The Ozone - End Zone

Aug 09, 2016

Climate change is a contentious topic in this presidential election year, and all issues related to it like the Paris AccordsClean Power Plan and several EPA directives are on the table.

     Public perceptions of climate change run the gamut from it’s a “hoax” to “game over.” Most, however, believe that it is for real – though some question whether there is much we can really do about it.

     We need a victory; a model that demonstrates the efficacy of an all-out global assault on a challenge like climate change. Well, guess what? We have such a model and we need to break radio silence on it. 

     The challenge we faced was called ozone depletion, and the global model used to effectively address it was called the Montreal Protocol. Scientists now report that we may be turning the corner on this atmospheric Armageddon and that it may even be eradicated over the next several decades. It is a story of hope, perseverance and collaboration that needs to be told: 

Background: Our planet has a thin stratospheric layer of ozone that shields us and other living organisms from the toxic ultraviolet radiation (UV) rays from the sun. Scientists voiced their concerns in the 1970s that our protective ozone umbrella was being destroyed by the release of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the complex process it triggered to destroy ozone molecules. Their fears were confirmed in 1985 when satellites revealed a giant “hole” in the ozone shield above Antarctica and diminished ozone density in the Arctic regions. 

     Alarmed, a concerted effort was made by the international community – with the strong backing of President Ronald Reagan – to develop what became known as the Montreal Protocol. It was ratified by the United States in 1988 – and ultimately by 196 other nations – and became effective on January 1, 1989. In his ratification signing statement, President Reagan made the following points about the treaty:

  • It provided a coordinated international control mechanism for reducing CFCs
  • It set targets; to reduce CFCs by 50% by 1999 (the targets were later revised upward)
  • It provided incentives for chemical producers to develop CFC alternatives
  • It established an ongoing process for review of scientific data and strategies
  • It contained mechanisms for adjusting the Protocol to meet changing needs

     Ozone depletion was defined as a global threat requiring a global solution, and the world got behind it. In that CFCs, like other greenhouse gases, have long shelf lives – 50-100 years in the case of CFCs – a quick turnaround was impossible. Recent satellite findings, however, suggest that the Antarctic ozone hole has shrunk by about 1.5 million square miles – roughly one-third the area of the United States – from its base level in 2000. Though the ozone hole can fluctuate annually due to natural factors, scientists are cautiously optimistic that we are now headed on the right trajectory.

     Have we taken the ozone depletion battle into the end zone? Not yet, but we appear to at least be in the red zone. It is hard to imagine the catastrophic health problems we would have today if some far-sighted people had not taken remedial actions almost three decades ago. We would be wise to remember this as we think about climate change and future generations.

Bottom line: The similarities between the ozone depletion crisis and the climate change challenges we face today are astonishing, and there are two important lessons we can learn from it:

  1. For those who think there is little we can do about a global atmospheric problem, take heart in what we were able to accomplish as a global community working together on the ozone depletion challenge, and
  2. Challenges of this magnitude have long, deeply-imbedded timeframes, and the best chance for success comes from addressing them sooner rather than later; a fact worth considering as we focus on the climate change challenge.

    For more information, please visit our website at 

                                                                                                                                              Mike Conley

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