What Can The Ozone Layer Teach Us?

A New Hole?

Recently, the internet has been abuzz with news of a “new ozone hole,” one that is supposedly seven times larger than the previous one and could potentially speed the warming of our planet up even more.

Before starting to freak out, know that this report has been met with wide skepticism and a lack of any real concern from much of the scientific community. The report uses an unconventional definition of the term “ozone hole” and fails to draw from any of the previous scientific literature in the vast, well-studied library of atmospheric science, leading many of the author’s peers to dispute its validity.

Despite the likelihood that the claims of a massive, globally disruptive, never-before-seen tropical ozone hole are false or misleading, the report does elicit an important question.

⁉️ Whatever happened to the old hole in the ozone layer?

Back in the days before the majority of the world started getting their news from Facebook, the problem of the hole in the ozone layer used to be a huge issue, commonly analyzed on nightly news.

Fast forward to the 2020s, and it’s hardly ever mentioned.

Why? It got solved.

Unlike pretty much everything else in the world of climate science, the story of the hole in the ozone layer is actually a resounding success story.

🌎 In order to solve the imminent climate challenges the world is facing, we must take a look at the story of the ozone hole: what went right, what we can copy from the solution, and, most importantly, what we cannot copy from the solution and must do instead.

The (Real) Hole in the Ozone Layer, Explained

Ozone is a substance made up of three oxygen molecules that exists within our atmosphere.  High up, in the stratosphere, ozone is considered good since it reflects ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, keeping our planet cool and preventing skin cancer. This level is what is referred to as the ozone layer.

Unfortunately, ozone has a weakness. Specific halogen gases, called ozone-depleting substances (ODS), destroy ozone in a chemical reaction when they come in contact with each other.

For a long time, this fact was not a problem. Before the industrial revolution, the amount of ODS that made their way up to the stratosphere was far below the amount that would cause damage to the ozone layer as a whole.

It’s almost as if our planet and its inhabitants had gone through billions of years of natural processes that had resulted in a stable ecosystem!

Then, in the late 1960s, an idea was proposed to create supersonic jets-passenger planes that traveled at three times the speed of sound.

Despite their equal hatred for spending long hours sharing cigarette-smoke-filled pressurized air cabins with dozens of strangers, scientists were skeptical of this idea, believing the emissions might harm our ozone layer.

That turned out to be a non-issue, but it did start to get scientists thinking about what might cause harm to our ozone layer, which led to the discovery that it was already at risk.

🌎 The following saga of saving our ozone layer would eventually go on to give us key insights into how we should approach the larger issue of the climate crisis in the 21st century.

Patching the Hole: A Timeline

(TL;DR at bottom of section)

📅 1973: Chemists at UC Irvine discover that substances called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had the potential to harm the ozone layer.
📅 1975: The mainstream media picks up on the story, and the US government launches initiatives to prove or disprove the findings.
📅 1976: The US National Academy of Sciences confirms the findings in a Congress-requested report.
📅 1977: The US federal agencies responsible for regulating the environment, food and drugs, and the safety of consumer products all announced a phase-out of CFCs, with a full ban by 1979.
📅 1985: British satellites and the British Antarctic Survey detect and prove that there is a massive hole in our ozone layer above Antarctica.
📅 1986: Spurred by this detection, three independent studies link CFCs to the hole in the ozone layer, proving the original theory from 1973 beyond any reasonable doubt.
📅 1987: Almost half of the world’s countries, including all of Western Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan, adopt the Montreal Protocol, a global agreement to phase out and ban ODS to protect the ozone layer.
📅 1992: The protocol’s Copenhagen amendment is ratified, with regulations that were significantly more strict.
Effects of the Montreal Protocol and subsequent updates
📅 2018: NASA announces the first proof of ozone layer healing in the form of a 20% depletion reduction.
📄 TL;DR: Scientists found a potential problem that would affect the world negatively. The media picked up the story and communicated it effectively to the population, and the US government took quick and decisive action to stop it. Later, scientists proved that the problem wasn’t solved, and the media again picked up the story and effectively communicated it to the population. World governments compromised to take regulatory action, and updated their agreement over time according to the latest science in order to take the necessary steps to solve the problem. 40 years later, despite heavy corporate lobbying and influence-peddling at every step of the way, the problem is on its way to being solved and will be fully solved in another few decades. Sounds simple, right?

What We Can Replicate?

In climate science, it’s rare to have a success story. This is a fact we need to change, seeing as the largest problem facing the 21st century is the potential impact on human life that a changing climate presents.

The ozone layer was one sub-issue that made up the larger “climate crisis”, and it’s one of the only ones that has had significant progress made. Why is that? What did we do right, and how can we replicate that?

1. World Cooperation 🌍

Many of the world’s national political systems have been broken for years, with many more beginning to decay before our eyes. However, cooperation between countries at a geopolitical level is still a system that is working decently well, evidenced by the swift semi-global reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Climate agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Climate Accord have been signed, but the overwhelming evidence points to these agreements not being good enough to solve the issues at hand. Just like world governments did in Copenhagen for the ozone layer, our leaders should take updated science and deploy that into stricter regulations.

2. Clear Communication 🗣

The Earth’s climate is incredibly complicated in the first place. When tacking on the fact that climate science, like all science, is littered with gate-kept academic jargon that doesn’t exactly roll off of the tongue well, what we’re left with is a huge communication and understanding problem.

Both online and in conversation, those of us who can explain problems of climate science should learn from the American nightly news media of the 1970s and 1980s by being patient and understanding, avoiding the use of fancy science words whenever possible, and maximizing the amount of personal connections to an issue.

Creating a sense of personal connection to the issue, like the news showing Big Mac wrappers as examples of CFCs, helps people better remember the issue and displays the reality that the climate crisis is not invisible, but rather a common part of our everyday lives.

On the flip side those of us who want to understand more should have no shame in asking and no shame in feeling intimidated if something makes no sense.

The majority of the American public had no idea what a fluorocarbon was before 1975, but less than five years later, many of them were throwing out their personal hairspray cans because of them, showing that clear communication can make an immediate impact.

✏️ Side note: Understanding takes time, and patience. However, it also relies on people having access to simple, easy-to-understand explanations of complex topics. The Learn initiative was created for that exact purpose, so feel free to check it out here if you’d like to learn more about our climate and how to fix it.

What Can We Not Replicate?

While the ozone layer issue provides a good framework for global problem-solving, there are things about the world that have changed since then, particularly in the USA, that prevent us from utilizing our institutions in the same way that we did all those years ago. The best we can do is acknowledge those changes, and work to find solutions that go around them.

1. The Media’s Role

In the fight to fix the hole in the ozone layer, the media played their role extremely well.

A story about invisible gases causing an invisible hole in the sky isn’t exactly easy to understand for the general population, and the journalistic integrity to run that story because of its importance should not be understated.

Any news story is only as impactful as how the core points are communicated, and in the case of the ozone layer story, the communication was great. It isn’t easy to engage audiences when your story includes words like “chlorofluorocarbon”, but it was accomplished nonetheless. Media exists to inform people about relevant truths, and in this case, the entire institution did its job perfectly.

If you haven’t noticed, that isn’t exactly how it works anymore.

The big change was in the late 1980s, with the repealing of the “Fairness Doctrine”, a law that required differing opinions to be broadcasted together on the news. This led to the rise of partisan talk radio and nightly news, which caught on quickly. Apparently, humans like when they only hear things they already agree with.

While that was only a change in the US, it would end up having dire consequences for the world. The cultural impact of partisan news had embedded itself into how people in the United States lived and thought by the time that social media came around. So when social media started gaining popularity, almost all of which were US companies, there was a natural recreation of the atmosphere of one-sided news.

Fast forward to today, and social media, complete with the culture of partisanship and interaction-seeking algorithms that perpetuate it, has become the primary way that the world gets news. This is a stark difference from the media institutions that prevailed for us in the fight to fix the ozone layer.

🌎 If we’re really going to fix the climate crisis, we can’t depend on mainstream media like we did in the past. Largely, we’ll need to educate ourselves.
2. The Government’s Role

In a related issue, governments have also lost a significant amount of their ability to help us fix the climate crisis. Way back in 1975, when reports of the potential harm to the ozone layer first started appearing, Congress acted quickly, beginning by issuing demands for investigations into the validity of the science.

Read that again.

Congress acted quickly”

Not exactly words that are commonly used to describe the current US Congress.

A few significant changes have occurred since the issue of the ozone layer was at hand that have deteriorated the power of the US government, such as trade agreements, corporate deregulation across many sectors, and the rise of China, but none were more impactful than Citizens United.

💡 Citizens United v. Federal Electoral Committee was a 2009 Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled restrictions on corporate campaign finance expenditures were illegal.

The ruling granted corporations and other organizations an unobscured path to put unlimited amounts of money into the hands of elected officials—something that other US laws call “bribery.”

With bribery of elected officials now legal, the interests of corporations were vaulted to the top of the priority list.

In the 1970s, both elected officials and the unelected bodies of three separate regulatory agencies leapt into action, siding with the public over the chemical industry. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on that level of protection from our government anymore.

👉 With corporate interests now having a more direct and tangible route to political influence, necessary climate action from the government is much less likely.
Across the World 🌍

Unfortunately, the government issue is not just a US problem. Every government in the world faces a long-term energy problem, and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has drastically altered many countries’ energy plans.

With citizens facing potential energy blackouts, governments around the world have dropped investment in long-term renewable energy initiatives and are becoming more lenient with and dependent on legacy energy companies, whose business model revolves around mass amounts of harmful emissions.

Even Germany, a country that at one point bought out their entire coal industry in an act to save the climate and reduce dependency on unsustainable energy, has reneged on many of their climate goals.

🍃 Long gone are the days where public interest takes priority in the decisions and scope of power of world governments. If we really want to stop the climate crisis, a lot of the action will need to come from outside of governments.

So . . . What Can We Do?

There isn’t going to be an all-encompassing solution to the issues that the climate crisis presents, and the various solutions that are out there are subject to change as our scientific understanding evolves.

Additionally, the decay of the global institutions that once helped us means every solution that we come up with will be significantly more difficult to implement than it was in the past.

Fortunately, the case study of the ozone layer provides us with a few lessons that we can take into the fight for the climate as a whole:

1. Attempt to Return Our Institutions to Glory

“Glory” is a bit of a stretch. By no means did the media and governments, US or global, ever deserve to be described as glorious.

They did, however, used to represent the public interest (you know, the exact task they were both designed to do) a lot better than they do now, and demanding action to reform them will make the global transition to sustainability easier at every step of the way.

2. Acknowledge Our Personal Responsibility

While we should attempt to make our institutions better, we should also be realistic about their current status, and take into account the fact that institutional decline leaves the responsibility with us.

Going vegetarian and taking shorter showers is great, but they’re not enough to solve the issue at hand, and may even do more harm than good by distracting people from the real issue.

Many “sustainable” initiatives are wildly misleading in how they purport to help the environment, with some of them (looking at you, plastic recycling) going past the label of “greenwashing” and venturing into the territory of blatant corporate propaganda based on outright lies.

If the public thinks that plastic recycling is working, then they are not going to be concerned about the environment…but there’s no recovery from an obsolete product.” -Larry Thomas, former president of the Plastics Industry Association, describing the reasoning behind the plastic industry’s decision to fund public recycling initiatives.

It is imperative to know that acknowledging our personal responsibility to solve the climate crisis does not mean allowing the people and organizations responsible for emissions (71% of which come from just 100 companies, by the way) to shift the blame on to us.

Instead, it means that we need to be cognizant of the incredible power we have (anyone fortunate enough to be reading these words is undoubtedly more influential than billions of fellow humans) and use that power in a way that advances climate goals.

How, you might ask?

This article throws a lot of blame onto institutions-corporations, the media, governments. While none of that blame is unwarranted, there is a key saving grace about institutions that we can use to our advantage in the coming fight for the climate:

Institutions are really just groups of people, and people, no matter who they are, will suffer from the effects of the climate crisis.

In the absence of help from our world leaders, it’s our own personal institutions that need to step up.

We are all part of one. Your company or your university or your local government has power, and you have influence to shape how that power gets used.

Pitch your bosses about the merits of carbon offsets, a solution that bypasses the need for government action. Too shy for that? Start a campus blog about ways your school unnecessarily pollutes. Too much work? Put a question about ocean acidification as a hook in your Tinder bio so that anyone wanting to strike up a conversation gets educated in the process. Any effort helps, no matter how small.

If there is a silver lining about the climate crisis, it’s that it is the ultimate uniting issue of our time- even oil CEOs actively fighting against sustainable initiatives will eventually face serious repercussions from the changing climate. It’s inevitable that over time, your efforts will fall on sympathetic ears and really make a difference.

To truly take responsibility for our climate, those of us who find ourselves in positions of power must leverage it for our future.

3. Know It’s Possible

Without a doubt, the most important takeaway that we can glean from the story of the ozone layer is this:

🗣 We can do it.

The climate crisis is the most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced, and it’s landing on us a time where we seem to be more divided than ever. Especially when going down the rabbit holes about the scary feedback loops that make catastrophe even more imminent, at times, the fight for our future seems fruitless.

It’s not.

We have all of the necessary technology to solve it, and as much research as we could ever hope for. All that fixing the climate crisis really requires now is enough of us being on the same page about how important an issue it is to solve, and coordinating on how to go about doing so. Fixing the ozone hole required the exact same things, and we did it.

🌎 While it’s going to be harder this time around, the saga of the ozone layer proves that humanity has the capability to problem-solve on a global scale. That alone is reason for optimism.

Thanks for reading! If you’re someone who’s interested in helping the climate, you’re in the right place.

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