How the Ozone Hole Threatens Climate Doomism
Hannah discusses the new optimistic outlook on climate doomism amid the reparation of the ozone layer.
We seem to be reminded of climate doomism wherever we look. News channels blast videos of skies ravaged orange by fire and polar bears left stranded on lonely blocks of ice. Every day, millions of people walk by the massive countdown displayed on city buildings in Berlin, New York, Seoul, Rome, and Glasgow, a constant reminder that climate doom seems to be inevitable. But behind the façade maintained by mass media to alarm and engage, climate mitigation is working.
The United Nations’ 2022 Scientific Assessment Panel, published every four years as a progress update for the Montreal Protocol, confirmed that the Earth’s ozone layer is on track to heal completely within 40 years. The Montreal Protocol, first signed in 1987, has come to fruition as one of the most, if not the most, successful environmental agreements in history. Originally, the protocol agreed to freeze the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), specifically chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), at 1987 rates, but it has been amended over time to phase out the substances completely. 2022’s panel confirmed that almost 99% of banned ozone-depleting substances have been phased out. Today, the Montreal Protocol is the only treaty to achieve universal ratification, with CFC bans in 197 countries and a 98% treaty compliance rate.
The United States estimates that unregulated, ozone depletion would have resulted in an additional 6.3 million skin cancer deaths, $4.2 trillion in healthcare costs, and 22 million Americans born between 1985 and 2100 that would suffer from cataracts. Furthermore, the Montreal Protocol has prevented greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions equivalent to 135 billion tons of CO2.
Let’s rewind — how did the Montreal Protocol come into effect, and how is it so successful?
In 1985, three scientists observed unexpectedly large decreases in stratospheric ozone levels over Antarctica. The report published by Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin was the first evidence of what soon came to be known as the “ozone hole.” Farman, Gardiner, and Shanklin suggested that the depletion of ozone was linked to human activity — specifically, to the use of CFCs, chemical compounds often used in refrigerants and aerosols.
The international community treated the report with gravity and, crucially, with urgency. Just two years after the initial discovery of the ozone hole, policymakers signed the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Collaboration between developed and developing states through a “common but differentiated responsibility” was essential to its success: the protocol specified differing timelines for developed and developing countries, and in 1991 established the Multilateral Fund, which provided financial and technical resources to help developing countries meet phase-out goals. Governments can draw inspiration from the fund in the future to aid with other climate objectives in which developing countries lack access to crucial capital or technology.
Despite the impressive thoroughness of policymakers, the Montreal Protocol would not have achieved its immense success without the collaboration of the people. At the time Farman, Gardiner, and Shanklin published their report, the environmental movement was rapidly gaining momentum in the US. Environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth were first unified by the campaign to regulate ozone depletion. Their campaigns reached a global network of citizens appalled by the recent revelations about the impact of human activity on the environment — and eager to do something about it. Companies across varying industries reacted to citizen pressures to stop using polluting CFCs: McDonalds cut CFCs from its packaging in 1987 after being inundated by letters from children concerned about the ozone hole.
The influence of public opinion on the industry was crucial: by the time the Montreal Protocol was ratified, public pressure had primed the market to phase out CFCs and search for alternatives. At first, the US was hesitant to ratify the protocol due to resistance from DuPont, the American company that produced a quarter of global CFC. However, reacting to public pressures, DuPont publicly supported the Montreal Protocol, which allowed the company to smoothly infiltrate the market for CFC alternatives and start exporting to Europe. The US, following suit, soon became a leader in the push for ozone regulation.
The past eight years were the warmest on record. Currently, there are only six and a half years left on the climate clock displayed across the world. As we face the challenges of saving a planet in the six and a half years, it is imperative that we remember the success of the Montreal Protocol. It will not be easy, and it will take all the time we have — the removal of ozone-depleting substances happened over decades, not days — but with resilience, we will prevail. Reflecting on the 35 years since the Montreal Protocol was first signed, climate doomism is replaced by climate optimism.
After the release of the 2022 panel, UN Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted that the reparation of the ozone layer is “an encouraging example of what the world can achieve when we work together.”