The world came together to save the ozone layer

In the 1980s, the world came together to ban CFCs, commonly used chemicals that were destroying the atmosphere’s ozone layer.

“The disaster was in terms of food. Crops that couldn’t be grown,” Paul Newman says. “How do you raise crops for the few billion people on the planet if you’ve got so much, you know, sterilizing UV radiation pouring in on the earth?”

Countries rallied and signed the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a treaty which marked the end of CFCs. Can we use that template to help end climate change?

Today, On Point: Fixing the ozone layer and lessons for solving the climate crisis.

Paul Newman, chief scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Co-chair of the scientific assessment panel to the Montreal Protocol.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This one’s for you, all you children of the 80s. You’re my people. All that big hair, spandex, those scrunchies, some absolutely epic music. And, unfortunately, this:

MICHAEL RESNICK: I’m Dr. Michael Resnick, with some bad news about the ozone. This medical news update is brought to you by Advil, Advanced medicine for pain. The ozone layer shields the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But a recent report concluded that this layer is thinning rapidly due to trace gases. Primarily, CFCs in consumer products.

CHAKRABARTI: You probably remember that. I do. The sudden realization that the ozone layer was in danger – something most of us had never even heard of prior to 1985. Skin cancer rates were going to skyrocket. Ecosystems would collapse. It was an existential threat – one so urgent, I was one of those 10-year-olds who refused to crush a piece of Styrofoam for fear of releasing more CFCs into the air.

The story, though, starts even further back. With two scientists, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina at the University of California, Irvine.

SHERWOOD ROWLAND: This started back in 1972, 1973 with curiosity on the part of a laboratory chemist – namely me – about what would happen to the CFC gases which had just been discovered as being present in the atmosphere essentially everywhere. … So when Mario Molina joined my research group in 1973 —

MARIO MOLINA: We decided to ask a question about some chemicals that were being released to the environment that we realized that they could pose a serious global environmental problem.

CHAKRABARTI: Chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. First developed in the 1920s, and by midcentury, used almost everywhere. In aerosol sprays, as blowing agents for foams and packing materials, as solvents, and refrigerants. Molina and Rowland discovered these chemicals could reach the upper atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer which provides vital protection from excess ultraviolet radiation from the sun. They published their results in 1974. Not much happened. But they knew this was serious. Rowland’s wife Joan spoke about this in a PBS documentary:

JOAN ROWLAND: [Sherwood], who is my husband — a very good husband, I might add — came home one night and I was in bed reading and I said, how’s the work going? And he said, it’s going really well. The only trouble is, I think it’s the end of the world.

Rowland decided to take action. He advocated loudly, and publicly throughout the 1970s.

ROWLAND: To avoid these hazards, man cannot continue his ever-increasing use of these chemicals. Instead we must rapidly reduce the amounts of these materials released into the atmosphere.

It wasn’t long before other scientists validated their findings. And in 1985 a team of British scientists including Jonathan Shanklin discovered something alarming: a giant hole in the ozone over Antarctica. Here’s Shanklin from a Nature podcast:

NEWSCASTER: Each spring, over Antarctica a hole in the ozone develops … Satellites photo show that a hole opens for a few months during Antarctica’s springtime.

SHANKLIN: It was very clear when we first looked at the data that we’ve got an ozone decline and I think that’s probably the term we used – a decline in ozone above the Antarctic – and it wasn’t really until you got the satellite images that you could see oh, there’s a hole there.

Soon after, the United States sent a team to Antarctica, led by Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

SUSAN SOLOMON: From the time when the ozone hole was discovered in 1985 to, say, 1987, you went from a situation where you first had one station measuring total ozone, showing something strange. And that’s that was an intense period of activity for many of us in the science community. And we were able to measure a host of important chemicals that were all related to this to the chemical perturbations I’ve been talking about. And they all pointed the same way.

CHAKRABARTI: It was pointing the way to the manmade destruction of the ozone later. So, faced with impending catastrophe, countries around the world took action. In 1987 more than 30 countries signed The Montreal Protocol, an international treaty which focused on phasing out harmful CFCs.

It was an historic agreement. To this day, the most successful international environmental treaty, ever, as noted by then secretary of state George Shultz to PBS.

GEORGE SHULTZ: When it was all done and the Montreal Protocol was signed, I remember President Reagan saying, “What a magnificent achievement.”

CHAKRABARTI: It was a first step, but it wasn’t long before all the countries in the world had signed on. An environmental and diplomatic success. Signed 35 years ago, The Montreal Protocol did what it set out to do – countries eliminated CFCs and the ozone layer is on the road to recovery.

UN REPORT: In a new report, a UN-backed scientific panel confirmed that the phase-out of nearly 99% of banned ozone-depleting substances has succeeded in safeguarding the ozone layer, leading to notable recovery of the ozone layer in the upper stratosphere and decreased human exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun.