Lessons from the Hole in the Ozone Layer

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson 

Not long ago I found myself wondering whatever became of the hole in the ozone layer. Before I found time to do my own search, a segment on the NPR program “Living on Earth” gave me the answer: It’s still there, but it’s closing.

Another 60 years will pass before the layer protects us from skin-cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation, as it used to do. But protect us it will, and what happened to reverse its destruction is a lesson in human misbehavior and corrective intervention that we desperately need today.

LOE broadcast its 1000th show the week of July 30. The first was April 5, 1991, and it began with a brief newscast about a hole in the ozone layer. Jan Nunley was the reporter.

NUNLEY: The Bush administration is reviewing new research data that show the ozone layer over the United States is disappearing at twice the rate previously estimated. The Environmental Protection Agency is now predicting that 12 million Americans will develop skin cancer in the next 50 years as a result of increased exposure to ultraviolet light. Agency administrator William Reilly says the US should reappraise its policy on control of ozone-destroying chemicals.

Picking up the story for present-day listeners, LOE founder, executive producer, and host Steve Curwood explained that ozone is a pollutant at ground level, but high in the stratosphere it forms a thin layer that screens out ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Without it, life on Earth would not be possible.

Earlier, in the 1980s, a large hole in the ozone layer suddenly appeared over Antarctica. Shortly before that happened, the National Academy of Sciences research council completed a series of assessments and concluded that the problem was not as serious as had been thought. And then, said Diane Dumanoski, environmental journalist and author of The Long End of Summer,

…we have this report out of left field about this dramatic loss of ozone. And you had the scientific community debating about whether this was man-made, or a natural event. And a whole lot of people found the idea that man-made chemicals could cause this bizarre disappearance of ozone to be inconceivable, basically. They thought the planet was robust and how could humans do enough, even with the modern scale, the modern industrial enterprise, to perturb it?

It turned out that the ozone depletion was caused by the action of chlorine, derived from manmade chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that migrated to the stratosphere and were broken down by solar ultraviolet light. CFCs were (and are no longer, which is key to the story) a major component of refrigerants in air conditioners, freezers, and refrigerators.

So how did the world avoid destruction of the ozone layer and, with it, life on earth? Surely the continued release into the atmosphere of CFCs was important to the profits of an entire industry, just as continued release of carbon is today.

Dumanoski picks up the story on LOE.

…when ozone depletion showed up, it showed up in a place never forecast, in a much more dramatic way, and via a chemistry that hadn’t even been thought of. So it was a complete surprise that blindsided scientists. Where you had basically 50% of the ozone layer over the South Pole disappearing in a matter of weeks. I mean it was just this science fiction event that was so bizarre and so beyond what was thought possible that the NASA computer kept consigning the data that the satellite was seeing to the junk file for further analysis later.

Look at the chronology: Scientists started watching a tear in the ozone layer over the South Pole between 1981 and 1983. They announced the hole’s existence in 1985. The first international conference on the protection of the ozone layer took place in Vienna in 1985. By 1987 chlorine was implicated beyond doubt. The Montréal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, which called for the phasing out of chemicals implicated in the damage, was opened for signatures September 16, 1987 and took effect January 1, 1989. Eight years from observation to action. That’s lightning speed in both science and politics.

Curwood observed,

So the ozone story can be seen, actually, as a fairly good story. It’s still a problem but it’s not a catastrophe. A treaty was put together. Caps were put on this. We took these chemicals as much as possible out of industrial circulation.

Dumanoski recalled,

…at the time there was huge optimism that this would be a model that we could follow and move on quite swiftly to climate change. I can, in fact, remember the day I was in a room in Montréal, when the treaty events were concluding, and I remember speaking with a Norwegian diplomat who was saying to me “well onto climate change.” And there was a feeling that we were going to roll forward to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and really get moving and deal with these problems of global change. We went to Rio, but we seemed to go home and take off on another track.

Another track, indeed. Dumanoski, whose book takes a global view of what we must do to survive in the era of climate change and global warming, said the lesson to be drawn from the ozone layer experience is that

…we’re playing a game where nature holds a lot of wild cards. And that we’re likely to go through the century knocked off our feet by surprises. So I think uncertainty is no reason to continue playing this Russian roulette with the planetary system. Uncertainty could mean that we do not emerge at the end of the century with organized human life.

Dumanoski’s more judicious than I’m inclined to be. I think that money from corporate interests is playing a larger role in the scheme of things now than it did even 20 years ago; that thanks to the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision it will play an even greater role this year and on onward; that Earth’s climate is changing less radically, but no less certainly, than the ozone layer did; and that people are too scared about their own economic situations (a fact not unrelated to the money from corporate interests playing a larger role now) to be as scared of famine and flood as they were of skin cancer when the ozone layer opened up.

One of these days, soon, a cataclysmic event like Katrina will occur in a place inhabited by mainly white, mainly well-off people. And that will scare enough folks to make them rise up in fury and demand that their senators, forty-some of whom present the barrier to serious action to save the rest of us, stop counting their money and their votes long enough to do something constructive about climate change, as their predecessors did about the ozone layer.

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