At 25, the Ozone Hole Still Matters

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Looking back on it, the ozone hole seems almost quaint now. Oh, it’s still there, and it probably won’t go away for several decades.

But remember when we were terrified of it, when we weren’t sure that industrialized society could ever be weened from its terrible habit of spewing ozone-destroying chemicals into the atmosphere? Remember that gut punch when you looked at your air conditioner, or a bottle of hairspray and realized you were tearing away Earth’s protective shield? We were suddenly so fragile. Or at least, our planet was.

The hole in the ozone was discovered 25 years ago. Four years later, the Montreal Protocol went into effect — in the following year, CFCs and other chemicals that strip away the ozone layer were phased out. It took just four years to put a major dent in a global air pollution problem, one that if left unchecked would’ve threatened the lives and well-being of every organism on the planet.

The problem of climate change is much more pervasive, much more nuanced, of course. Greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere take much longer to do their dirty work. The effects of global warming are harder to spot, too — ice caps that melt just a little more each summer, warm-weather plants creeping into higher altitudes latitudes than they should.

More importantly, almost all economic activity on Earth affects global warming in some way. Whether it’s carbon dioxide or methane production, messing with water vapor and cloud formation, or emitting a whole host of other, more minor chemical players in the greenhouse game, we all have a hand.

And sadly, there’s all the “debate” about an issue which is, scientifically speaking, a done deal.

Still, the case of the ozone hole is instructive. The governments of the world banded together and passed meaningful legislation to curtail a source of man-made pollution that threatened the health of the entire planet and everyone living on it.

Now, with an ever-growing population (which may well be part of the problem, as pointed out on BBC News recently), the number of lives at stake grow higher every day, and the margin for error in tackling climate change grows smaller.

Just as we are often encouraged to “learn from our mistakes” so that we do not repeat them, the reverse is also true. We should learn from our past success, and do everything we can to make sure it happens again.

Image: Ozone hole seen at its worst, in September of 2006 (NASA)

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