Clean Air Warrior

David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Climate & Clean Energy Program, has helped shape federal and global climate-related policies since he joined NRDC in 1978.
David Doniger (right) at a rally outside of Chicago’s Ralph Metcalfe Federal Building, where the public testified regarding the Affordable Clean Energy proposal, October 1, 2018

Alyssa Schukar for NRDC

As NRDC’s chief global warming lawyer, David Doniger has long been on the frontlines of the battle against air pollution. He helped formulate the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement designed to stop the depletion of the earth's ozone layer, as well as several essential amendments to the Clean Air Act. In 1993, he left NRDC to serve on the White House Council on Environmental Quality, followed by key posts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He rejoined NRDC in 2001 and has since been working to defend the Clean Air Act from assaults in Congress.

You’ve compared the current climate crisis to the fight to save the ozone layer that began in the 1970s. Did you face resistance from government and industry back then?

The chemicals industry responded to this threat just like the coal industry is responding to the climate crisis today. While NRDC’s scientists in public health and chemistry were working to get ozone-destroying CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] banned from aerosols and other products, the industry was pushing back. They denied the science and attacked the scientists. They hired people to investigate Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina, the chemists who first identified the ozone layer as a problem in 1974. They formed a trade association called the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy, which tried to scare everyone whose job depended on air-conditioning or aerosols.

How did NRDC break through?

When my colleague David Hawkins was away from NRDC working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Carter administration [which banned nearly all CFC aerosols in 1978], he reviewed the new science on CFCs’ effects on stratospheric ozone and public health. EPA responded in 1980 by issuing an endangerment finding for CFCs leaking from air conditioning, refrigeration, and other products. When the Reagan administration arrived, that endangerment finding was sitting on their desks.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA was obligated to act. When it didn’t, NRDC sued. We eventually reached a settlement with the EPA to make a decision on domestic CFC production by 1986, and that provided important leverage both here and abroad. The Reagan administration knew that without an international treaty, U.S. companies would be at a competitive disadvantage because they would be the only ones barred from using CFCs. That taught us an important lesson—domestic action can support the call for global action.

Then the pieces all fell into place for a global CFC ban?

Not exactly. The EPA and the State Department favored an international phaseout. But the chemicals industry was still fighting us at that time, and it looked for a supporter inside the administration. It identified Energy Secretary Donald Hodel, who, as it turned out, wasn’t a particularly effective spokesperson. Hodel pushed for a “personal protection plan” instead of a treaty. NRDC found out and told reporters that this meant, instead of phasing out CFCs, people could just wear hats and sunglasses. The dam kind of broke when the story came out—public opinion moved firmly against CFCs, and industry resistance subsided. We eventually were able to start the CFC phaseout in 1987 through the Montreal Protocol, and then accelerate it. The Montreal Protocol now includes every country in the world.

What has the Montreal Protocol—which you’ve described as the world’s most successful treaty to protect our atmosphere—meant for climate change?

By some estimates, without it, climate change would be 10 years ahead of where it is now. That’s because CFCs aren’t just ozone-depleting agents. They’re also unbelievably powerful greenhouse gases, with 5,000 to 10,000 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

The process also revealed a pattern. When CFCs were first identified as an environmental threat, the industry resisted and obfuscated. But once companies figured out how to make alternatives, they got on board with an agreement to phase the chemicals out. The air-conditioning industry, for example, had been making the same product for years without ever changing or improving its approach. The phaseout of CFCs turned that industry into a dynamic force that is always improving its products. Something similar is happening today. The power industry, for example, is moving sharply away from coal because they see how to prosper without it.

What lessons are there for NRDC’s work with industries today?

We can replicate the coalition that we forged with the chemicals industry in the greenhouse gas sphere. We are more aligned with many industries than the Trump administration is, from car manufacturers to power companies to appliance makers. As an example, President Trump seems dead set on blowing up the historic clean car peace treaty forged 10 years ago between the automobile industry, the federal government, and leading states. But industry doesn’t want the uncertainty that comes with unraveling the progress we’re making on greenhouse gases, and many automakers oppose Trump’s rollbacks on federal fuel efficiency standards. Those standards have supported technological innovation—and nearly 300,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs. These companies see environmental progress as economic progress, too. 

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