Why don’t we hear about the ozone layer anymore, and when will we stop hearing about climate change?

— Anh NGUYEN

In November 2021, Vox released an 8-minute video with the intriguing title “Why you don’t hear about the ozone layer anymore”. They explained how in the 80s, the alarmingly thinner ozone layer (with reductions up to 70%) observed in Antarctica was much discussed and feared. All media stressed the fact that this big ozone hole would cause ecological system collapse, skyrocketing skin cancer rate, and life on Earth as we know it will cease to exist. 

But today, the ozone layer is healing. As the video explained, “in an unprecedented act, the world came together to prevent an environmental catastrophe”. What can we learn from this collective endeavor and how can we replicate this success in our fight against climate change and biodiversity loss today?

Find out the culprit for the ozone hole and act quickly

In 1986, a group of scientists, led by Dr. Susan Solomon, flew to Antarctica to try to understand the reasons behind this increasingly big ozone hole. Through different measurement methods, they all agreed on the culprit: the chlorine from a man-made compound called Chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs) found in aerosol cans, refrigerators, air conditioners, and styrofoam. 

Here are the formulas for disaster:

  1. CFCs break up through sunlight in the stratosphere, which divides their molecules, causing the release of chlorine (Cl)
  2. Cl reacts with ozone (O3) to form chlorine monoxide (ClO) and oxygen (O2)
    Cl + O3 = ClO + O2
  3. ClO now meets another molecule of oxygen (O) and it breaks up, releasing chlorine (Cl), which can “destroy” another molecule of ozone (O3)
    ClO + O = Cl + O2

CFCs’ lifetime can last between 50 to 150 years in the atmosphere, which means that each year we use CFCs, the total amount will build up and build up exponentially. This could cause the thinning of the ozone layer also at an exponential speed. 

In 1987, only one year after the findings of scientists in Antarctica, CFCs and other substances that contributed to the ozone depletion were phased out via the Montreal Protocol, signed by 197 countries. 

Decades after the Montreal Protocol, there are signs the hole in the ozone layer has begun to heal – Los Angeles Times (Source)

The formula for success in addressing environmental problems

Dr. Solomon sums up the success of the campaign in the 3 Ps – personal, perceptible, and practical. Personal because anyone who’s ever got sunburned would understand that skin cancer is not a fun thing to have. Perceptible because with satellite measurements you could clearly see that the ozone hole was getting bigger. Practical because it was not difficult to find substitutes for CFCs. 

Can we apply the same formula for climate change and biodiversity loss? 

How come these crises have been alarmed by scientists for 50 years now, and we are still not all working towards the 1,5°C target set by the Paris Agreement? 

Dr. Solomon explains this in a Time interview in 2019, addressing the fact that “we don’t have the same kind of very easy substitution when it comes to climate change. There are things a consumer can do, but it’s not that easy to decide you’re going to never drive a car and ride a bike instead. It is not that easy to switch to solar. This problem requires not just people caring, but government action, changing technologies, a total overhaul of the energy system.”

That being said, the 3Ps formula still can work when it comes to raising awareness of the public on climate change and biodiversity loss to create momentum for changes, as seen with the case of the ozone layer:

  • Personal: pollution, heat waves, and crop yield decline…are direct consequences that affect people’s lives, and everyone can understand these phenomena
  • Perceptible: we can perceive the increasing number of hot years, the increasing price of food due to declining crop yields, and the increasing numbers of increasingly hazardous natural events (cyclones, tempests, forest fires, etc.)
  • Practical: though it is less evident to give out one single straightforward solution, it is the combination of solutions that can stall the personal, perceptible consequences of a warming planet, for example: saving and restoring forests, cutting down consumption, decarbonising industries, and executing strict climate change and biodiversity protection policies.

We’ve got 3 years to save the planet and life as we know it

We can only hope that the current awareness-raising actions coming from activists, journalists, scientists, and citizens will be enough to create momentum for changes when there is still time. As stated by the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report, the world can halve its emissions by 2030, because we have options in all sectors. What is left now is the political and public willingness to start the ball rolling. And this needs to happen fast, as the same IPCC’s report states that we have 3 years to reverse course to limit global warming to 1.5°C. 

A protester ties herself to the net of a tennis match at the French Open in 2022 (Source)

Let’s keep pushing forward and upward together so that the ball will start rolling. 

Let’s keep talking about climate change and biodiversity loss until the noises cannot be silenced. 

Let’s continue to work so that after the next 3 or 5 years, we will no longer hear about climate change and biodiversity loss, and Vox will make a video explaining yet another “unprecedented act”, when “the world came together to prevent an environmental catastrophe.”

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