State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Climate Change and the Complexity of Science

One of the most successful environmental treaties of all time was the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which banned the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, an ozone-depleting substance mainly used in refrigeration and air conditioning. The ban was made feasible by the development of new refrigerants that would not deplete the ozone layer. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry:

“In the 1980s, I remember that many scientists feared that ozone depletion was irreversible and the headlines in many newspapers declared that nations were powerless to stem the growing loss of ozone – the great hole in the ozone that threatened us all. But the Montreal Protocol proved that the pessimists and the naysayers were wrong. Virtually all the parties have met their obligations under the accord. Nearly 100 of the most ozone-depleting substances have been phased out. And as a result, the hole in the ozone is shrinking and on its way to repair. It’s why we’re here today… Now, that’s the good news. The bad news is that in too many cases, the substances banned by the Montreal Protocol have been replaced by hydrofluorocarbons – HFCs – which are safer for ozone, but are exceptionally potent drivers of climate change – thousands of times more potent, for example, than CO2.”

The diplomatic debate about phasing out HFCs has been underway for seven years, but the technology of refrigerant coolants appears to have finally caught up with the need for replacement technology. Once replacement technology is available, diplomacy becomes possible. According to Coral Davenport of the New York Times:

“The Montreal treaty allows nations to amend it to ban substitute chemicals that have negative environmental effects even if they do not harm the ozone. And American chemical companies such as Dow, DuPont and Honeywell have already begun to patent climate-friendly HFC substitutes.”

In many ways, this is a repeat of what happened when the Montreal agreement was reached. New chemicals can replace important chemicals that are dangerous to the environment as long as time, effort, and resources are devoted to developing those effective substitutes. Businesses are willing to cooperate and take advantage of the new business opportunities that are presented. Everyone is happy when they make money and protect the planet at the same time.

Even the precautionary principle might not have prevented this problem; testing technologies or drugs before they are used wouldn’t have helped. When we test new technologies to understand their main side effects, we are dependent on the current state of scientific knowledge to gauge that impact. HFCs protected the ozone and were better to use than CFCs, but later on we found that HFCs caused global warming. At the time we adopted HFCs, we were ignorant about their impact on global warming. Had we known, we might have still decided back in the 1980s that protecting the ozone layer was more important than global warming, but our ignorance made such a choice unnecessary.

The technological world we live in inevitably creates impacts we can’t predict. By definition, not all the dimensions of new, cutting-edge technology are well understood. As we struggle to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy technology, we should be prepared for the unanticipated impacts of solar cells, batteries, wind generators, smart grids and all the rest. Having stepped down the path of technologically based economic development, we should not expect a pristine planet. But we can expect and work toward an environmentally sustainable earth. There is no excuse for willful disregard of the facts and every reason to listen closely when someone finds that your breakthrough invention has some negative effects.

We should approach the introduction of new technology and our analysis of environmental impacts with care and humility. The ozone hole was an urgent crisis that perhaps pushed other considerations out of our mind as we focused on the problem at hand. The climate crisis is today’s high priority crisis. What other challenges are we setting aside as we focus our attention on the urgent crisis of the moment?

What is key is that we integrate a concern for environmental impacts into the development and implementation of new technology. Human ingenuity fashions our technology to respond to the problems of human survival and wellbeing. The goal is to make products that transform our lives. The success stories are all around us: the air conditioning that comforts us during the current heat wave, the computer and wireless internet that carries this blog piece to you, and countless inventions that make our way of life possible.

But today we are seven billion humans and before our growth peaks we will hit nine billion. It’s a big planet, but our lifestyles have still managed to transform it. We’ve lit it up, carved it up, built it up, and travel everywhere to see all of it. We need to understand that impact if we are to continue to ensure that the natural systems that provide us with air, water, and food remain viable. While our species is ingenious, we make mistakes and our learning process is far from perfect.

The process of negotiating this treaty amendment has been difficult with both China and India agreeing to a transition from HFCs, but arguing for a longer period of transition than desired by climate advocates due to cost. The transition will not be without financial cost, and while the costs are relatively low, for developing countries they may be significant. The compliance deadlines could be influenced by the development of newer, lower-cost substitutes. If the price of transition is lowered, then the time scale issue will become less important.

Both China and India are seeing greater environmental awareness among their young people, particularly the youthful elite. This is something we already saw in Europe, the U.S. and Japan. Once environmentalism takes hold among young people in China and India, we can expect to see less opposition to aggressive global environmental agreements and hopefully, less need for them in the first place. The key will be to connect future economic growth the health of the global ecosphere. Since the connection is true, the argument will be made with great impact.

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