The year was 1987. A hole in the ozone layer was opening over Antarctica, and a young scientist named Susan Solomon had just figured out why.
Maybe you remember adults talking about the ozone hole when you were a kid. Over decades, CFCs, potent chemical compounds used in refrigerants and aerosol products, like hairspray and spray deodorant, had collected in the atmosphere and were eating away at the ozone layer as they broke down.
Solomon discovered that the clouds over Antartica were providing a perfect environment for the chemicals to open the hole. Soon afterward, countries around the globe agreed to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty to phase out CFCs.
“The main use of CFCs at that time was for hairspray and underarm deodorant, but it was a massive amount,” Solomon said. The good news was “it was something that was pretty easy to change. … Consumers changed their habits. People were choosing not to use spray cans where they could.”
Because of the treaty and widespread consumer action, the ozone hole is closing. The scientific and social phenomenon of this chapter in world history is captured in a new PBS documentary, “Ozone Hole: How We Saved the Planet.”
“Though scientists say it will take until beyond 2050 to return to pre-1980s levels of CFCs — they take about a hundred years to decompose — the amounts in the atmosphere are steadily decreasing,” Johnna Rizzo wrote for National Geographic.
As a planet, we managed to save the ozone layer. But we have another environmental crisis on our hands today.
To Solomon, the success of the Montreal Protocol is proof that we can change our behavior and reverse climate change, too.
“It’s a wonderful thing to remember that we had a serious environmental problem, we recognized it, we actually did something about it, and indeed it’s on the path to recovery,” she said.
But with people still struggling to agree on climate change, how do we rally the troops? Solomon, now a professor of environmental studies at MIT, tells her students “there are three ‘P’s involved in making effective action on an environmental problem.”
Those three “P” words are “personal,” “perceptible” and “practical.”
One of the effects of the ozone hole was an increased rate of skin cancer, making it feel personal. But because the effects of climate change are different depending on where you live, it’s is tougher to personalize, Solomon said.
However, “climate change is becoming more personal to people,” especially to the people who have been experiencing extreme weather events, she said.
The problem of the ozone hole was pretty perceptible — pictures of the hole made it easy for people to understand.
“Those images were so obvious, so graphic,” Solomon said.
“With climate change, it’s a matter of statistics, which people have a harder time understanding, and it’s becoming more perceptible to them in terms of their own personal experience of it.”
Lastly, “people have to see the way to practical solutions,” she said. “Buying roll-on (deodorant instead of spray deodorant), what could be more practical than that? And even in the case of, say, refrigeration, most people don’t really care what chemical is in the refrigerator, they just want to keep their food cold.
“Unfortunately we have the perception that solutions to climate change are not practical, and once we understand that they are… we’ll do more and more.”
Despite being intimately acquainted with human damage done to the earth, Solomon is an optimist, she said. She thinks we’re on the verge of big changes that will change the future of our planet for the better. And she thinks we can reverse climate change.
“With climate change, we’re right at the point where the three ‘P’s are starting to align,” she said.
Technology is quickly improving, and detrimental energy and transportation systems will soon be replaced, Solomon predicts.
Unfortunately, the situation has been complicated as “climate change has gotten caught up in our culture war,” she said. “We’re going to have to get past that. And I think we will, it’s coming, you can kind of see it coming with the 2020 election and I think it’s going to continue.”
However, the triumphant story of the ozone hole also provides a cautionary tale. When scientists were first studying the effects of CFCs, they predicted there would be only a few percent change to the atmosphere in 100 years. Instead, there was a 30 percent change in just a decade.
“The takeaway message is that you can hope that environmental damage will be less severe than scientists predict, but it can turn out to be more severe than they predict,” Solomon said. “Don’t imagine that uncertainties are all going to break in a favorable way for humanity, they won’t always.”