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Hey, Remember How The World Actually Fixed The Ozone Hole? And Acid Rain?
And Y2K? And HITLER?
Professional Internet Troll Matt Walsh, who may actually be an artificial brain in a box grown from Ben Shapiro's fingernail clippings, trotted out an extremely stupid reply to news that President Joe Biden is likely to declare the climate crisis a national emergency, which would allow Biden some latitude in using executive orders to address greenhouse gas emissions. As Evan already noted, Walsh's bleatings were part of a sudden spasm of rightwing pundits touting long-debunked climate denial tropes, as if the prospect of Biden taking action on climate had bonked them all simultaneously on the kneecaps. But we'd like to linger on what Walsh said on Twitter, not because it's all that worth debunking, but because the debunking provides a timely reminder that not only is international cooperation to address an environmental crisis possible, it used to be the norm and it can be again .
Walsh, who's probably smart enough to know he was lying and cynical enough to know his readers don't know or care, tried to imply that the climate crisis is just a big liberal lie, like other environmental crises of the past, as long as you ignore a few tiny details like science, law, and history.
“This was also back during the time when they scared school children into believing that "acid rain" was a real and urgent threat”
— Matt Walsh (@Matt Walsh) 1658315396
Remember when they spent years telling us to panic over the hole in the ozone layer and then suddenly just stopped talking about it and nobody ever mentioned the ozone layer again?
This was also back during the time when they scared school children into believing that "acid rain" was a real and urgent threat
And then, as is the ritual, the rest of Twitter jumped in to remind Walsh that ozone depletion and acid rain were both very real threats, and that both had been addressed and largely solved by international action by governments, including that bane of rightwing ideologues, regulations on businesses. It's that "Hey, we fixed it!" part of the discussion I'd like to focus on, so now we'll leave Matt Walsh alone to stand there in his wrongness and be wrong. He's not worth discussing, for the most part — except insofar as how science deniers like Walsh tried and failed to prevent action in those cases, too.
It's Not Our First Environmental Rodeo. Watch Out For The Bullshit.
The good news about both ozone depletion and acid rain is that science identified problems and developed explanations for what was causing those problems, and then governments took action to address the problems. That last bit, of course, was far from easy: Industries that would be affected by solving the problems resisted mightily, denied there was a problem, cried that the economy would be ruined by the proposed solutions, and lobbied like crazy to prevent action. And then the industries mostly adapted to the laws that were passed, while many of the very same lobbyists and rightwing "experts" moved on to denying other issues in an endless Circle of Bullshit.
If you have somehow not read Merchants of Doubt , by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, you should correct that gap in your knowledge, because a lot of the very same people and groups now fighting any action on climate got their start ages ago, denying that tobacco causes cancer or that pesticides could possibly be harmful to human health.
Fixing A Hole Where The Ultraviolet Light Gets In
So yes: Ozone depletion! For a good overview of the science and the history, take a look at this Smithsonian article, which goes all the way back to the early days of chemistry and atmospheric science, including the discovery of ozone in the 1830s. The ozone layer is an extremely thin part of Earth's stratosphere, way up there 12 to 18 miles above the surface, which absorbs ultraviolet light from the sun and keeps much of it from roasting us with cancer and badness. In the 1970s, scientists realized that the ozone layer had thinned almost to nothing over the South Pole, and they also figured out why: Chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, used in air conditioning, refrigerators, and in spray can propellants, were making their way to the highest reaches of the atmosphere and degrading the ozone layer.
It took well over a decade for the science to result in action, particularly since manufacturers and chemical producers stood to lose a lot of money; industry, helped out by conservative small-government think tanks, paid for lobbying campaigns that sought to convince lawmakers and the public that the science wasn't settled enough, or that the problem was exaggerated, or that any attempt to address it would bankrupt industry and leave our refrigerators and air conditioners useless, and how do you think you'll feed your children if we can't keep the ground beef cold???
Even so, the world came together relatively quickly, as the UN Environmental Programme explains:
But in 1985, a hole was confirmed in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The world’s natural sun shield, which protects humans, plants, animals and ecosystems from excessive ultraviolet radiation, had been breached.
Suddenly, a future blighted by skin cancers, cataracts, dying plants and crops and damaged ecosystems loomed. There was no time to lose. Scientists had raised the alarm and the world listened.
In 1985, governments adopted the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer , which provided the framework for the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-depleting substances, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The Protocol came into effect in 1989 and by 2008, it was the first and only UN environmental agreement to be ratified by every country in the world.
It was pretty amazing, really. Industry even figured out how to make new stuff! Heck, the UN even made a short movie about it, narrated by David Attenborough:
Since then, the Antarctic ozone hole has begun healing; it's estimated to be fully recovered by around 2050, assuming that Donald Trump doesn't uncover a lost cache of 1975-era hairspray in the Himalayas or something.
Also too, because the ozone hole is still recovering, and varies in size from year to year, you can still find plenty of lying liars who insist nothing changed at all. They'll cite partial information to claim it was all a hoax, or that banning CFCs did nothing — one dipshit in the Walsh replies posted a NOAA report from last year, noting that the 2021 hole was the 13th largest on record, to claim we hadn't fixed anything, even though the NOAA press release noted that the hole was "substantially smaller than ozone holes measured during the late 1990s and early 2000s" and that without the Montreal Protocol's ban on CFCs, the hole would have been "larger by about 1.5 million square miles," which is rather substantial.
Acid Rain, Some Stay Dry And Others Feel The Pain
The story was much the same for acid rain, as this BBC Future article reviews. In the 1960s, scientists started noticing that rainwater was far more acidic than it should have been, and oh golly, a lot of freshwater lakes were seeing fish die off because their Ph was all out of whack and the acidic water was killing off the eensy-weensy organisms the fish fed on. The culprit, it turned out, was sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from industry, vehicles, and especially from coal-fired power plants.
The BBC article has an amazing section on how Canadian researchers deliberately acidified a small lake and watched the effects: First the weird little freshwater shrimp died off, and then the fish stopped breeding because they were starving. The lake was far away from any pollution from power plants, and the researchers noticed something weird: After they acidified the water, it didn't stay acidic, and they determined that
alkali-producing microbes were capable of buffering some of the acidity, helping the lake chemistry to recover. That acid could be neutralised by bacteria living in every lake was a controversial finding at the time.
Hey, that meant that if you could cut the pollution, a lot of lakes would be able to start repairing themselves, too. But again, it took decades to actually make progress and force coal-burning companies to install scrubbers on smokestacks, because the usual gang of deniers polluted the public discourse with fear, uncertainty, and doubt: Do you want to sit in the dark just for the sake of some stupid fish? Eventually, though, the US and Canada reached agreements on emissions that might cross borders, and the US instituted a cap-and trade system that moved industry to clean up emissions. Yep, big government and burdensome regulation to the rescue again!
Also too, in the US, at least, some of the relief from acid rain may also have resulted from capitalism being horrible: Outsourcing and offshoring led to the closure of polluting steel mills in the Midwest; in China, which still relies far too much on coal, acid rain remains a serious problem.
Again, this is good news for climate. And while the scale of the problem is far larger, the solutions are all technically feasible, and better for public health and the freaking economy than doing nothing. We would be in far better shape if we and the rest of the world had started 30 years ago. At this point, some really bad effects of climate change are locked in by the concentrations of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. It's going to cost far more, and result in more disruption than if we'd gotten serious about greenhouse emissions decades ago.
But the costs of doing nothing also keep rising, so we need to look back at the Montreal Protocols and the reduction of acid rain and get busy. Don't forget to make fun of liars along the way, either.
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