My Century Home Page
on Tuesday 6th July 1999
Joe Farman. And my team is usually credited with having found the
Antarctic ozone hole, back in 1985. The first scare about the ozone
layer really started when the Americans wanted to build a supersonic
transport, way back in the 1970s. And then two sets of two Americans,
in fact, suddenly realised that chlorine - which was in rocket fuel
and also which was in CFCs - choloroflurid carbons - could be a
danger to the ozone layer. And they issued a warning about it.
British Antarctic survey set up stations in Antarctica. And so we'd
been monitoring very many things in Antarctica for a long while.
And suddenly in 1985 it dawned on us that we were sitting on top
of one of the biggest environmental discoveries of the decade, I
suppose, or perhaps even of the century. We saw this little dip
appearing, and then it just accelerated so rapidly that, within
three or four years, we were talking about a 30 per cent in the
thickness of the ozone above us. Which was an enormous amount. We
can be slightly proud of the fact. This was the first time that
anyone had shown that ozone levels had changed since the measurements
began, way back in 1926 or thereabouts, when Dobson made his original
long-term monitoring of the environment is a very difficult subject.
There are so many things you can monitor. And basically it's quite
expensive to do it. And, when nothing much was happening in the
environmental field, all the politicians and funding agencies completely
lost interest in it. And there was a huge struggle to keep going.
And in fact we could have been closed down with our ozone measurements
the year before we actually published our paper.
first international efforts to think about the ozone layer really
culminated in the thing called The Vienna Convention. But this had
no teeth whatsoever. It simply said: "There could be a problem.
We must cooperate in trying to solve it." The Montreal Protocol
was effectively the thing which had teeth, which told people how
much they could make, how much they could use and so on and so forth.
And this was the first sign, in September, 1987.
many, many years industry had been fighting against the idea that
the CFCs were a potential threat. Dupon, for example, made the promise
that, if it was ever proved that CFCs were doing something nasty,
they would stop making them. It took something like six years for
them actually to live up to this promise. In fact, one of the scientists
working for them eventually got so fed up he went to the boss and
said; "Look, I can't defend you any more". The initial reaction,
as always in these things - it will always be this way with industry
- is delaying tactics while they sit and think. When they actually
decide they've got to change, they do work extremely fast. I think
the public took it on board quite quickly. There was an awful lot
of publicity from time to time. In those early days, it was actually
rather scary, because you had more ultraviolet, and ultraviolet
is a very nasty thing. And it was effetively the public opinion
which really drove industry.
Montreal Protocol has been a big success. We've certainly succeeded
in stopping the increase in the chlorine. It's now just turning
over gently. But you have to remember one rather horrifying fact.
And that is that we've got global change going on. We've got the
Earth getting warmer at the bottom; we've got the stratosphere cooling
at the top. And it's almost impossible to predict what the future
are many more difficult environmental problems than the ozone layer.
The lesson in a sense has been learnt and put forward. There's a
thing called "The Precautionary Principle" - which is, simply, in
essence that you don't invest big money in new industry until you're
really convinced that the thing is - I was going to say - safe.
But then that's the problem. You can't prove something's safe. All
you can do is prove it hasn't yet been shown to be dangerous. If
something's dangerous, you've only got to do one experiment and
kill someone - to be really cynical - and that's the end of the
matter. You've proved it's dangerous. But to say it's safe - you're
so clever, you've thought of every possible way in which it can
do some harm. And there just aren't people like that. We can't do
it. CFCs, you have to remember, are substances which essentially
were synthesised by man. And they haven't been in nature before.
People have forgotten it. Everyone knows the hole in the ozone layer
is there, but.it should horrify them. You know, this is something
which man did in 15 years. And one simply has to say: if you invent
something, let's take it slowly until we're reasonably satisfied
we can't see how it can be dangerous. And then you can start to
build up. You mustn't start to build up straight away.