As governments gather in Brussels next week to agree a new global deal to protect the ozone layer, one veteran campaigner argues that if we do not follow suit and reduce emissions from power stations, factories and vehicles, one of the core aims of this conservation effort will not be achieved
The time has come for political elites, scientists and civil society to quit being complacent about climate change. The world is desperate to tackle what is the most dangerous threat to life on earth. But the authorities have the political strength to keep the situation under control by refusing to give in to climate change denial.
Today, however, the outcome of the ongoing negotiation on the future of the Earth’s ozone layer is critically crucial to the survival of humanity. And because this threat is being dealt with at the lowest possible level of political dissent, some of the tactics of climate activism are being put to the test.
One of the most important aspects of this campaign has been the transformation of the dynamics of scientific debate around the ozone layer, and the new kind of alliances that have begun to emerge. In the 1960s and 1970s, the polarised debates on both sides of the ozone debate that led to the Montreal Protocol, which began to protect the ozone layer in 1987, were dominated by the EU’s Institute for Advanced Study, the International Chemical Societies and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the US. The scientists, who had spent three decades sitting on their hands and flogging the precautionary principle, were adamant that our planet was in danger because of man-made destruction of the ozone layer, and the only way to respond was to pursue full-scale research and management measures. It is not a case of whether we should take action to protect ourselves from the effects of climate change, but how much of it we should do and how urgently we should act.
Conversely, the pragmatic, slightly sceptical US scientists who favoured a precautionary but more piecemeal approach to managing both the Earth’s atmosphere and climate change had much more support from the US Congress, as well as from key countries, such as China, India and Brazil. No doubt, there was scientific merit to the precautionary approach advocated by the contrarians. But in reality it was to shirk political action and shame politicians into accepting their position that helped get the Montreal Protocol over the line, because it provoked so much public anger. Once this particular victory was achieved, the change of momentum was unstoppable.
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The Canadian company and later the Nobel laureate Maurice Strong, the US diplomat John Lehman and the US Congresswoman Bella Abzug worked tirelessly to persuade reluctant politicians that the previous approach was not just wrong but also dangerous. And the Montreal Protocol was more than just a victory for science; it was also a strategic blow against climate change, which previously was taken for granted.
Unsurprisingly, this approach has continued in the 21st century. New alliances have been forged. The Committee on Earth Overshoot Day has been moved to 21 August, the earliest possible point on the Earth’s biennial calendar when humanity must take drastic action to avert catastrophic environmental change. And the Geneva-based global group of government experts responsible for monitoring the progress of the Montreal Protocol has become better known for reporting on the failings of the Trump administration and the new multilateral negotiations over climate change being led by France and China.
It remains to be seen whether the Paris climate treaty can truly be saved, but so far it looks as if the strategy has a fighting chance. This time, the enormous challenge is not to assert the ecological case for climate change, but to safeguard the ozone layer from its own admission that it is facing unprecedented destruction.