Sometimes a problem is so huge and so far beyond our immediate control that it seems impossible to tackle. Why bother doing anything when our tiny effort can’t have any real effect? Besides, change is hard.
One such problem has been in and out of the news for decades – depletion of the ozone layer. Almost 50 years ago, scientists around the world figured out that the ozone layer was being damaged by a family of “wonder chemicals” called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These chemicals were used in all types of products from military systems to refrigerators to cans of hairspray. At first, of course, there was disagreement and disbelief by some. Then in 1985 a paper was published in the journal Nature that shocked the scientific community and the world by reporting evidence of an ozone hole over Antarctica.
At ground level, ozone is a pollutant that is damaging to people’s health and is the main ingredient in smog. However, about 20 miles above the Earth in the stratosphere there is a layer of ozone that is critical to protecting our health by filtering the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Without that protection, we would be subject to increased skin cancer, cataracts and weakened immune systems. We would also see reductions in crop yields and damage to the marine food chain.
So once it became clear that the ozone layer was being damaged by our actions, it was obvious this was a serious threat to people all around the world. In a remarkable demonstration of effective global cooperation, the Montreal Protocol was finalized in 1987. It is a global agreement to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) including CFCs.
I won’t get into the chemistry of how CFCs and other ODS react with ozone (even though it is really interesting!), but an important point is that once we reduce our emissions of these chemicals, the ozone layer will recover in about 50 years to its full natural level and continue giving us its critical protection.
This recovery is measurable, and progress was being made, but then we hit a snag. Starting in 2014 there was an unexpected increase in emissions of a chemical named CFC-11, even though it had been banned since 2010 by the Montreal Protocol. Researchers determined about half of that illegal pollution was from eastern China. This increase continued until 2017.
Since 2017, there has been a significant decrease in illicit CFC-11 production, most likely due to increased rigorous regulation enforcement in China and elsewhere. Now we are back on track for the ozone layer to be healthy again and the ozone hole to be closed in the next 50 years.
I look at this entire story as a learning experience for the world, summarized like this:
First, there was scientific understanding of a problem and its cause, which generated a global collective will to make the necessary changes. Then action was taken that included regulation and changes to how we do things. The process put in place worked, including identification and elimination of “cheating.” At the beginning there were some who did not believe the science or said the change would be too hard or too expensive. They were wrong.
We now face the nasty big brother of ozone depletion: climate change, which has potential impacts even more severe than increased UV radiation, threatening the health of nearly every human, animal and plant on Earth. Addressing climate change is the biggest challenge faced by our generation and the next. We have a scientific understanding of the problem and its cause. Now we need to work to create the collective will to make the necessary changes.
We don’t need to wait for more global treaties. We can take meaningful actions ourselves now to reduce our own carbon footprint. We can take direct actions such as installing solar panels, converting from gas to electric appliances, increasing vehicle fuel mileage (or going hybrid or electric) and increasing energy efficiency at home. We can also take meaningful, less direct actions like buying local products that require minimal shipping and buying products with the least amount of disposable packaging. We can also support city, county, state and national programs for reductions in carbon emissions.
Change can indeed be hard. But the solution to climate change is for everyone to make changes for ourselves. These tiny efforts summed up are the only way we can achieve the necessary global change.