Do you remember the ozone debate?

Climate change is recurring feature in every news story, science book, and political debate; and a complicated environmental issue with strong economic and political factors. Almost every reference to this environmental phenomenon is linked with doomsday prophesy. But perhaps now is the time to look back at the late twentieth century when the countries of the world cooperated and addressed the biggest environmental problem of the time- the hole in the ozone layer.

The ozone hole is an important environmental lesson, for it clearly demonstrates the successful collaboration between public policy and science. Identified in the 1970s, the ozone hole over Antarctica created a stir in the scientific world, but now studies have shown that the ozone layer is on its way to a speedy recovery. By 2080, according to most estimates, the ozone will be restored to its levels in 1950. This is proof enough to show that with universal collaboration, strong leadership and public momentum, we can successfully deal with environmental issues, even complex ones like climate change. We saved the world from a catastrophe once and we have it in our power to do it again.

Like climate change, the ozone-hole issue was backed by a growing body of scientific evidence.   Situated about 30km above the Earth’s surface, the layer is responsible for keeping out the sun’s ultraviolet rays which are known to cause skin cancer and cataracts. In the 1970s scientists predicted a thinning of the ozone due to the accumulation of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere. CFCs are industrial compounds which were used widely in a variety of commercial and household applications. These synthetic compounds combined with oxygen molecules in the ozone layer resulting in fewer ozone molecules. The British Antarctic Survey discovered a huge hole over Antarctica in 1985, which rang alarm bells. The evidence was stark and the scientific solution was simple, and readily available. CFCs were phased out within a decade and replaced by Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).  “There was very little wiggle room left for nay-sayers,” says James Anderson, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at Harvard University. Unlike the climate-change debate today there were few skeptics who could deny the existence or causes of the formation of the ozone hole. The countries of the world pledged to phase out CFCs and signed the Montreal Protocol of 1987 making it the first universally ratified environmental treaty.

In some ways the climate change issue is similar to the ozone hole- both involve atmospheric change that require resolute global action. But they also have differences. Unlike the ozone hole, climate change is a polarizing, issue with skeptics questioning almost every claim that scientists raise. Some skeptics disagree with the very concept, stating instead that the planet is undergoing a predictable cyclical change. Others agree that these changes exist but disagree with the solutions provided. Furthermore there is massive disparity in the source of the problems. The ozone was damaged by a synthetic compound, and was replaced by another synthetic compound produced by the same manufacturer- DuPont. The industry made a switch and did not lose business. In contrast, carbon dioxide is a natural compound  linked to a trillion dollar energy industry. Oil and coal companies have not dealt with it in the same way as CFC manufacturers. “Rather than adapt they have chosen to deny,” said David Downie, Director, Programme on the Environment at Fairfield University. It’s time for these industries to learn from their forbearers and make the switch to cleaner, alternative sources of energy.

Internationally, climate change creates animosity among countries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that CO2 levels need to be reverted to 1920 levels in order to reverse environmental damage. The IPCC rulings have led to policy battles between developed countries and the developing world over  what their respective emission levels should be.  Caught up in protecting their own economies, countries have resisted ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. “People need to understand that the costs of impacts outweigh the costs of mitigation and adaption,” said David Downie, from Fairfield University, “but some countries just don’t have the money for either.”

The ozone layer issue shows us the importance of strong leadership in establishing a science-policy interface. NASA’s Robert Watson was the singular driving force behind the success of the Montreal Protocol. Under his leadership, science was introduced into public policy in an undisputed and rational manner. But today, things are different. “Scientists have a disproportionate and undervalued role,” said David Fahey from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “we are reluctant participants.”We do know that the ozone hole was a localized issue, as opposed to climate change, and NASA had unique access to the stratosphere. However, it is worthwhile to note the successful role of Robert Watson, a singular scientific force at the federal level.  Science needs to marry public policy at a national and global level in order to reverse the effects of global warming. We need scientists with political powers to make a difference.

The ozone layer was not repaired by scientists and policy makers alone; public support was an invaluable component. People devoured scientific information on the negative health impacts of ultraviolet rays and initiated public campaigns to stay away from products using CFC compounds. Ad campaigns instilled the fear of skin cancer. Today, the public has failed to establish the relationship between extreme weather events and global climate change. Industries have misled the public with lies about climate change science. “Certain oil companies have given huge amounts of money to think tanks to write down the findings of the IPCC,” said David Downie. Stating the need for an ozone-hole equivalent for climate change, Stuart Gaffin states there has been no bullet-proof event which can prove climate change. The ozone hole was easier to identify with. “Everyone sits out in their backyard,” says Daniel Bader from the Climate Impacts Group at Columbia University, “people only respond to things when it affects them directly.”

There is no question that climate change is a much larger and complex issue than the ozone hole. Scientists have referred to the ozone-hole issue as ‘child’s play’ in the light of environmental problems today. Even if all carbon emissions were immediately dropped to ‘ideal’ levels, results would still be delayed. Studies suggest that the Earth’s temperature will continue to rise before it starts to drop. And this process could take centuries. Meanwhile, policy makers cannot come to a consensus on ideal emission levels. The situation is bleak and science is fighting a losing battle against economics.

Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of that complexity, now is the time to recognize that the planet is dynamic and not beyond recovery. Using the ozone issue as a successful prototype, we should   remember that collaborative action is possible. We need to put an end to our political strife and direct global economies towards investing in cleaner fuel sources.  This is no easy solution but it’s definitely possible. Industry needs to provide more options to address the planet’s growing energy needs. We need to strive harder to create a strong science-policy interface. There is hope for our planet and it lies in cooperation between governments and people.




  • Stuart Gaffin- Senior Researcher, Climate Impacts Group, Columbia University
  • David Bader- Research Analyst, Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University Earth Institute
  • Adam Greely- Research Analyst, Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University Earth Institute
  • James Anderson- Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, Harvard University
  • David Downie- Director, Programme on the Environment, Associate Professor of Politics, Fairfield University
  • Cynthia Rosenzweig- Senior Research Scientist, Climate Impacts Group, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
  • Dr David Fahey- Atmospheric Scientist, NOAA








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