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Deep reflections on the ozone story

Richard Black | 18:54 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

BAS Halley baseThere'll be a party in the chemistry labs at Cambridge University this Friday.

But no-one will turn up with hugely coiffured hair, the champagne will be served warm, and if a fire should break out, there'll be nothing to use on it but old-fashioned water, CO2 and sand.

Well... that's how life might have turned out if industrial chemists had not come up with easy replacements for the ozone-destroying chemicals such as CFCs that a few decades ago were threatening to denude the Earth of its protective stratospheric ozone layer.

They did find alternatives, and the Montreal Protocol mandated their use; as a consequence, the ozone layer's long-term future is more or less assured, and we can carry on using similar products powered by different chemicals.

The party - well, this being science there will be some serious chat amid the frolics - marks the 25th anniversary of the Nature paper that confirmed the existence of an "ozone hole" over the Antarctic.

The ozone layer isn't completely healed yet, despite the swift switch away from CFCs and their fellows that occurred in the years following the Nature paper.

With ozone destruction abetted by lower stratospheric temperatures (a corollary of tropospheric warming), projections now suggest it could be 2080 before springtime concentrations have risen to pre-CFC-era levels.

Balloon measurements at HalleyOne of the three scientists whose measurements confirmed the ozone depletion, Jonathan Shanklin, has an article in this week's Nature in which he reflects on the discovery itself (made with Joe Farman and Brian Gardiner) and mulls over what the ozone story has to say about other environmental issues that are nowhere near as "solved".

"My perspective is that luck played its part, as in many other scientific discoveries.
"The story provides an example of how to capitalise on good luck in science - researchers should be reminded to question their preconceptions, for example to ensure that people don't see only what they are looking for".

The "luck" came in several forms. One was the location of the British Antarctic Survey's Halley research base on the Antarctic Peninsula, which proved - serendipitously - to be a good place from which to see the "ozone hole", which was often offset to that part of the continent.

Another was the fact that as someone without meteorological training, Shanklin was not affected by preconceptions of how and where ozone destruction "ought" be happening - he just called the numbers as he found them.

However, it was the more generalised closing reflections in Dr Shanklin's article that really caught my eye:

"Perhaps the most startling lesson from the ozone hole is just how quickly our planet can change.
"Given the speed with which humankind can affect it, following the precautionary principle is likely to be the safest road to future prosperity.
"Although the focus is on climate change at present, the root cause of all of our environmental issues - a human population that overburdens the planet - is growing.
"Future historians may note that although humanity solved one unexpected environmental problem, it bequeathed many more through its failure to take a holistic approach to the environment."

Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan ShanklinI called Dr Shanklin to talk through the ideas a little more.

As other observers have previously noted, there were several factors that made the ozone problem relatively tractable.

The science was clear-cut, he told me - the observations from ground and space brooking little dissent.

There was public pressure because of fears of skin cancer. Industry was therefore keen to seek a solution; and industry found that chemical alternatives were available at insignificant extra cost.

But other, more complex, issues do not feature the same mix of tractable features:

"With climate change, to those working in the field, the issues are pretty clear-cut, but if you're not an expert it's harder to understand competing views; and there's a very vocal group that says the science is wrong, it's all down to natural cycles.
"The timescale is rather different because you're talking about decades before you notice a change. And the other thing is that it sounds rather nice - 'greenhouse warming' - and it will need massive changes in lifestyle to effect a cure."

But climate change he sees as just one manifestation of the fundamental canker beneath:

"There's increasing loss of biodiversity, many areas have water shortages; there's a whole range of things, and they all point in the same direction: as the human population, we're using up the resources of our planet at an unsustainable rate."

In principle, he argues, every citizen of the Earth should have roughly equal opportunities to benefit from its resources.

Achieving that end while living as a species within sustainable limits would, though, imply vast cuts in Western consumption - and perhaps, he says, this is where the West should be heading.

But consumption cuts, and curbs on population growth, can only be achieved through consensus:

"How to get from here to there is a question for the economists, and there'll be a Nobel Prize for anyone who comes up with something than everyone can sign up to."

There's a limit, then, to what the short history of ozone layer depletion can tell us about the world's deepest conundrums.

But it was a real threat - an industrial advance that brought real, swift and measurable damage to one of the biosphere's key ingredients - and it has been brought under control with a huge degree of consensus between activists and industry, and between rich and poor.

As a result, the champagne can be safely refrigerated for Friday's party; and if anyone's seriously considering spraying up a huge beehive, only aesthetic barriers stand in their way.


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