Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Treaty That Saved the World--Twice (Maybe)

This is the top portion of the cover of New Times magazine for March 7, 1975.  This was a New York-based national magazine, kind of an upstart.  I wrote for it--I have an article in this issue, and the original "Malling of America" was published in New Times in 1978.

Anyway the article (by Michael Drosnin) teased on this cover is one of the first and most prominent articles about the destruction of the ozone layer by fluorocarbons such as Freon, used principally in aerosols and refrigerants.  One scientist--James Lovelock, the co-author of the Gaia theory, discovered that they stayed in the atmosphere permanently.  He thought they were harmless.  But scientist Sherwood Rowland discovered that they are not.

These chemicals had already created a hole in the Earth's protective ozone layer, which was leading to an increase in skin cancers and deaths.  If these chemicals continued to disperse into the atmosphere, they could destroy the ozone layer, spelling doomsday for humanity.

The article is called Not with a bang, but with a pssssst! because one of the predictions is that if quantities of fluorocarbons continue to destroy the ozone layer, civilization could be kaput by the year 2000.

This article has an intriguing opening.  Drosnin describes the standard s/f movie plot where "an obscure scientist" discovers a mortal threat, is disbelieved until finally the world unites to fight off the menace, and the factories making the fatal substance close down.  "Wrong," the article says. "The world does not swing into action.  The factories are not shut down.  And one other thing--it's not a movie."

No, it wasn't a movie. But eventually it became more like the plot he described. Though it took more than a decade, the world did swing into action, and factories weren't making stuff with those kinds of fluorocarbons any more. (Though you may notice that spray cans and refrigerators are still around.)

 And as time went on it became clear that the ozone layer was healing.  It became the greatest international success story of the age.

When Rowland's research was published in 1974, outfits who made the stuff, like DuPont literally called it "a science fiction tale" and "utter nonsense."  But further research confirmed their findings, and then in 1985, the hole in the ozone layer was observed.  And the world got serious about it.  (Though DuPont continued to insist there was no problem.)

The culprit was chlorine, and so the offending chemicals were chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons. In 1989  the Montreal Protocol created a plan that legally required participating nations to phase them out, eventually substituting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that do not contain chlorine and so do not harm the ozone layer.

It was far from a perfect solution since in 1989, the "greenhouse effect" was well known, and HFCs contribute to it.  And now, some 27 years later, the climate crisis threatens world civilization.

HFCs furthermore are highly potent greenhouse gases, and the fastest growing.  The Obama administration began efforts almost immediately in 2009 to bring nations together to ban them, and finally, last week, they did.

This weekend’s agreement by nearly 200 members of the Montreal Protocol will be legally binding, inviting trade sanctions for countries that fail to live up to their obligations. It would reduce global HFC levels by between 80 and 85 percent by 2047, helping the world avoid nearly half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century.

And when you're trying to keep the temp rise below 2 degrees C, a half degree is a big deal. It's another long-term process, not even beginning everywhere for more than a decade.  But the CFCs treaty goals were met ahead of schedule because of market forces, and the hope is the same will happen this time:

Environmental groups had hoped that the deal could reduce global warming by a half-degree Celsius by the end of this century. This agreement gets about 90 percent of the way there, said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.

Zaelke's group said this is the "largest temperature reduction ever achieved by a single agreement."

The new agreement is "equal to stopping the entire world's fossil-fuel CO2 emissions for more than two years," David Doniger, climate and clean air program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

But how can the US be party to a legally binding climate crisis treaty, when Republicans controlling Congress won't even admit there is a climate crisis?

The answer is that technically this isn't a new treaty requiring ratification---it's an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an old treaty already ratified.   It was ratified in 1988 with, by the way, complete support by Republicans.  It passed the Senate 88-0.

 As Jonathan Chiat notes, In today’s environment, it would not be possible for something like the Montreal Protocol or any effective new environmental treaty to pass a Republican-controlled Senate.  He writes that today's rightists say that the Montreal Protocols and phasing out of CFCs have nothing to do with the ozone layer.

Is that a scary enough thought?  While you're considering that, here's something from today's news: last month was the hottest September since such records were kept, the 11th out of the past 12 months to be hotter than any in the past 136 years, at least.

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