Montreal An Unlikely Success Story

As a historian once observed, all revolutions seem impossible before they occur— and inevitable afterwards. Now that chlorofluo-rocarbons (CFCs) have become a household word, we forget the global firestorm of controversy that was provoked by a technical article written in 1974 by two scientists at the Universe of California at Irvine. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina hypothesized that certain anthropogenic chemicals could damage ozone molecules 30-50 kilometers above the earth's surface (Molina and Rowland, 1974). If true, the theory had portentous implications, since the evolution of life was possible only because this fragile layer of stratospheric ozone absorbs dangerous ultraviolet radiation (UV-B) that comes from the sun. Twenty-one years later, Rowland and Molina (together with Paul Crutzen of the MaxPlanck-Gesellschaft) would receive a Nobel Prize for their research, but at the time, their theory was attacked and derided. The earliest chronicle of the ozone history bore the apt title, The Ozone War (Dotto and Schiff, 1978).

When a handful of governments convened in Stockholm in 1982 to begin negotiating an international agreement on the problem, no gambler would have wagered that their deliberations would lead just eight years later to the banning of all CFCs and related chemicals. Indeed, the first result of their arduous negotiations, the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, did not even mention CFCs— it was essentially merely a plea for more research.

Was the Montreal Protocol inevitable? We may have forgotten that CFCs, which had been invented in the 1930s, were for decades considered ideal chemicals. Nontoxic, nonflammable, noncorrosive, cheap, and easy to produce, CFCs and their bromine cousins, the halons, were by the 1970s finding an ever-widening range of uses in thousands of products and processes across dozens of industries. Food processing, plastics, solvents, cleaners, air-conditioning, fire fighting, defense, aerospace, oil rigs, computers, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, home products, industrial chillers, and insulation are only a sampling of the extent of their utility. Their benefits were virtually synonymous with modern standards of living and, except in aerosol sprays, no feasible alternatives to them existed. Industry warned that restricting their use would jeopardize nearly $400 billion in capital investment and hundreds of thousands of jobs worldwide (Benedick, 1998a, p. 134).

We may also have forgotten that large producing nations, together accounting for two-thirds of global production — the European Union, Japan, and the then-Soviet Union — adamantly opposed strong limits on CFCs. The United States was the only major producer to endorse meaningful controls; it was joined by a few small consumers/producers: Australia, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Most of the rest of the world was indifferent, epitomized in the remark to me by an Indian diplomat: "rich man's problem — rich man's solution."

Most significant of all, we may have forgotten that during the entire negotiating period from 1982 to the protocol signing in 1987, there was absolutely no scientific evidence either of ozone depletion caused by CFCs, or of any of the predicted negative consequences—higher levels of UV-B radiation at Earth's surface, increased incidence of skin cancer and cataracts, defects in the human immune system, damage to crops and marine life. The case for international controls was based entirely on arcane theories of complex chemical-physical interactions and computer model predictions of remote trace gases that were measured in concentrations as minute as parts per trillion.

Ironically, the scientists advised us not to consider the only evidence of actual ozone depletion at hand—a dramatic but temporary seasonal thinning of the ozone layer over Antarctica that was unexpectedly revealed by British balloon-based measurements in 1983, after having been overlooked in more sophisticated satellite data. The processes at work here were poorly understood, and there were at the time plausible explanations for the Antarctic event other than CFCs. Interestingly, scientists had more confidence in their theoretical models that predicted a gradual thinning of ozone over the mid-latitudes rather than a precipitous but transitory collapse over the South Pole. The "ozone hole" had even diminished in 1986—just before protocol negotiations began; scientists did not yet know of the quasi-biennial oscillation, and thus could not be sure whether these data signaled a reversal of the depletion trend. Scientists warned me then that if we based our case on the Antarctic phenomenon and it turned out that CFCs were not to blame, the chances for reaching an agreement on strong controls would be severely undermined (Benedick, 1998a, pp. 19-20).

Only a few weeks before the final negotiating round in Montreal, most knowledgeable observers did not believe that an agreement would be possible. In the face of these not-trivial obstacles, what made the Montreal Protocol memorable?

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