Change is hard, for some more so than others. Heraclitus said it well: “The only thing that is constant is change.” Change can be for better or worse, and sometimes can happen before we’re ready for it. Such is the case for one of the most challenging changes our generation has to face: global warming.
The reality that the climate of the world is changing in a way we may not be prepared for is certainly a scary one. Scarier still is the hard truth that we messed up and may have caused it (and still are causing it). In the international community, the U.S. has shown to be resistant to change, and it’s not surprising. Asking an alcoholic to give up drinking is a harder demand than asking the same of a social wino; the average U.S. citizen outguns the world average in CO2 emissions per person five to one. Not bad.
This may have had something to do with why conservatives and fossil fuel reps tried to fight the Pope’s new environmental message before it even came out. This is probably why most conservatives are screaming everywhere that attempts to regulate our resource-heavy lifestyle will bring the “four horsemen” of the economic apocalypse. This is probably why the NC General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory are gearing up to fight the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan; the NC Senate is already writing up a bill for our Department of Environment and Natural Resources to sue the EPA over it. And why our state legislature wants to open up NC to fracking and offshore drilling while defunding the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio, despite it being supported by forward-thinking companies like Google, Apple, SAS and Facebook.
For many, change can seem daunting, but it actually happens pretty often. Change can even come with surprisingly few economic hardships and result in a positive outcome. Take the Montreal Protocol for example.
In the 1920s, industrial scientist Thomas Midgley (interestingly the same individual who invented leaded gasoline) developed chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. Unlike leaded gasoline, which turned out to be toxic to, well, anything living, CFCs were non-toxic, very stable and could be used in refrigerants, deodorants, dry-cleaning and more. They were cheap to make and profitable. They seemed great. For about 20 years in the 1960s, CFCs went gangbusters and commercialized around the world.
Around the same time, a few scientists at the University of California made some unsettling discoveries. They realized that when CFCs reacted with sunlight, they broke down and released free chlorine atoms. The science also showed that CFCs, along with being great for spritzing perfume, were fantastic at breaking down a huge amount of ozone molecules. Because CFCs were so stable, they could remain in the air longer and make it to the upper atmosphere. There they could wreak havoc on the thin layer of ozone that makes life on our planet possible; it restricts UVB radiation, which leads to skin cancer. It was a bold and unpopular statement at the time to come out and say one of the world’s most-used chemicals was destroying the atmosphere, but it had to be said.
The science faced much of the same criticism that global warming science faces today. The Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy was formed and lobbied against any efforts to regulate CFCs. DuPont, their largest manufacturer, widely denounced the science at the time. But further research in the area verified by NASA showed an alarming thinning of the ozone over the Antarctic starting in the 1980s. What came after that, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, is known as one of the greatest international collaborations in history.
Since then, nearly 200 nations have ratified the Protocol, which called for the eventual ban of all ozone-depleting substances. The U.S. was second to sign it, and what’s more is that it was done under the administration of Ronald Reagan, the darling of the Republican Party. As of 2009, it was the first convention of any kind to be universally ratified. Production of CFCs has dropped by 95 percent in industrial countries since the Protocol’s institution, and its levels in the atmosphere are leveling off.
Studies done since have credited the Montreal Protocol with preventing hundreds of millions of cases of skin cancer and lessening the extent of global warming. In a rapidly industrializing world, the Protocol showed a global commitment to the “precautionary principle” and the future of the planet’s environment. It did so by dedicating to international cooperation, agreeing on the science that was presented, setting realistic timelines and creating international funds to help the phase-out happen.
Even more amazing: No doomsday happened. We saw no massive economic fallouts. No great recession. Human creativity and innovation found alternatives to CFCs and markets expanded in other areas. Much of the environment’s and our health are in debt to the forward thinking of the Montreal Protocol and its committed parties.
And yet, here we stand again. Passionate denial of sound science in the face of potentially disastrous environmental consequences. Creating fear that phasing out fossil fuels will hurt the poor, hurt the economy, hurt everyone. That government regulation is infringing on individual rights that our founding fathers granted us (although I like to think that the kind of forward thinking that wrote the Constitution could also agree we need to look after our environment). Rejection and doubtful science help delay the crucial international agreement needed to make a real change, and it shows in the continually unproductive Kyoto Protocol. Change, it seems, is hard for some and harder for others. In the face of inertia, it’s important to remember that the history of life gives a fantastically dark alternative to change.