For the first time in history, nations and businesses have agreed to curb their production of a class of dangerous chemicals before serious irreversible damage has been done to the earth. In December, 1987, President Reagan sent to the U.S. Senate for ratification a treaty signed last September by 24 nations meeting in Montreal. The treaty calls for a freeze on production of several chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and bromine (halon) compounds now believed to be depleting the earth's protective ozone layer six to 20 miles in the sky.
The treaty will freeze CFC and halon production in 1990 at 1986 levels, then reduce production 20% further by 1994 and an additional 30% by 1999. Even the full 50% cut, by itself, will not suffice to save the ozone layer, but it is expected to create a market for substitute chemicals, thus stimulating competitive research on alternatives. Once alternatives become widely available, a total ban might be imposed, or nations and businesses may abandon the harmful chemicals voluntarily.
The ozone layer filters out much of the sun's ultraviolet light before it strikes Earth's surface. Depletion of the ozone layer, causing even a small (a few percent) increase in ultraviolet striking Earth could significantly increase skin cancers, eye cataracts, and immune system deficiencies among humans. Increased ultraviolet light would also have far-reaching ecological effects on other living things. Many insects, for example, can see light in the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum; thus ozone loss would make the earth "look" different to insects, possibly disrupting the food chains that insects participate in.
Even as it completed work on this significant and praiseworthy treaty, the Reagan administration appeared clumsy and clownish. Last July Interior Secretary Donald Hodel argued strongly for abandoning the treaty and establishing instead a policy of "personal protection"--he wanted Americans to wear more hats, sunburn cream and dark glasses. This humancentered (indeed, American-centered) "solution" to global ecological disruption brought explosions of laughter from environmentalists and Congress. Secretary of State George Shultz saw his treaty negotiations going down the tubes because foreign governments couldn't take American proposals seriously so long as the Hodel sun cream solution was being talked up by doctrinaire Reaganites. Mr. Schultz put a muzzle on Mr. Hodel and friends.
As the treaty was being signed in Montreal in September, scientific evidence continued to mount, indicating that human chemical production is destroying the earth's ozone shield. (SCIENCE MAGAZINE, Sept. 25, pg. 1557; Oct. 9, pgs. 156-158; Dec. 11, pg. 1505.) A large hole in the ozone layer--larger than the United States in area--has been measured each fall over the south pole since the mid-1970s. This year the hole was the biggest it's ever been and it stayed around longer than usual. University of California scientist F. Sherwood Rowland, a well-known expert on stratospheric ozone depletion, said the 1987 data "could be the first indication of major climatic change.... it's an ominous trend," he said. (WASHINGTON POST, Dec. 19, pg. A8.)
CFCs are used as refrigerants (Freon, for example), as solvents, and as foaming agents for plastics. Americans use about 3 pounds of CFCs per person each year. (The Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste [CCHW] in Arlington, VA has been conducting a nationwide campaign against McDonalds, to force them to abandon CFC using Styrofoam packaging.)
The ozone treaty showed science and international cooperation at
their best. The United Nations' Environment Program (UNEP) played
a critical role, sponsoring a series of scientific workshops,
where international agreement on the nature of the problem was
reached using satellite data and computer models. Then UNEP
arranged the negotiations leading to the treaty. The whole
process was a model of how these things should and can go--with
rancorous political debate left aside. For its part, the United
States played an important role in the treaty and we all have
reason to be proud.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: ozone; cfcs; treaties; source reduction; waste treatment technologies; alternative treatment technologies; cancer; immune system; ultraviolet radiation; reagan; donald hodel; environmentalists; congress; george shultz; chemical production; unep; united nations;