Saving the Ozone Layer: Lessons for Fighting Climate Change

Several of my friends and family members have had skin lesions biopsied in the past few years. Luckily they have been cancer-free, but these test results could have been much more alarming if the international community had not signed the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer 25 years ago this month.

The ozone layer blocks the sun’s cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. Scientist discovered nearly 40 years ago that CFCs were eating away at this protective layer, exposing every person on Earth to higher risk of skin cancer, cataracts, and other illnesses. If CFC production had continued unchecked, we would have lost 80 percent of the ozone shield by later in this century, and radiation levels in Washington D.C. would become strong enough to burn you within five minutes, according to a recent assessment by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Now that CFCs have been eliminated through the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer has started to repair itself and to restore its capacity to shield us from disease. Just phasing out the U.S. portion of  CFCs will prevent nearly 300 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer in America and many more worldwide by the year 2165.

The effort to restore the ozone layer is a resounding public health and environmental success—one in which I am proud to say NRDC played a central role. It is a testament to the human community’s ability to solve global problems. And it is proof we can do it faster and cheaper than originally thought.

Now it is time to apply the lessons learned in the ozone achievement to the fight against another planetary crisis: climate change.

Tackling ozone depletion and climate change both begin with science. In 1974, F. Sherwood Roland and Mario Molina published a study saying CFCs were weakening the ozone layer. NRDC scientists immediately recognized the significance of these findings and hosted a national press conference to bring the discovery to front pages and news shows across the country. Our experts soon began petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to ban the use of CFCs in aerosol cans.

It didn’t take long for the chemical industry to react. Some companies, like S.C. Johnson, agreed to stop using CFCs as early as 1975. But DuPont and other CFC manufacturers attacked Molina and Roland’s work and their personal motives. A report by the National Academy of Sciences confirmed their findings, however, and the EPA banned nearly all CFCs in aerosol cans in 1978.

Many thought that took care of the problem, but CFCs were still used in refrigerators and air conditioners. NRDC sued the EPA to compel it to ban this class of CFCs as well, but industry representatives forecast mass economic and social disruption. One executive told Congress: “We will see shutdowns of refrigeration equipment in supermarkets …We will see shutdowns of chiller machines, which cool our large office buildings, our hotels, and hospitals.” Industry leaders also went after the science once again.  DuPont Chairman Richard Heckert said, “There is no agreement within the scientific community on the potential health effects of any already observed ozone change.” Like the climate deniers of today, Heckert was simply wrong.

Starting in 1985, NRDC’s David Doniger began meeting with government officials, company representatives, and environmental groups to pave the way forward. At one meeting, a DuPont executive said there were no alternatives to CFCs. When Doniger asked how he knew that, the man said they had identified other chemicals that would work for refrigeration, insulation, and electronics, but decided they were too expensive. Unwittingly, he had revealed that instead of no alternatives, there were plenty of alternatives.  All we needed was a way to make them competitive in the marketplace.

Doniger proposed a bold plan that would phase-out CFCs around the world.  As CFCs became scarcer, the companies that used them would jump to the alternatives.  And the extra cost, spread over the cost of a refrigerator, a car, or a computer, would be trivial.  Ronald Reagan’s EPA Administrator Lee Thomas, and his Secretary of State George Shultz, embraced the phase-out idea and put it on the international negotiating table. 

Congressional leaders from both parties backed the plan, but a few stragglers didn’t get it.  Interior Secretary Donald Hodel urged President Reagan to reject an international ozone treaty in favor of asking people to wear hats and sunglasses. Doniger broke the story of the “Ray-Ban Plan” to the media. Hodel became a laughingstock, and consensus for decisive international action continued to build.

Ultimately, the Reagan Administration became a leader in the international negotiations and helped inspire 23 other nations to sign a treaty the Montreal Protocol in 1987.  The treaty has been expanded and strengthened many times since then.  Now more than 190 nations have joined the treaty, and the rapid deterioration of the ozone layer has been halted.

After spending 15 years denying the science and resisting change, the U.S. chemical industry succeeded in rapidly shifting to alternatives. In fact, they phased out the CFCs four to six years faster than expected and at 30 percent less cost than predicted.  The industry continues to innovate. We’re now seeing the introduction of the third generation of alternatives to CFCs.  Some are new fluorocarbons, and some come from other chemical families.  The new chemicals don’t hurt the ozone layer and have far less impact on the climate than their predecessors. 

America helped restore the ozone layer through a combination of scientific understanding, public pressure, bipartisan support, and industry innovation.   I believe we can marshal those same forces to fight climate change, but we are not there yet.  Climate denial and partisan opposition continue to block comprehensive climate action.  Yet the Montreal Protocol shows there is a path forward toward success.

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