antarctica among other things. The change in location and power of these winds she says is “one of the most obvious trends in the global climate system over the past 20 years“.

    And as Anderson is discovering with his research, climate change may have a large effect on the degree of ozone depletion we will see as a result of the ozone depleting chemicals we’ve already added to the atmosphere in the past.

    Ozone depletion is not a subject most climate types have concerned themselves with but this may change now.