Good news from the world of science. We turned the corner on protecting the ozone layer from destruction. Located high above the earth in the stratosphere, the ozone layer blocks much harmful ultraviolet radiation that causes skin cancer in humans and damages plant life. Not only has depletion of ozone ceased, but the layer actually is healing, and in the northern hemisphere it may be completely repaired by 2030. Damage in the southern hemisphere is more severe, so closing the hole over the Antarctic will take longer.
Good news indeed, and very welcome in a year nature demonstrated the consequences of our bad ecosystem management. For those who still believe global climate change is only a theory, just ask east and west coast residents about theoretical devastation. The east coast, especially the southeastern coastal states, felt the brunt of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. With warming ocean temperatures, the future threatens more frequent and more severe hurricanes. Along with stronger winds, the volume of rain unleashed by recent hurricanes on urban areas is considerably greater than in the past, increasing both damage to property and loss of human lives.
Global warming effects are different on the West Coast, but just as severe. For more than a week we have followed stories coming out of California of whole communities being decimated by the raging Camp Fire. At this writing, 76 deaths have been confirmed and more than 1,200 people are missing. The toll is sure to climb as searchers continue to comb burned-out areas in search of the missing. After several years of drought — resulting in tinder-dry forests — combined with current hot temperatures and strong winds, bringing forest fires under control is nearly impossible. Much of the West Coast has been in perpetual danger from forest fires for several years now.
Scientists reporting the disappearing ozone hole suggested there are lessons in the strategy used for addressing the ozone problem that could be used for dealing with other environmental issues — such as global warming. Would it were so!
The campaign to restore and protect the ozone layer was largely focused on the primary culprit: chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs had many important industrial and consumer uses, but one CFC in particular made much of life as we know it today possible: Freon, the chemical that enabled cheap and safe refrigeration and air conditioning. Unfortunately, CFC molecules destroy ozone molecules when they escape and drift up to the stratosphere. Concerns about the health effects of the depleted ozone layer on humans was sufficient for 49 nations in 1987 to sign the “Montreal Protocol” to reduce CFC production and consumption 50 percent by the year 2000. A further agreement resulted in even more stringent controls, leading to the recent good news.
Creighton University environmental sociologist Charles Harper states reducing CFC use involved all the important elements of “…scientific consensus and its interpretation for policy, international mediation, responsible political and corporate behavior, and public education.” But some unique characteristics of the nature and use of CFCs facilitated the campaign. First, worldwide there were only a few major producers of CFCs, so banning production did not affect a large segment of the corporate world. Second, alternative chemicals were available for refrigeration and air conditioning (a technological fix), so people were not required to alter their social behavior and lifestyle expectations.
Unlike restoring the ozone layer, addressing global warming involves more than changing the behavior of a few corporations. Everyone on the planet has both a hand in its cause and a stake in its solution. Yet many still do not accept the scientific consensus on climate change and its causes, some are not willing to make necessary lifestyle changes to ease the problem and still others are not even aware of their lifestyle impact on global warming. Also, much wrangling occurred in crafting the Paris Climate Agreement over the uneven distribution of mitigation costs and benefits to countries around the globe. The Agreement is widely considered the last, best chance to avoid potentially catastrophic global warming; yet our current national administration wants to pull the U.S. out.
I end on a positive note. Part of the global warming solution lies in the increased use of environmentally sustainable energy (a technological fix). Iowa is second only to Texas in wind generation of electricity, and we are first in ethanol production from corn. Ethanol production from corn raises grain prices and helps make farming profitable, but the environment would profit more from cellulosic ethanol produced from sources such as switchgrass, sycamores or corn stover.
I was pleased to read in the Nevada Journal that the cellulosic ethanol plant west of Nevada, built by Du Pont then left sitting idle, is being acquired by VERBIO North America. When operating again it will not produce ethanol, rather methane, which will in turn be converted to natural gas. Perhaps this renewable production will displace some of the natural gas currently acquired through environmentally destructive fracking. And farmers in the area with good level ground not highly susceptible to erosion can supplement their income by selling corn stover to the plant.