Science can save us, if we listen

“You know you’re not allowed to use hairspray anymore because it affects the ozone. You know that, right? I said, you mean to tell me, cause you know hairspray’s not like it used to be; it used to be real good… Today, you put the hairspray on, it’s good for 12 minutes, right? So if I take hairspray and I spray it in my apartment, which is all sealed, you’re telling me that affects the ozone layer? ‘Yes.’ I say no, folks. No way. No way. No way.” — Donald Trump, May 5, 2016

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) threaten the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. This was a conclusion drawn by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California at Irvine in 1974. CFCs are gases that have been widely used as refrigerants, solvents, and propellants in aerosol applications, like hair sprays. But, the best-known brand name of this man-made chemical is Freon, manufactured by DuPont, and it has been used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems.

Based on computer simulations, Rowland and Molina recommended that the use of these gases be discontinued. They advised that manufacturers substitute some other chemical, because CFCs contribute to the depletion of ozone in the upper atmosphere. And ozone in the stratosphere blocks the harmful effects of ultraviolet light. A decrease in ozone could result in the penetration of the atmosphere by more ultraviolet rays, causing mutations in DNA and producing more skin cancers.

Baby steps Congress listened to the warning, sort of. In 1978, the use of CFCs in aerosol spray cans was banned in the U.S., although the gases continued to be used throughout most of the rest of the world. Then, in 1985, NASA scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, where the gases had been blown by the swirling winds in the Southern Hemisphere.

Two years later, the same process of ozone destruction was detected in the Northern Hemisphere, and by 1995, the Antarctica “hole” had grown to the size of Europe, 3.9 million square miles. But, the world had finally taken notice of this phenomenon.

The Montreal Protocol In 1986, the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer, recommended that industrial nations begin phasing out the production of substances that are responsible for ozone depletion. Gradually, manufacturers switched to the use of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are less dangerous to the atmosphere. But, CFCs released in the 1960s and 1970s were still circulating in the environment. So, there was also an agreement to phase out HCFCs by 2030.

Since then, other international agreements concerning the use of CFCs (and other greenhouse gases) have been negotiated in Helsinki (1989), London (1990), Nairobi (1991), and each succeeding year, including Kigali (2016). As a result, the ozone hole over Antarctica is slowly shrinking. Making use of our scientific knowledge is working to solve the problem. Climatologists project that the ozone layer may return to the 1980 level between 2050 and 2070.

Still, that may be too optimistic because HCFCs (which are only 5 to 10 percent less destructive than CFCs) have been joined by HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons). The point is that all three gases contain atoms of chlorine, which break off in the stratosphere and destroy ozone. So, even though governments may adhere to the various protocols that have been signed, these are only baby steps toward the changes that need to be made. The point that I’m making is that science can save us, if we just heed the warnings.

Paris agreement The most recent international sign that the world is mobilizing to preserve the environment is the Nov. 4, 2016, Paris climate conference. Among other agreements, there was a consensus that governments would abide by a market-based framework for limiting emissions from international aviation, which is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases, according to the Winter 2016 edition of Courier, published by the Stanley Foundation.

“United States leadership was essential to delivering the Paris Agreement by showing through action at home that the United States was prepared to do its part,” according to Michael Tubman, author of the Courier report. Our country set a goal to reduce emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This was a fairly modest proposal because we can hit the target simply by following through on existing policies.

Renewable energy Tubman writes that U.S. net emissions have declined nine percent since 2005, largely because of the growth in renewable energy, the decreasing demand for existing electricity, improved vehicle efficiency, and a shift in electricity generation from coal to natural gas. “Transportation and electricity generation are responsible for nearly three-quarters of US energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, and there has been progress in both areas,” according to the report.

America’s first offshore wind farm will come online off the coast of Rhode Island in October, 2017, and this is the latest innovation that will have boosted wind and solar generation twelve-fold since 2005. Tubman adds that additionally, “Many cities are taking steps to improve building efficiency, (provide incentives for) smart development, promote electric vehicle adoption, and deploy clean energy.”

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions has partnered with the U.S. Conference of Mayors to encourage city and business leaders to work together on concrete approaches to reduce carbon emissions, speed deployment of new technology, and implement sustainable development strategies. Tubman writes that “US leaders, from the president and Congress to states and cities across the nation, have the opportunity — the responsibility — to grow the clean energy economy while lowering emissions.”

I hope that when Mr. Trump becomes President Trump he will understand both the opportunity and the responsibility that he has to set an example that will be as widely circulated as some of his pre-election statements. As Tubman concludes: “The world is moving in the right direction, and now it’s up to new leaders at all levels of government to build on and accelerate this progress.”

Yes, science can save us, but we have to listen to it and then follow its directions with deliberate effort. We cannot hide behind the false notion that we live in a “sealed” environment and that our individual actions do not have broad social and ecological implications.