Monday, October 19, 2015

CFCs and the Montreal Protocol—a template for solving the problems of climate change?

Anyone besides me wonder why we cannot solve the problem of CO2 in the atmosphere the same way we took care of the problem of CFCs punching an Antarctic-sized hole in the ozone layer?  There are so many things about the two problems that are remarkably similar. Yet there is ONE big reason why the Montreal approach isn't going to work in the world of climate change—too many people (all of them in fact) are able to make CO2 so simple regulation is not going to work.

“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.
Within 25 years of signing, Parties to the MP celebrate significant milestones; however, the job is not yet done and the current moment could not be more pivotal for accomplishing its vital mission. Significantly, the world has phased-out 98% of the Ozone-Depleting Substances (ODS) contained in nearly 100 hazardous chemicals worldwide; every country is in compliance with stringent obligations; and, the MP has achieved the status of the first global regime with universal ratification; even the newest member state, South Sudan, ratified in 2013. UNEP received accolades for achieving global consensus that "demonstrates the world’s commitment to ozone protection, and more broadly, to global environmental protection".

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.

Let’s compare

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?


  1. Until now I wasn’t smart enough to make the connection between CFC and CO2... Nor do I recall that many details of the CFC controversy... But this history lesson was (is) timely and appropriate...and the comparison sums up our situation well (especially the Comparison Chart and your concluding remarks)!

    Thank you. I’m anxious to see what’s coming next.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. This was supposed to be the intro video for my "what is to be done" series. But I decided it was too distracting from the main story about climate change so I turned it into a post. The whole CFC controversy raged during the time I was researching and writing Elegant Technology. I remembered just enough from my chemistry classes to understand the explanation for how chlorine destroys ozone. When I worked at the auto parts store in college, I sold a lot of Freon—it was an excellent, trouble-free, almost magical product. So this issue became a pet project for awhile.

      But if you don't remember the Montreal Protocol, I am guessing almost no one does. I understand that John Oliver can talk about subjects that almost no one has heard of and get viewers to engage, but I am not John Oliver nor do I have his support staff. So I am sticking to easier to explain topics.

      However, If you DO think that reminding people about MP is a good idea, I am open to suggestions.

  2. I noticed this post was different, “all you” not a link like usual, and the best I’ve seen of your posts so far so thanks again for all you’re doing, I hope you can keep it up. And yes, I DO think reminding people about the 1987 Montreal Protocol is a good idea. (I didn’t find your history lesson distracting I found it exhilarating!)

    The “main story” however could be an issue... I think the main story is about creating a whole new system of life on earth (a whole new system of worldwide economics and geological politics) that takes control of money once and for all and makes all of earth public domain to be shared equitably by all in ways that will make life on earth a true pleasure for most and a dream come true for many!

    What are the odds of that?

    If this “Mission Impossible” has any chance of success another history lesson might help: how the United States of America was founded one summer (in 1787 not 1776) in a single session based on notions most people at the time couldn’t imagine possible (especially the rich) but it happened...and could happen again if a World Wide Web Internet Session (or something) could lead the way to a new world order that solves earth’s problems scientifically (with consensus from the new world order) and makes the world the utopia it could be if money and selfishness could finally be brought under control.

    Maybe “nations” could be added to your chart of comparisons:

    Number of nations involved in the problem | many
    Number of nations needed to solve the problem | all

    Number of nations involved in the problem | all
    Number of nations needed to solve the problem | well…
    NATIONS ARE THE PROBLEM and the UN isn’t helping
    A grassroots movement is needed that money and nations can’t ignore
    A movement SO BIG it could be earth's only hope for a lasting future!

    As for the post about: “Gates gets real about climate change,” I’m not buying that one. I read the whole article very carefully (I had to look up “asperity”) and I’m convinced that Bill Gates (and maybe you?) miss what IS in my opinion the main story...that life on earth has got to stop being about money and start being about creating a whole new system of Everything that money (alone) can’t buy and should not be allowed to buy in the future even if it could!

    I believe if we go back far enough...all life on earth is related, we are all cousins (literally) and all related in ways not completely understood as to which plants, animals, insects or microbes we might be able to get along without, if any, or which humans we might be able to get along without if they can’t play nice.

    Until we learn enough about what nature requires to maintain a livable balance of life on earth, all resources on earth must be preserved and all basics shared equitably...while most extras are provided by an old single proprietor, partnership, or co-op system of money and private enterprise (no more corporations allowed) as the unholy power of money on earth comes to an end and stays ended from then on forever!

    Earth is a spaceship (or life raft if you must) trapped in a daily spin and annual orbit around our sun as our solar system turns in its Milky Way spiral through space on our spaceship without a wheelhouse to control our speed and direction. (But not to worry about that if my sons and grandsons and yours and others live long enough to solve that problem, and not to worry about having to prove to anyone that the earth is round and has been around for more than a few thousand years because regardless of what people might believe about evolution and global warming and whatever the time has come for planet earth to become a true public domain spaceship for all (even a Noah’s Ark if you will with a lot more than two of every kind) and stop being a bunch of separate tribal yachts that, at best, can only crash in to one another and make a mess of our ark or spaceship (it's the only one we've got)!

  3. Thanks for your good information.Really CFC and CO2 affects us.The “main story” however could be an issue... I think the main story is about creating a whole new system of life on earth (a whole new system of worldwide economics and geological politics) that takes control of money once and for all and makes all of earth public domain to be shared equitably by all in ways that will make life on earth a true pleasure for most and a dream come true for many!However, If you DO think that reminding people about MP is a good idea, I am open to suggestions.Thank you. I’m anxious to see what’s coming next