Why the Ozone Hole Prompted Global Action—and Why Climate Change Hasn't

By Andrew Moseman | May 6, 2010 12:44 pm

Ozone2009Twenty-five years ago this month, British scientists announced their discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica. That bolt from the blue spurred perhaps the best-coordinated international response to an environmental crisis to date. Now, scientists can’t help but wonder: Why didn’t the same thing happen with climate change?

Looking back on the ozone problem: Even before the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer—that blanket of three-oxygen “ozone” molecules that protect us from much of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation—researchers worried about pollutants destroying those highly reactive molecules. The British scientists’ 1985 announcement confirmed that daunting reality.

Technically a substantial thinning of the ozone layer, the ozone “hole” has been opening every spring since the 1970s, the scientists reported. Their data, collected at the Halley Research Station in Antarctica, suggested that CFCs were to blame. That’s because atmospheric conditions during the cold, dark, Antarctic winters were building stockpiles of CFCs over the South Pole [National Geographic].

But only two years later, in 1987, the United Nations approved the Montreal Protocol against the use of CFCs, and it took effect in 1989. Today the ozone hole still opens up—and it’s still large—because problematic pollutants like chlorine linger for decades. Thus, the ozone layer may not return to its former fullness until the late 21st century, but quick international action did stabilize the problem.

Given that success, the British scientists couldn’t help but look back on the anniversary of their discovery and ponder the vast difference between the global response to the ozone hole and the lingering hostility and uncertainty that keeps climate negotiations stuck in neutral. Writing in this week’s edition of the journal Nature (where the team published the original study in 1985), ozone hole co-discoverer Jonathan Shanklin notes that his find presented a clear danger, with clear solutions:

The public was keen to see action: the evidence was strong and clear; the hole sounded threatening; and there was a link between thinning ozone and cancer. And the public did not feel bullied or threatened — no one was telling them to radically change their way of life. There was a problem, and something could be done about it. By contrast, the evidence for man-made climate change is less clear-cut to the average person. And people are given the impression that civilization will collapse unless they abandon cars and radically change their lives in other difficult ways. Not surprisingly, there is confusion and resistance [Nature].

Joe Farman, another co-author of the original ozone paper, was much more candid in his assessment of climate science, given in an interview with the BBC this week.

He criticised politicians for failing to lead on issues like climate change – it was “damned stupid” to keep increasing emissions of CO2 when we know it is a warming gas, he said. But, in a nod to climate sceptics, he also blamed the scientific establishment for failing to take specific criticisms of detailed climate science seriously enough [BBC News].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Hole Story
80beats: Today’s Biggest Threat to the Ozone Layer: Laughing Gas
80beats: Ozone Hole + Global Warming  = More Ice Here, Less Ice There

Image: NASA, the hole in 2009

  • Brian Too

    Good question, very good indeed.

    Back in the middle 80’s, there was no Web, no blogging. People were still willing to defer to authority figures. Now everyone’s opinion appears to have the same value, the Web is largely anonymous, and we don’t have good mechanisms to filter/collate all those opinions all shouting heedlessly, demanding attention.

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts


    1. CFCs were not a gigantic worldwide industry, fuelling the entire world economy. Substitutes were easy to find, at little conversion cost to industry.

    2. See no. 1.

  • Aaron Kaminsky

    The decision to ban CFC was a clear cut initiative, and it really didn’t involve any lifestyle change for the average citizen. Climate change however is not a clear cut solution, it requires an integrated approach to change the way we view and use energy as a civilization. It will require people to change many things in their lives, and will also cause radical changes in our economy.

    That said it needs to be done. So, humanity, nut up or shut up.

  • prp

    nut up or shut up? What and listen to YOUR opinion. I would guess ‘nut up’ would mean grab some balls, pay for the problem, change our lifestyles, and I would guess ‘shut up’ would mean shut up, let the government grab our balls, force us to pay for it, change our lifestyles. If that’s the case then your opinion sucks.

  • wow

    The vicious attackers are even here… Go back to your TMZ or Fox and let the smart people talk.

  • Mer-mer

    I think we should never stop driving. I love to drive with my lovely boyfriend at the wheel. What this means for the global warming, I do not know…

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisLindsay9 CW

    “Why the Ozone Hole Prompted Global Action—and Why Climate Change Hasn’t” — Because it was a lot easier to give up styrofoam cups and CFC-causing aerosols than it is to give up fossil fuels?

  • Matt T

    Yeah…we’ve done a great job of giving up styrofoam.
    The only thing the article leaves out was covered by Brian Too (post #1). The same dynamic is being displayed in this comments section.

  • Warren Emerson

    I agree with Brian except to add that since the industry had a ready replacement, they also made millions if not billions replacing CFCs with flouracarbons. Sure it was a good move, but money made it more attractive.

  • rabidmob

    CW says “Because it was a lot easier to give up styrofoam cups and CFC-causing aerosols than it is to give up fossil fuels?”

    Much, much more then fossil fuels cause climate change.

  • carddan

    Most people know that Earth’s climate has been changing for 4.5 billion years without any influence by man. Radical shifts between hot and cold are the “norm” when time periods of millions of years are examined. Throw in arrogance and hubris and the issue seems in doubt. When one side or both, insult the intelligence of the other, the motives become questionable.

  • m

    nicely said carddan.

    especially given that we know CO2 is not a “warming gas”. add to the fact that none of the enviro-nazi studies i’ve seent thus far account for water vapour.

    The ozone problem was real, measurable, and stood up to basic physics.

    global warming magically creates energy without mass. i love it!!


  • Lance Green

    Don’t forget the interesting and profitable connection between the two issues: replacing the source of one problem with a contribution to the other. Going from CFCs to HFCs brought us out of the frying pan of ozone-depletion into the fire of global warming. With a little forsight (realization of this wrong direction, and not jumping into the easiest solutions) we could have gone directly to much earth-wiser replacements. Glad the European Union is forcing the issue by bannning HFCs in car air conditioners next year.

  • John Burton

    If the wobbling of our planet is valid as claimed by Astronomers, and causes freezing and thawing of the icecaps, thus releasing huge amounts of methane from the tundra and the oceans, how can we alter the CO2 enough ?? Methane is said to be twelve times more destructive of the ozone layer than CO2. Makes one wonder if our planet is going through a one time phase that permits life to flourish. Life comes and then it is extinguished to make way for new forms of life. The Lord acts in strange and mysterious ways. It is vexing. J B

  • Gabriel Atega

    The science community is making scarecrows out of greenhouse gasses. Methane as soon as it gets to the atmosphere is already open for processing by bacteria in forests for conversion into CO2, and the CO2 produced gets absorbed by the forest.

    The levels of CO2 even if it gets to 400 ppm cannot explain for the warming that is required considering thermodynamics in the atmosphere. It should be considered that 999,600 ppm of nitrogen, oxygen and water vapor cannot be warmed up the 400 ppm of CO2.

    Water vapor increase resulting from deforestation is the real culprit. The increase in water vapor in the atmosphere is the cause of severe storms, heavy snowfall, and heavy flooding that are all outcomes of weather changes, are all connected to the quantity of water in the atmosphere. The the large shift in the volume of water from liquid to ice and to vapor is the main cause of thermal maximums and ice age peaks. It is the forest with bacteria and marine flora that is crucial to putting greenhouse gasses including water to a healthy equilibrium with the other gasses. Scientists should focus on global deforestation because it represents loss of CO2 and H2O absorption capacities on land. In fact the alleged increase in CO2 levels tracks closely with increase in deforestation as well as with industrial emissions. The problem here is the lack of science to determine and separate the contributions to the increase in CO2 by loss of greenhouse gas absorption capacity or by the increase in greenhouse gas production.

    If there was no deforestation, and despite the industrialization, all greenhouse gasses produced today are all absorbable by the forests including the increase in water vapor in the atmosphere, if the forests have remained intact. Without this kind of determination, the claims for CO2 caused global warming and climate changes remain doubtful.


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