Way back in 1985 an unlikely coalition of world governments, business, and enlightened citizens did something extraordinary: Responding to the findings of leading scientists, they united in decisive action to address a looming and existential global climate threat.
That threat was a dangerous thinning of the Earth’s ozone layer due to society’s use of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Ozone, it turns out, protects the Earth’s surface from dangerous UVB radiation — which causes skin cancer, cataracts, and all manner of unpleasant ecological chaos.
Invented in the 1920s to power chemical processes that enabled refrigeration and aerosol spray cans, CFCs rapidly accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere. By 1985, CFCs had effectively blown a massive “ozone hole” over Antarctica. A single scientific paper noted the threat, and subsequent press pickup engendered a “hot crisis” — the public perceived a clear and present danger, and as a result, we demanded a cohesive government response.
The narrative was easy to understand: Ozone protects us from cancer-causing UVB rays, CFCs deplete ozone, so unless we eliminate CFCs, we’re all going to fry.
I was in college in 1985, and I remember how common the ozone hole meme had become. My mother used to call and remind me to wear sunscreen, citing “the hole in the atmosphere” created by narcissists addicted to hair spray. I even remember telling my friends to stop staring into open refrigerators, because taxing the machinery that kept our food cold meant releasing more CFCs in the air. CFCs became an international boogie man, and within two years, world governments had banned them. And instead of denying the existence of the threat, industry found alternatives to CFCs. As of this year — 30 years after the public’s initial awareness of the threat — the ozone hole has effectively closed.
Which of course begs the question: Why can’t we run the same play against our current climate change crisis?
Remember the Ozone Hole? Oh, right, you probably weren’t born yet…
We can’t because for most of us, climate change isn’t personal. We don’t walk outside, feel the warmth of the sun on our skin, and then wonder “Wait…is this going to kill me?”
Climate change lacks a clear villain. Instead, we’re all rather like the frog in the boiling pot — it seems things are getting a bit warmer, but no matter, we’ve got our lives to get on with. We look at photos of smog in China or melting glaciers in faraway places, and we think — yeah, we should probably do something about that.
No galvanizing metaphor elicits public outrage. If scientists had proof that climate change was ripping a cancer-causing hole in our atmosphere, I’d wager we’d be well past debating with climate deniers. But absent that, responding to climate change requires enlightened, long term thinking. And most of us kind of suck at that.
I never thought I’d say it, but I kind of miss the ozone hole.