A new study in Science finds evidence that the Earth's protective ozone layer is finally healing — all thanks to global efforts in the 1980s to phase out CFCs and other destructive chemicals.
This is one of the great environmental success stories of all time. Back in the 1970s, scientists first realized that we were rapidly depleting Earth's stratospheric ozone layer, which protects us from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.
The culprit? Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a chemical widely used in refrigerators and air conditioners. These chemicals had already chewed a massive "hole" in the ozone layer above Antarctica, and the damage was poised to spread further north.
Think for a moment about the importance to modern life of refrigeration and air conditioning and you can appreciate the consternation caused by the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer as a byproduct of ever more use of these technologies.
Fortunately, this apocalyptic scenario never came to pass. Scientists uncovered the problem in time. And under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, world leaders agreed to phase out CFCs, despite industry warnings that abolishing the chemicals would impose steep costs. The hole in the ozone layer stopped expanding. The global economy kept chugging along.
Granted, just because the world banded together and saved the ozone layer doesn't ensure that we’ll also do the same for future environmental problems, like global warming. It will almost certainly be harder to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels than it was to curtail our use of CFCs. (For one thing, the DuPont chemical company developed easy substitutes to CFCs fairly quickly.) But the ozone case remains the best example of international cooperation to halt a slow-moving ecological disaster. And it worked.We have to come away from this positive experience with renewed commitment to global action on climate change because we can see that huge problems associated with more people living at higher standards of living can be dealt with. We know how to do it, as I've discussed before.