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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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In Our View: Ozone layer offers lessons for climate action

The Columbian

In assessing a recent United Nations report about the ozone layer, American policymakers should turn to an unlikely source — Ronald Reagan.

Reagan is not regarded as an environmentally conscious president, but his role in stemming the depletion of the ozone layer should not be ignored. It provides lessons regarding the current issue of climate change, and it stands as a remarkable victory for environmental policy.

The ozone is a thin part of the Earth’s atmosphere that absorbs almost all of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. In the 1980s, scientists discovered a hole in the layer over Antarctica, after previously determining that chlorofluorocarbons used in aerosol sprays and refrigerants could destroy ozone.

Some critics initially dismissed the report, suggesting that people could use more sunscreen or wear hats outdoors. But Reagan embraced the science, and the United States soon took the lead in dealing with the problem.

The Reagan administration was a leading proponent of the Montreal Protocol, a global agreement signed in September 1987 to phase out chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-depleting synthetics. “I believe the Montreal protocol, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme, is an extremely important environmental agreement,” Reagan said. “For our part, the United States will give the highest priority to analyzing and assessing the latest research findings to assure that the review process moves expeditiously.”

This week, U.N.-backed researchers announced that the ozone is recovering. Nearly 99 percent of harmful chemicals have been phased out, and the ozone is expected to be restored to 1980 levels within the next four decades.

Meg Seki, executive secretary of the U.N. Environment Programme’s Ozone Secretariat, said: “Over the last 35 years, the Protocol has become a true champion for the environment.”

Similar actions are necessary to stem the impact of climate change. It is difficult these days to imagine Republicans embracing climate initiatives the way Reagan championed the ozone layer, but a cost-benefit analysis should lead them in that direction.

As columnist Cass R. Sunstein wrote for the New York Times: “Reagan’s economists found that the costs of phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals were a lot lower than the costs of not doing so — largely measured in terms of avoiding cancers that would otherwise occur. Presented with that analysis, Reagan decided that the issue was pretty clear.”

Similarly, climate change should not be a conservative or liberal issue. As Republican President George H.W. Bush said in being the first U.S. leader to address climate change: “We must leave this Earth in better condition than we found it, and today this old truth must be applied to new threats facing the resources which sustain us all, the atmosphere and the ocean, the stratosphere and the biosphere. Our village is truly global.”

Conservatives have typically abandoned that viewpoint, denying science or insisting that it is too costly to deal with climate change. But, like Reagan recognized, the greater cost comes from doing too little.

As Petteri Taalas of the World Meteorological Organization said this week: “Ozone action sets a precedent for climate action … (and) shows us what can and must be done — as a matter of urgency — to transition away from fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gases and so limit temperature increase.”

Indeed, the ozone offers lessons that resonate today.