Here’s rare good news about an environmental crisis: We dodged disaster with the ozone layer.
A NASA study about ozone-munching chemicals [CFCs] from aerosol sprays and refrigeration used a computer model to play a game of what-if. What if the world 22 years ago didn’t agree to cut back on chlorofluorocarbons which cause a seasonal ozone hole to form near the South Pole?
NASA atmospheric scientist Paul Newman said the answer is a “bizarre world.” By 2065, two-thirds of the protective ozone layer would have vanished and “the ozone hole covers the Earth.” And the CFCs… would have pushed the world’s temperature up an extra 4 degrees.
In mid-latitudes like Washington, DNA-damaging ultraviolet radiation would have increased more than sixfold. Just 5 minutes in the summer sunshine would have caused a sunburn, instead of 15… Summer thunderstorms in the Northern Hemisphere would have been much stronger. “[This world] is a real horrible place,” Newman told The Associated Press.
The history of CFCs began when Thomas Midgley invented them in the 1930s. Midgley’s other famous invention was leaded gasoline which was perhaps the second worst chemical innovation in human history. Leaded gas poisoned generations until it too was banned around the world. Whereas everyone knew that lead was poisonous all along, it wasn’t until 1974 that scientists first realized that CFCs were silently causing environmental problems. Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina raised the first questions about CFCs and ultimately won the 1995 Nobel Prize for chemistry for their work. The Nobel committee credited them with helping avoid a global environmental disaster. As a result of Rowland and Molina’s work, the US banned CFCs from aerosols in late 1978 despite the efforts of the CFC manufacturers who fought against the scientific evidence. Jeffrey Masters explains how the CFC industry reacted:
DuPont, which made 1/4 of the world’s CFCs, spent millions of dollars running full-page newspaper advertisements defending CFCs in 1975, claiming there was no proof that CFCs were harming the ozone layer. Chairman Scorer of DuPont commented that the ozone depletion theory was “a science fiction tale…a load of rubbish…utter nonsense.” (Chemical Week, 16 July 1975).
The aerosol industry also launched a PR blitz, issuing a press release stating that the ozone destruction by CFCs was a theory, and not fact. This press release, and many other ‘news stories’ favorable to industry, were generated by the aerosol industry and printed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, Business Week, and the London Observer (Blysky and Blysky, 1985). The symbol of Chicken Little claiming that “The sky is falling!” was used with great effect by the PR campaign, and appeared in various newspaper headlines.
Such biased news reporting is hardly unusual in American journalism; several studies have shown that press releases are the basis for 40 – 50% of the content of U.S. newspapers (Lee and Solomon, 1990; Blysky and Blysky, 1985). The material appears to be written by the paper’s own journalists, but is hardly changed from the press release.
The CEO of Pennwalt, the third largest CFC manufacturer in the U.S., talked of “economic chaos” if CFC use was to be phased out (Cogan, 1988). DuPont, the largest CFC manufacturer, warned that the costs in the U.S. alone could exceed $135 billion, and that “entire industries could fold” (Glas, 1989). The Association of European Chemical Companies warned that CFC regulation might lead to “redesign and re-equipping of large sectors of vital industry…, smaller firms going out of business… and an effect on inflation and unemployment, nationally and internationally”….
CFC industry companies hired the world’s largest public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, who organized a month-long U.S. speaking tour in 1975 for noted British scientist Richard Scorer, a former editor of the International Journal of Air Pollution and author of several books on pollution. Scorer blasted Molina and Rowland [whose work later won the Nobel Prize], calling them “doomsayers”, and remarking, “The only thing that has been accumulated so far is a number of theories.” Molina’s response was, “The gentleman is good at attacking. But he has never published any scientific papers on the subject.” (Roan, 1985).
Jeffrey Master’s article also shows how the ozone political battle featured some of the same PR companies and scientists as the public debate over the dangers of tobacco and the later efforts to discredit the scientific findings about global warming.
DuPont and other CFC manufacturers funded the “Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy” to fight against the scientific evidence about CFCs and they battled against the scientists for about a decade to prevent regulations that could cut into their profits from producing CFCs. Then the CFC industry abruptly abandoned their fight and joined forces with the environmentalists. They suddenly agreed that CFCs should be banned! One reason was fear of legal liability for causing skin cancer, particularly in the litigious United States:
DuPont acted faster than their European counterparts as they may have feared court action related to increased skin cancer, especially as the EPA had published a study in 1986 claiming that an additional 40 million cases and 800,000 cancer deaths were to be expected in the US in the next 88 years. (Wikipedia)
One reason why opposition to CFCs strengthened in the mid 1980s was the discovery of an ozone hole over Antarctica. Vivid images of the hole were published in 1985 and the images made the issue more salient to the public than the statistics had been. Images are much more powerful for mobilizing public opinion than abstract data. Perhaps they finally also convinced the CFC industry to re-evaluate their business model and look for profits elsewhere. As Stuart Fox notes:
Three British scientists shocked the world when they revealed on May 16th, 1985… that [CFCs] had torn a hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole. The ozone layer, which protects life on Earth from damaging solar radiation, became an overnight sensation. And the hole in the ozone layer became the poster-child for mankind’s impact on the planet.
Today, the ozone hole — actually a region of thinned ozone, not actually a pure hole — doesn’t make headlines like it used to. The size of the hole has stabilized, thanks to decades of aerosol-banning legislation …the 1989 Montreal Protocol.
…Additionally, the ozone layer is blocking more cancer-causing radiation than any time in a decade because its average thickness has increased, according to a 2006 United Nations report. Atmospheric levels of ozone-depleting chemicals have reached their lowest levels since peaking in the 1990s, and the hole has begun to shrink.
Below is the original 1985 picture of the ozone hole from NASA that helped spur the political will to ban CFCs.
There are more beautiful pictures at NASA’s Ozone Hole Watch.
Perhaps the biggest reason for DuPont’s change in heart is that they saw that they could make higher profits by supporting a CFC ban. One of DuPont’s strategic CFC manufacturing patents expired in 1979 which reduced their incentive to fight and their new patents for HCFCs would be much more profitable if CFCs were eliminated from competition.
In a 1986 turnabout, DuPont with new patents in hand, publicly condemned CFCs. DuPont representatives appeared before the Montreal Protocol urging that CFCs be banned worldwide and stated that their new HCFCs would meet the worldwide demand for refrigerants. (Wikipedia)
When the CFC industry got their new patents, they abruptly reversed course and the CFC ban was rapidly enacted because the big corporate interests and the environmentalists both agreed that it should be banned.
People often say that the Montreal Protocol gives hope for reaching international agreement on global warming, but the political battle over CFCs is completely different from the battle over global warming because:
- The CFC ban was swift and successful because the CFC companies saw that the ban could get them more profit by producing the replacement for CFCs. Unfortunately, a reduction in fossil fuels is not going to be profitable for the fossil fuel industry. Several oil companies like BP have tried to become leaders in alternative energy, but that simply isn’t their competitive advantage. Oil firms are good at extracting oil. Other kinds of firms have the very different skills that make them better at producing alternative energy. When petroleum replaced whale oil for lighting (lamps), the whaling companies did not become oil companies. They went bankrupt. When we reduce reliance on fossil fuels (and it is inevitable since fossil fuels are finite) the fossil fuel companies will have justifiable fears of becoming fossils themselves. Therefore, they won’t have a sudden policy reversal like the CFC companies had. The fossil fuel companies will fight to the death since fossil fuel is the lifeblood of fossil fuel industry and it is very unlikely that they will be able to shift to alternative sources of energy.
- There are thousands of times more dollars at stake in the fossil fuel industry than the CFC industry. Shell alone has revenues that were 12 times bigger than DuPont’s in 2013 and there are dozens of fossil fuel companies that are at least double the size of DuPont. Whereas CFCs only produced a small fraction of DuPont’s revenues, fossil fuel companies get nearly 100% of their revenues from fossil fuels. The CFC industry was a tiny pipsqueak compared with the combined might of the oil, gas, and coal industries, but even so, the CFC industry managed to dominate the public debate about the issues. Whereas the CFC industry only earns a few billion dollars in revenues, the fossil fuel industry has revenues that are hundreds of times higher.
- There aren’t any pictures that help the public directly visualize global warming like the dramatic ozone hole pictures demonstrate the physical effect of CFCs. Ordinary people simply don’t get excited about statistics and that is the only kind of evidence that climate scientists can show.
- People have an immediate fear of skin cancer that makes ozone feel more immediate than the dangers of global warming. Ronald Reagan had surgical operations to remove skin cancers shortly before he signed the Montreal Protocol and that personal experience may have boosted his enthusiasm for the treaty.
The first global environmental threat to humanity has a happy ending, but it isn’t likely that the global warming story will play out in the same way. In fact, CFCs and HCFCs are both potent greenhouse gasses and the same group that banned CFCs is trying to replace them with climate-friendly refrigerants like Ammonia, but the US won’t sign the agreement.