My Century Home Page

Broadcast on Tuesday 6th July 1999


I'm 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.

The 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 pioneering measurements.

The 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.

The 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.

For 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.

The 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 is.

There 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, 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.