“the world’s most successful environmental agreement”
Montreal Protocol 1987
In June 1974, a chemistry professor at the University of California at Irvine named F.S. Rowland, along with his talented post-doc assistant named Mario Molina, published a short 2-page paper in the prestigious science journal Nature claiming that Clorofloromethanes were concentrating in the high atmosphere and were destroying the ozone layer. Their exact words were:
“Chlorofluoromethanes are being added to the environment in steadily increasing amounts. These compounds are chemically inert and may remain in the atmosphere for 40–150 years, and concentrations can be expected to reach 10 to 30 times present levels. Photodissociation of the Chlorofluoromethanes in the stratosphere produces significant amounts of chlorine atoms, and leads to the destruction of atmospheric ozone.”
This was a scientific bombshell of the first order. While there were plenty of frivolous uses for these chemicals, such as propellant for hairsprays, there was this enormously important application—refrigeration and air conditioning. Freon, a Chloroflourocarbon (CFC) from Dupont, was already in millions of devices from supermarket coolers to automobiles. The food supply depended on it. The sunbelt boom in real estate doesn’t happen without it. Freon was the poster product for the "better living through chemistry" PR effort.
Needless to say, Dupont was not one bit happy to have a couple of obscure professors write such outrageous things about one of their flagship products, a chemical that had been sold on its reputation for safety since it had been introduced in 1928 and put into production in 1930. Moreover. since Dupont was the premiere chemistry shop in USA, they turned loose some heavy hitters to discredit Rowland / Molina.
One Problem. Rowland and Molina were absolutely right and by 1985 a picture of what the ozone hole over the Antartica looked like had emerged.
By 1987, The Montreal Protocol had been signed by the big countries. Eventually it would become the first international agreement signed by every single nation on earth. The science, and the need to do something significant, were just that overwhelming. Of course, that didn’t keep Dupont from taking one last stand. In 1987, they testified before the US Congress that "We believe there is no imminent crisis that demands unilateral regulation." And even in March 1988, Du Pont Chair Richard E. Heckert would write in a letter to the United States Senate, "we will not produce a product unless it can be made, used, handled and disposed of safely and consistent with appropriate safety, health and environmental quality criteria. At the moment, scientific evidence does not point to the need for dramatic CFC emission reductions. There is no available measure of the contribution of CFCs to any observed ozone change..."
Obviously, this was about pride!
Because replacing the world’s supplies of refrigerants would prove to be an insanely complicated task, the Protocol would be revised 8 times (with probably a couple of more to come.) To a non-scientist, this routine need to upgrade data and methods looked like uncertainty and confusion.
In 1995, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher organized a hearing on “scientific integrity” meant to challenge the ozone science. Representatives of private industry and conservative think tanks began to claim that the science behind the Montreal Protocol was incorrect, that fixing the problem would be devastating to the economy, and that the scientists involved were exaggerating the threat to get more money for their research. Entered into the Congressional Record was the now-familiar claim that there was “no scientific consensus” on ozone depletion.
The Nobel Prize committee looked at these unfolding developments and gave the Chemistry Prize to Rowland and Molina only a few weeks later. They weren’t about to let some hacks attack the methods that have served science so well for centuries. It’s not as if Rowland and Molina didn’t deserve the prize—for what they did was a phenomenal achievement. It’s just that the timing was a little too perfect. This was a big science smackdown. It seems like even a scientific illiterate like Rohrbacher knows enough not to argue with the folks who award the Chemistry Prize.
So how did it go?
The Montreal Protocol was:
- the first international treaty to address a global environmental regulatory challenge;
- the first to embrace the "precautionary principle" in its design for science-based policymaking;
- the first treaty where independent experts on atmospheric science, environmental impacts, chemical technology, and economics, reported directly to Parties, without edit or censorship, functioning under norms of professionalism, peer review, and respect;
- the first to provide for national differences in responsibility and financial capacity to respond by establishing a multilateral fund for technology transfer;
- the first MEA with stringent reporting, trade, and binding chemical phase-out obligations for both developed and developing countries;
- and, the first treaty with a financial mechanism managed democratically by an Executive Board with equal representation by developed and developing countries.
Can you say “slam dunk?”
The Montreal Protocol is an amazing example of what can be achieved when people with sound scientific training and instincts put aside their differences to solve a common problem.
So why can’t we get a Montreal Protocol-style agreement on climate change?
Lots of reasons but one dominates them all—getting rid of CO2 emissions will be at least 1000 times more difficult than eliminating Ozone-Depleting Substances.
The reason we were able to eliminate 98% of ODS was that there were only a handful of producers and once industry-leader DuPont figured out a Freon replacement, the rest was just details to be worked out by the affected engineers.
By contrast, every creature with lungs produces CO2 and virtually every sentient being can produce more CO2 by starting fires—or having thousands of fires started in their name.
Obviously, it is much easier to regulate the few producers of the hideously complex chemicals like CFCs than it is to regulate the normal behavior of everyone on earth. It seems almost crazy to expect folks to somehow get along without fire.
Actually, we could get along without fire—it’s that figuring out how to do it will be very difficult and expensive.
Spoiler alert, the difficult and expensive part is the happiest reason to do something meaningful about climate change. After all, if we really are going to build the sustainable habitat, it may as well be nice.
While CFC problem was one that mostly concerned highly educated specialists, the CO2 problem involves almost everyone—even those who are under-qualified to understand it. Some of the brightest minds producing the science that proves the climate is changing have some of the lamest “solutions” for correcting the problem. And if the experts don’t get it, how are we supposed to expect the general public to understand such a complex cultural-political-technical problem?