Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Ozone Hole -- 25 years

Nature has an article by Jonathan Shanklin who (together with Joe Farman and Brian Gardiner of the British Antarctic Survey, BAS) published results about abnormally low ozone concentrations over Antarctica (Halley Bay) in May 1985. The BBC has a story and a summary of the Shanklin arcticle here.

It is noteworthy that reference is made to the discovery of the 'Ozone Hole' -- a term which was not used by the BAS team in its original publication. A 'hole' could only be seen after NASA's satellite data confirmed the BAS findings and provided data for global ozone. Still the term 'ozone hole' did not appear until Sherwood Rowland invented the metaphor later in 1985. It took some time before the term became acceptable in scientific papers. The authors of the paper reporting NASA satellite data (Stolarski et al. 1986) wanted to use it but referees objected to it.

Shanklin points to the serendipidity of their discovery at Halley Bay, including their sheer luck of not being closed down due to funding pressures. Would we have missed the ozone hole without their publication? When I interviewed many of the scientists involved (see my book here), most told me that sooner or later we would have realised that there was a problem. This may be true but the timing of the discovery was just right and could not have been 'scripted' in a better way for the unfolding drama. Remember, in 1985, model predictions of global ozone depletion went towards zero, indicating that there was no problem after all. In the same year the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was signed and no one had big hopes of turning this into a binding and effective treaty. During this window of opportunity the ozone hole made its appearance and changed the whole game. The BAS publication was essential for this dynamic to unfold.

One can see how others have tried to apply the same instrumental approach to the policy process in the case of climate, arguably stretching the availbale data to mount a similar alarm as we saw 25 years ago. But the alarm signal is of a different strength.

Shanklin gives a good insight into the difference between ozone and climate politics, emphasizing the different framing of the two discourses:

Concerns about the ozone layer led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol to phase out CFCs. The discovery of the ozone hole undoubtedly helped to seal those negotiations, but there were several other important drivers to international accord. Chemical manufacturers were able and willing, after some initial resistance, to produce CFC substitutes. The public was keen to see action: the evidence was strong and clear; the hole sounded threatening; and there was a link between thinning ozone and cancer. And the public did not feel bullied or threatened — no one was telling them to radically change their way of life. There was a problem, and something could be done about it.
By contrast, the evidence for man-made climate change is less clear-cut to the average person. And people are given the impression that civilization will collapse unless they abandon cars and radically change their lives in other difficult ways. Not surprisingly, there is confusion and resistance.
Shanklin's conclusion draws on the idea that overpopulation is the cause of many environmental problems. We discussed this topic here on the Zwiebel on previous occasions. This is what Shanklin has to say:
Perhaps the most startling lesson from the ozone hole is just how quickly our planet can change. Given the speed with which humankind can affect it, following the precautionary principle is likely to be the safest road to future prosperity. Although the focus is on climate change at present, the root cause of all of our environmental issues — a human population that overburdens the planet — is growing. Future historians may note that although humanity solved one unexpected environmental problem, it bequeathed many more through its failure to take a holistic approach to the environment.


@ReinerGrundmann said...

Joe Farman, co-author of the 1985 Nature paper by the BAS, was interviewed by the BBC. You can read it here. Two comments stand out:
1 His disdain for huge resources for computer modelling. Clearly, he wants to see more funding for observations. "There are so many variables that computers can't possibly forecast what will happen exactly with the Earth's climate," he says.
2 His crticism of the climate science establisment for brushing aside the skeptics. "Lord Oxburgh's review (which cleared researchers at the Climatic Research Unit of any wrong-doing) was not convincing"

Roger Harrabin from the BBC concludes: "Dr Farman's comments may sound a warning to the scientific establishment, though. If the review teams cannot command the full support of maverick eco-heroes like the discoverer of the ozone hole, they may struggle to command broad public support. And that could be far more damaging to the future of climate science."

Werner Krauss said...

I think Shanklin's conclusion is kind of lazy. Is really the 'average person' the problem, and the diffuse fears of 'the people'? I would suggest that instead greenhouse gases are the problem. While it was possible to take CFCs out of the economy, we cannot eliminate all greenhouse gases in ever more energy-intensive societies. Obviously, climate is a much more complex problem, and there are no easy solutions at hand.
Sure, Shanklin's sequence 'planet - humanity - precautionary principle - holistic approach' sounds nice.
But it means nothing. Instead, it only shows Shanklin's environmentalist arrogance and negativism. Sure, overpopulation. Amen. And now Lovejoy's apocalyptic fantasies. This is pretty reactionary, isn't it? Out of time, ahistorical, from a real Elfenbeinturm-perspective. In love with 'Weltuntergang'.

Why does he not make any suggestions how to proceed after Copenhagen? This is exactly where we are. The failure of Copenhagen also wasn't a failure of 'the people', but one of wrong strategies and maybe wrong scientific advice. So the challenge is to find new ways how to deal with the problem. It's a challenge not only for 'the average person', but even more for the scientist and the politician - in short, for everyone. To lean back in the armchair and fantasize about 'the people' and 'holistic approaches' and 'overpopulation' is of no help.

I think this generalizing attitude is a real problem in climate discourse, and this is true for alarmists and skeptics alike. As if Oswald Spengler were still alive...

ghost said...

" Clearly, he wants to see more funding for observations."

Looking into the plans of the NASA, it is underway after the cuts under the Bush Jr administration (e.g. How ironic, not the evil alarmist and modelling community is guilty, but deniers like Bush Jr.. The NASA tries to increase the earth observation budget massively now. Obama approved a lot of it in the last year.

I think, the critic was right, but at least in the case of the NASA it addressed the wrong people.

ghost said...

some PS:

this table shows the cuts quite clearly:

NASA Budget History for Earth Observations


Fiscal Year…...... Actual $ millions…... Constant 2008 $ millions


FY 2001…................$919.0 ...................$1,102.3

FY 2002…................$847.3 ..................$1,000.5

FY 2003…................$903.1…................$1,042.6

FY 2004…...............$1010.4…...............$1,136.2

FY 2005…............... $722.1…..................$785.4

FY 2006…................$492.9…..................$519.4

FY 2007…................$673.6…..................$690.1

FY 2008 est…..........$666.2…..................$666.2

FY 2009 request…...$768.2

hope the layout is okay.

Tobias said...


The budget was also at it's highest during 2004, the year when Pres. Bush was re-elected. Then it slumped from 2005 until today. Do you perhaps think this might have something to do with the fact that they've had a worsening economic situation during this period, or is it that Mr. Bushy was all evily...?

And if you look att NASAs budget could you perhaps run up the numbers for their space program? I think, but I don't know, that Obama has actually decreased the entire budget for NASA and taken money from their space program to go to this "new" climate change program. In other words; screw our actual mission, Space, the Obamanites want's us to go hunting CO2 instead of aliens!

ghost said...


Obama wants to INCREASE the NASA budget... the focus switches to science, which includes many science directions, incl. exploration of the Mars.

I do not know, having a manned space flight to Mars is great, sexy. In the 60s Kennedy and the Apollo program inspired many people. it still causes goose bumps ;). Is this the case today? Jr is not JFK, and the halfhearted, underfunded Constellation program is, was, not Apollo. Of course, there are also other opinions.

My point actually was: is Farmans "feeling" right: too much money for modeling causing too few observations. Or: are there other constraints, too? Maybe. Can you even divide observation and modeling?