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Clearly, it's too early to wholly relax on protecting the ozone layer. We need to make sure that the manufacture of these materials is almost entirely stopped all over the world. We need greatly enhanced research to find safe substitutes. We need comprehensive monitoring (from ground stations, airplanes, and satellites in orbit) of the ozone layer all over the globe* at least as conscientiously as we would watch over a loved one suffering from heart palpitations. We need to know by how much the ozone layer is further stressed by occasional volcanic explosions, or continued global warming, or the introduction of some new chemical into the world atmosphere.
Starting shortly after the Montreal Protocol, stratospheric chlorine levels have declined. Starting in 1994 the stratospheric chlorine and bromine levels (taken together) have declined. If bromine levels also decline, the ozone layer should, it is estimated, begin a long-term recovery by the turn of the century. Had no CFC controls been instituted until 2010, stratospheric chlorine would have climbed to levels three times higher than today's, the Antarctic ozone hole would have persisted until the mid-twenty-second century, and springtime ozone depletion in
* The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have played heroic roles in acquiring data about the depleting ozone layer and its causes. (The Nimbus-7 satellite, for example, found an increase of the most dangerous UV wavelengths reaching the Earth's surface of 10 percent a decade for southern Chile and Argentina and about half that at northern midlatitudes, where most people on Earth live.) A new NASA satellite program called Mission to Planet Earth will continue monitoring ozone and related atmospheric phenomena on an ambitious scale for a decade or more. Meanwhile, Russia, Japan, the constituent members of the European Space Agency, and others are weighing in with their own programs and their own spacecraft. By these criteria also, the human species is taking the threat of ozone depletion seriously. A Piece of the Sky Is Missing • 115
the northern midlatitudes might have reached well above 30 percent, a whopping value—according to Rowland's Irvine colleague Michael Prather.
In the United States there is still resistance from the air conditioning and refrigerator industries, from extreme "conservatives," and from Republican members of Congress. Tom DeLay, the Republican House majority whip, was in 1996 of the opinion that "the science underlying the CFC ban is debatable," and that the Montreal Protocol is "the result of a media scare." John Doolittle, another House Republican, insisted that the causal link connecting ozone depletion with CFCs is "still very much open to debate." In response to a reporter who reminded him of the critical, skeptical peer review by experts that papers establishing this link had been subjected to, Doolittle replied, "I'm not going to get involved in peerreview mumbo-jumbo." It might be better for the country if he did. Peer review is in fact the great mumbo-jumbo detector. The Nobel Committee's judgment was different. In conferring the Prize on Rowland and Molina— whose names should be known to every schoolchild—it commended them for having "contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences." It's hard to understand how "conservatives" could oppose safeguarding the environment that all of us—including conservatives and their children—depend on for our very lives. What exactly is it conservatives are conserving?
The central elements of the ozone story are like many other environmental threats: We pour some substance into the atmosphere (or prepare to do so). Somehow we do not thoroughly examine its environmental impact—because examination would be expensive, or would delay production and cut into profits; or
116 • Billions and Billions because those in charge do not want to hear counterarguments; or because the best scientific talent has not been brought to bear on the issue; or simply because we're human and fallible and have missed something. Then, suddenly, we are face-to-face with a wholly unexpected danger of worldwide dimensions that may have its most ominous consequences decades or centuries from now. The problem cannot be solved locally, or in the short term.
In all these cases, the lesson is clear: We are not always smart or wise enough to foresee all the consequences of our actions. The invention of CFCs was a brilliant achievement. But as smart as those chemists were, they weren't smart enough. Precisely because CFCs are so inert, they survived long enough to reach the ozone layer. The world is complicated. The air is thin. Nature is subtle. Our capacity to cause harm is great. We must be much more careful and much less forgiving about polluting our fragile atmosphere.
We must develop higher standards of planetary hygiene and significantly greater scientific resources for monitoring and understanding the world. And we must begin to think and act not merely in terms of our nation and generation (much less the profits of a particular industry) but in terms of the entire vulnerable planet Earth and the generations of children to come.
The hole in the ozone layer is a kind of skywriting. At first it seemed to spell out our continuing complacency before a witch's brew of deadly perils. But perhaps it really tells of a newfound talent to work together to protect the global environment. The Montreal Protocol and its amendments represent a triumph and a glory for the human species.
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