The Ozone Crisis that Wasn’t

Governments and activists have been celebrated from 12-21 September the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol that saved the ozone layer – or did it? This well-published author shows how other factors in real life up in the stratosphere had more effect than the CFC ban. He fears similar hype will lead to radical and expensive policies in the attempts to alter climate change – and the cost will hit the poorest hardest.


by Ben Lieberman

Governments and activists have been celebrated from 12-21 September the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol that saved the ozone layer – or did it?

This well-published author shows how other factors in real life up in the stratosphere had more effect than the CFC ban. He fears similar hype will lead to radical and expensive policies in the attempts to alter climate change – and the cost will hit the poorest hardest.

The international treaty to protect the ozone layer turns twenty this year and claims success. But is there really reason to celebrate?

Environmentalists have made many apocalyptic predictions over the past decades and, when they have not come to pass, have proclaimed that their preventive measures averted disaster – as with the 1987 Montreal Protocol On Substances That Deplete The Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol). The many lurid predictions of skin cancer epidemics, eco-system destruction and so on have not come true, and to Montreal Protocol proponents this is cause for self-congratulation.

But in retrospect the evidence shows that ozone depletion was an exaggerated threat in the first place and that the parade of horribles never really was in the cards. As the parties to the treaty return to Montreal for their 20th anniversary this week it should be cause for reflection, not celebration, especially for those who see it as a success story to be repeated for climate change.

The treaty came about over legitimate but overstated concerns that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, then a widely used refrigerant gas) and other compounds were rising to the stratosphere and destroying ozone molecules. These molecules, collectively known as the ozone layer, shield the earth from excessive ultraviolet-B radiation (UVB) from the sun. The 1987 Montreal Protocol led to a CFC ban in most developed nations by 1996, while Developing nations were given an extension but are under pressure to curtail it.

So what do we know now? A 1998 World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) report said that “since 1991, the linear [depletion] trend observed during the 1980s has not continued, but rather total column ozone has been almost constant…”

This was too soon to be attributable to the Montreal Protocol as that same report noted that the stratospheric concentrations of the offending compounds were still increasing at the time of writing. In fact, they did not begin to decline until the end of the 1990s. This lends credence to the view, widely derided at the time of the Montreal Protocol, that natural variations explain the fluctuations in the global ozone layer more than CFC usage.

More importantly, the feared widespread increase in ground-level UVB radiation has also failed to materialise. Keep in mind that ozone depletion, in and of itself, is not of consequence to human health or the environment. It is the concern that an eroded ozone layer would allow more of the sun’s damaging UVB rays to reach the earth that gave rise to the Montreal Protocol.

But the WMO concedes that no statistically significant long-term trends have been detected, noting earlier this year that “outside the polar regions, ozone depletion has been relatively small, hence, in many places, increases in UV due to this depletion are difficult to separate from the increases caused by other factors, such as changes in cloud and aerosol.” In other words, ozone depletion’s impact on UVB over populated regions is so small as to be easily lost amidst the noise of background variability.

Needless to say, if UVB has not gone up, then the fears are unfounded: indeed, the much hyped acceleration in skin cancer rates has not happened. For example, US National Cancer Institute statistics show that malignant melanoma incidence and mortality, which had shown a long-term increase that pre-dated ozone depletion, had actually been levelling off during the time of the putative ozone crisis. Further, no eco-system or species was ever shown to be seriously harmed by ozone depletion. This is true even in Antarctica, where the largest seasonal ozone losses, the so-called Antarctic ozone hole, occur each year. Also forgotten is a long list of truly ridiculous claims, such as the one from Al Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance that, thanks to the Antarctic ozone hole, “hunters now report finding blind rabbits; fishermen catch blind salmon.”

The Montreal Protocol has not made these problems go away – they never occurred in the first place.

The parallels with climate change are striking. Again we face a real but hyped environmental problem. In both cases, virtually everything the public has been told that sounds terrifying is not true, and what is true is not particularly terrifying. Nor has Gore changed much. His claims of blind animals have been replaced by equally dubious assertions in his global-warming movie and book An Inconvenient Truth, including predictions of a massive sea level rise that would wipe away South Florida and other coastal areas.

Perhaps, decades from now, participants in the Kyoto Protocol, the climate change treaty modelled after the Montreal Protocol, will meet and congratulate themselves because none of their scary assertions came true. But how much will have been spent to save us from problems we didn’t have in the first place?

The burden of that cost will, as ever, fall hardest on the poorest.

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Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst for energy and environment at the Heritage Foundation, in Washington DC.

This article appeared in the Business Recorder on September 22, 2007.

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