The United States and the Politics of Science: Ozone Depletion versus Global Warming

 /  Jan. 31, 2016, 3:14 p.m.


In 1987, the United States led the successful international agreement effort to counter the depletion of the ozone layer. Ten years later, in 1997, the world attempted to agree on how to combat global warming. The effort fell flat on its face and has largely failed since then.

These two global environmental challenges have similarities and differences, and we can learn important lessons by comparing them. The successes and failures come down to how science influences policy in the world’s biggest player, the United States.

Ozone depletion and global warming are similar in the nature of the human-environment interaction. They both involve the anthropogenic consumption of a substance that causes a dangerous alteration of the earth, the consequences of which are felt globally. In the case of the former, the release of chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), used as aerosol products and refrigerants, deplete the ozone layer. This allows more ultraviolet radiation to pass through the atmosphere, increasing the risk of skin cancer. In the case of the latter, the combustion of fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which trap more heat from the sun, increasing the average temperature of the earth, causing rising sea levels and more extreme weather.

Although both phenomena are ostensibly similar, there are striking differences in the responses from the United States government.

The difference in the effect of science on  policy-making in the United States is stark and somewhat paradoxical in these two cases. In 1974, researchers began publishing about the threat of certain chemicals’ ability to deplete the ozone layer, and in 1976, they proclaimed the resultant increased risk of skin cancer. Right away, Congress began passing legislation, such as the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act and the 1977 Clean Air Art Amendments. These exhibited the legislative branch’s willingness to deal with this problem—and allowed the EPA to effectively regulate CFCs in the 1980s—even when the science about ozone depleting substances wasn’t precisely clear. This is how the United States, emitter of 50 percent of the global hazardous substances, led the international effort to address the issue. The 1987 Montreal Protocol followed, which is considered the most successful international environmental agreement to date.

On the other hand, climate science has been far more certain—based on agreement within the scientific community—for decades, and yet Congress has failed to act. The closest federal legislation came to combatting global warming was the 2009 Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, which passed the House but died in the Senate. This shows that Congress has completely changed its willingness to legislate based on science.

A second difference that’s less notable, but still vital, is the opposition to regulation from industries that benefit from climate change. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, corporations that profited from the ozone depleting substances fought against regulation, until they understood the inevitability of government action and decided to make it work best to their advantage. During the ‘90s and early 2000s, the fossil fuel industry also fought against regulations, but this time, they were more powerful and organized than the aerosol and refrigerant industry. The fossil fuel industry funded campaigns to cast doubt on the science of climate change and question the alternative energy sources that were available and economically viable. Although the science of global warming was far more certain than the depletion of the ozone, the fossil fuel industry’s fight against regulation was quite stronger.

Third, likely less significant but still important, is the difference in the precise nature of the human-environment challenges. The prior issue actually caused an “ozone hole,” which is easier for people to envision and understand, as it causes skin cancer. In the case of global warming, while the atmospheric warming may be simple to grasp , the long-term, abstract consequences of increased chances for extreme weather events—none of which can be entirely percent attributed to climate change—are far more difficult to convey simply to the public. Because the environmental processes of the two challenges differ, that also increases the relative difficulty in dealing with global warming versus ozone depletion.

What can be learned from all this? First and foremost, even though scientists research and write about how humans are harming themselves, politicians who craft policy don’t always heed their message. This has certainly changed over time, which demonstrates an increasing shift in politics, exemplified by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives holding congressional hearings to give climate science skeptics more of a public voice. Today, virtually all Republicans oppose legislation to combat climate change, but counterintuitively, Republican President Ronald Reagan presided over the signing of the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

Second, industry seems to have some influence over the public’s views and the behavior of legislators. This is tough to prove causally but opens the door for lots of further research and will be addressed in later columns.

Overall, the politics of Congress have certainly changed, at least with respect to science dictating policy. In the case of climate change, there is some international action, specifically the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, in which all significant greenhouse gas emitting countries agreed to global reduction targets but couldn’t be too stringent, mostly because of the U.S.’s lack of political will to pass new laws to combat climate change.

However, domestic politics will still ultimately matter most in the efforts to address these global challenges, and the United States has moved in the opposite direction since the 1980s in its ability to translate science into policy, to correct for humans’ self-inflicted harm.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Sam Zacher


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