Why can’t we do with climate change what we did with the ozone layer?


Readers may remember the scare over the hole in the ozone layer that appeared over Antarctica and had been growing at an alarming rate. That layer protected the Earth from dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation and the danger posed by the hole resulted in concerted action to try and combat it. The 1987 Montreal Protocol targeted the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)that were believed to be the main cause of the rupture and the good news is that those efforts seem to be bearing fruit.

A gaping hole in the ozone layer has been opening up over Antarctica each spring for decades. And now there are signs that the slow process of healing has begun, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

Scientists credit this progress to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that phased out chemicals that eat away at the ozone layer, which shields our planet from deadly levels of radiation.

“The healing of the Antarctic stratospheric ozone level is the most significant environmental success story of the 20th century,” Michael Newchurch, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville who was not part of the study, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Solomon’s new research finds that the ozone hole has shrunk by over 1.5 million square miles in September since 2000, which is about half of the area of the contiguous United States.

“This is further evidence that phasing out the CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals is working to heal the ozone layer,” David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council who was not part of the study, tells the Monitor.

“The bad news is that we really messed up the ozone layer,” he says. “The good news is that we can save the ozone layer and we are restoring it by eliminating these manmade chemicals that are responsible for the damage.”

The paper, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, can be seen here (subscription required).

What seems incredible now is that scientists first published work on the problems caused by CFCs in the upper atmosphere in 1973. Of course, the manufacturers of those chemicals (like DuPont) ridiculed those findings and it was the discovery of the sudden increase of the hole in 1985 that so galvanized governments around the world that action was quickly taken.

Newchurch says the Montreal Protocol is a good example of the scientific process in action. Scientists were able to determine what was triggering this ozone depletion and how humans could fix it. “It is the best process we know for solving real, physical problems,” he says of the scientific process.

Unfortunately, we see that nowadays with even more serious problems like global warming and climate change, people are ignoring the danger and listening to wealthy industrialists rather than scientists. In the US, the rise of anti-science religious sentiment that denies that there is a problem and feels confident that everything is safely in god’s hands, combined with an ultra-nationalist attitude that sees cooperating with the rest of the world as a sign of weakness, is slowing down any similar action.

Comments

  1. Dunc says

    CFCs weren’t fundamental to our civilisation in the way that fossil fuels are, they weren’t the entire core business of many of the richest companies on the planet, and there were readily-available substitutes that weren’t significantly more expensive. We didn’t have to fundamentally redesign any of the technologies that used them, never mind abandon some of those technologies altogether. Climate change is a much more difficult problem.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Some reasons why the analogy doesn’t hold up:

    For the CFC-ozone problem, a simple remedy was available: switch to different refrigerants and curtail use of certain gases. This was actually good for industry, since they got to sell replacements for all existing air conditioners.

    For global warming, no easy remedy is in sight. Solar and wind power are nice, but each has limitations and it would be difficult to scale them up to full replacement of fossil fuels.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    In the wake of Montreal, most of industry was able to carry on doing what they were doing anyway, only with slightly more dangerous propellants, slightly more dangerous refrigerants, and much, much less effective fire-fighting equipment. The ozone hole had a narrowly defined range of causes that could be relatively easily replaced.

    In contrast, climate change doesn’t have a single cause. Sure, fossil fuels are an easy target and make for good tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories, but a Western diet rich in the meat of (methane-belching) cattle is also a significant cause. It’s hard enough to imagine telling Yanks to drive smaller, less powerfu cars, try telling them that they also have to lay off the burgers, permanently.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    … but a Western diet rich in the meat of (methane-belching) cattle is also a significant cause.

    Meh. If you ate the hay instead of the beef, you would be doing the belching, so I think there is not much net effect.

  5. corwyn says

    “Solar and wind power are nice, but each has limitations and it would be difficult to scale them up to full replacement of fossil fuels.”

    Not this myth again…

    Meeting the current energy consumption of the world is difficult. Doing it with Solar and Wind is cheaper and easier than doing it with fossil fuels. It is just that we have already become inured to the cost of fossil fuels, so we don’t notice it.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I want to emphasize what Dunc said in #1.

    Of course, we could fix the global warming problem and ocean acidification problem just as easily as we fixed the CFC problem, but that would require doing something that the liberal anti-scientific left doesn’t want to do, and that is nuclear. I’ve seen designs that, barring unfixable problems discovered during prototyping, could be available for mass production in less than 4 years. It would be about as cheap as coal, maybe a little cheaper, and it would be a hell of a lot safer and cleaner. However, the scientifically illiterate left would rather go down burning coal and oil while fixating on their solar and wind fetish, instead of doing what needs to be done, which is a massive roll-out of nuclear.

    This is what we should be doing right now:
    http://thorconpower.com/docs/domsr.pdf

    To corwyn in 6.

    Politely but strongly disagreed. The problem of solar and wind is intermittancy, and energy storage is currently an unsolved problem. The fundamental problem is the thermodynamics. It takes so much energy to produce batteries, such as the energy to purify the metal for the batteries, that when you do end-to-end lifecycle analysis of the energy inputs and outputs, you find that solar cells plus batteries require more energy to produce than what they give back (approx)!

    https://bravenewclimate.com/2014/08/22/catch-22-of-energy-storage/

    Note that the above page cites an article analyzing the problem for Germany. Even for the most optimistic conditions, i.e. Southern Spain or the Sahara desert, solar cells only reach an unbuffered EROEI of about 15. However, with lead acid batteries for example, the buffered EROEI comes out to about 1.71. If we ignore the costs of the solar cells and associated equipment, and focus only on the energy cost of the lead acid batteries, it only gets as high as 2.26. That’s comparable to using only farm animals instead of using fossil fuels. That cannot sustain an industrial civilization. Other battery technologies are not substantially better. Solar and wind simply cannot solve the problem of global warming and ocean acidification – barring a radical breakthrough in energy storage technology.

    For a breakdown of the citations, input numbers, and simple calculations that go into this, please see here:

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1_0aZwNFdJIZW8MG1P-D7NjaY3Hc6DkEe42lSFlcULHk/edit

  7. Dunc says

    I’ve seen designs that, barring unfixable problems discovered during prototyping, could be available for mass production in less than 4 years. It would be about as cheap as coal, maybe a little cheaper, and it would be a hell of a lot safer and cleaner.

    I’ve heard this song before, and I would very much like to see an actual pilot programme before I bet the future of humanity on yet another generation of NPPs that look good on paper, but have never actually been constructed.

    I also don’t believe that it’s “the liberal anti-scientific left” that’s preventing this from happening. We have a new NPP programme supposedly going ahead (but actually stalled) here in the UK, despite the (fairly muted) opposition from the usual suspects, and the only thing stopping it is that the companies involved can’t figure out how much it’s going to cost or where to find the money, despite having a 35-year guaranteed inflation-linked strike price at nearly twice the current market rate.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    we could fix the global warming problem and ocean acidification problem just as easily as we fixed the CFC problem

    No, we couldn’t, because for starters you’ve acknowledged even in what you’ve written there that that’s two problems, not one, and each of those problems is more complex and multifaceted than the ozone layer problem was. That’s not to say it’s not fixable, but there isn’t a single fix. The just isn’t that easy. However, something you said next explains why you think it is…

    I’ve seen designs that, barring unfixable problems discovered during prototyping, could be available for mass production in less than 4 years.

    LOL. Spoken like someone who never
    (a) prototyped anything and
    (b) applied for a fifty billion dollar loan.

  9. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Dunc

    I’ve heard this song before, and I would very much like to see an actual pilot programme before I bet the future of humanity on yet another generation of NPPs that look good on paper, but have never actually been constructed.

    In the US, we’ve spent 25 billion in the last decade or two on the solar pipedream. I just want one or two of that billion to spend on next-gen reactor design, such as ThorCon and the IFR. If it’s a flop, then it’s a flop, but breeder nuclear technologies are our best bet by far. They’re the closest to being ready to deployment. Some of the next-gen designs don’t require new technological breakthroughs, and I’m advocating for those in particular.

    I also don’t believe that it’s “the liberal anti-scientific left” that’s preventing this from happening. We have a new NPP programme supposedly going ahead (but actually stalled) here in the UK, despite the (fairly muted) opposition from the usual suspects, and the only thing stopping it is that the companies involved can’t figure out how much it’s going to cost or where to find the money, despite having a 35-year guaranteed inflation-linked strike price at nearly twice the current market rate.

    I sincerely doubt it. Again, I indirectly know some of the guys on the ThorCon team, and they would love to do their thing, but no western country will take them, because of the asinine nuclear regulations in play, i.e. regulations designed for light water reactors that cannot accommodate a new design, and regulations that are for a per-site basis instead of a per-design basis, and regulations for “as low as reasonably possible” instead of “conservative safe limit”. The “as low as reasonably possible” always means a constant ratcheting up of regulations, and constant lawsuits and design changes, and that is one of the killers of new nuclear. It’s the regulatory uncertainty and oftentimes outright regulatory impossibility.

    To sonofrojblake
    Protips:
    Ocean acidification is happening because of burning of fossil fuels increases CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. The ocean and the atmosphere are roughly in equilibrium for CO2 concentrations, so increasing CO2 in the air will also CO2 in the water. When CO2 dissolves in water, it creates carbonic acid. Therefore, decreasing CO2 production, and even reversing it by pulling CO2 out of the air (which can be done), will also reduce ocean acidity.

  10. Dunc says

    Sorry, what exactly is it that you “sincerely doubt”? That we have a government-backed programme for the construction of new NPPs, starting at Hinkley Point C, which is currently mired in funding difficulties? This is all a matter of public record.

    Interestingly, there were some regulatory hurdles in the way of Hinkely C, but they had nothing to do with nuclear safety – they were all about restrictions on state aid to private enterprises. But ways were found around them, which is what usually happens to regulations which stand in the way of things that are either sufficiently profitable or have adequate political backing.

    If you want money to spend on next-gen reactor design, all you have to do is convince investors. Unfortunately, “we have a neat idea, can we have a couple of billion dollars to try and figure out if we can actually make it work?” is not the most enticing pitch. Still, you could always ask the fusion guys to check down the back of their sofas for loose change…

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