Way back in 1893, President Grover Cleveland told Congress that we should pursue international agreements even if they are not enforceable in the same ways national or local laws are. “The law of nations,” Cleveland said, “is founded upon reason and justice . . . that obedience to its commands practically depends upon good faith instead of upon the mandate of a superior tribunal only give additional sanction to the law itself and brand any deliberate infraction of it not merely as a wrong but as a disgrace.” This hasn’t always been true, of course, but the times when it has been true are good case studies; the Montreal Protocol is the most outstanding example. Because of it, we’re less hot, and our ozone layer will eventually restore itself, even if things look bad up there now.
Rarely do the United Nations and other organizations have good news about the environment, which is why the most recent update on the ozone layer is so exceptional. Although there is much more to do, there is good news: the hole in the ozone layer could be completely repaired in about 40 years if we stay on track with (and perhaps improve upon) the Montreal Protocol.
Mass awareness of the hole in the ozone layer was ushered in by a now-immortalized 1985 Nature article. Discovery of the hole, somewhat serendipitously identified by three British Antarctic Survey scientists, launched one of the world’s first international regulatory campaigns to combat the effects of emissions on the atmosphere. In many ways, this campaign — which culminated in the Montreal Protocol — was a template for the later (and more complicated) emissions agreements which we’re still struggling to effectively author and implement.
What set this scientific concern apart and sparked the regulatory movement was the fact that one cause of ozone depletion was the use of “chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs for short) used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and foam packaging.” Eventually, in 1987, 46 countries would sign the treaty, known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The agreement phased out the chemicals. It mandated research to find safe substitutes for them. And, there was almost immediately a “sharp decline in the use of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances worldwide.”
In fact, the Montreal Protocol did more than just protect the planet from UV radiation. It also prevented an additional source of global warming. A recent Lancaster University study “revealed that had the ozone depletion continued unmitigated, we would have been facing an alarming rise in temperature by an additional 0.5 to 1°C by the end of this century.”
Now it appears we may need even more Montreal-sized action, because although that late 1980s agreement stopped ozone depletion from spiraling out of control, we’ve still lost ozone and the repair process is slow. The European Union has reported for two years straight that the hole is the size of the entire continent of Antarctica. It will take its time rebuilding itself, and will rebuild itself only if we focus hard on improving and implementing Montreal. At the very least, we’re going to need to strengthen the Protocol, something that we ought to be able to do, since we’ve recently amended it to phase out other gasses besides CFCs.
In his address to Congress quoted above, President Grover Cleveland held the U.S. to a higher standard than we often hold ourselves. He said that “the United States, in aiming to maintain itself as one of the most enlightened nations, would do its citizens gross injustice if it applied to its international relations any other than a high standard of honor and morality.” While we wish this sentiment were always the case, the environment is a good place to insist it be.