A Hole in the Ozone, or a Hole in the Political Science?



Above: The latest false-color view of total ozone over the Antarctic pole. The purple and blue colors are where there is the least ozone, and the yellows and reds are where there is more ozone. (Source: NASA Ozone Hole Watch)

On September 10, an article written by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press trumpeted a claim of good news with the headline: “Scientists say the ozone layer is recovering.” The basis for Borenstein’s headline is a statistical analysis:

For the first time in 35 years, scientists were able to confirm a statistically significant and sustained increase in stratospheric ozone, which shields the planet from solar radiation that causes skin cancer, crop damage and other problems.

From 2000 to 2013, ozone levels climbed 4 percent in the key mid-northern latitudes at about 30 miles up, said NASA scientist Paul A. Newman.

Later in the article, Borenstein cites this news as "one of the great success stories of international collective action in addressing a global environmental change phenomenon."

Is it really?

Like many superficial claims made in the mainstream media, this one reveals a different story if you scratch ever so slightly below the surface. First, a bit of background on ozone depletion: ozone reduction in the upper atmosphere is said to be caused by a chemical interaction with the inert refrigerant chemical known as “chlorofluorocarbons,” or CFCs, which is found in the piping of millions of refrigerators and air conditioners worldwide. The loss of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere will lead to normally reflected high-energy ultraviolet light reaching the Earth’s surface, causing more sunburns and skin cancer, disruption of ecosystems such as marine plankton and algae, and other photosynthetic biomass, with a large ripple effect.

The solution was to ban certain CFCs that were said to cause a loss of upper atmospheric ozone. Borenstein’s supposed “success story” hinges on a 1987 UN resolution called the Montreal Protocol:

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was designed to reduce the production and consumption of ozone depleting substances in order to reduce their abundance in the atmosphere, and thereby protect the earth’s fragile ozone Layer. (Source)

The Montreal Protocol certainly seems rooted with good intentions. Yet, as with so many other things we see from the UN, the actual implementation -- once the cocktail parties, the speeches, and the self-congratulatory claims are over -- doesn’t quite fit the original intent or the claims of success. Just a few months ago on Dec 11, 2013, NASA issued a press release containing this statement:

More than 20 years after the Montreal Protocol agreement limited human emissions of ozone-depleting substances, satellites have monitored the area of the annual ozone hole and watched it essentially stabilize, ceasing to grow substantially larger. However, two new studies show that signs of recovery are not yet present, and that temperature and winds are still driving any annual changes in ozone hole size. 

"We are still in the period where small changes in chlorine do not affect the area of the ozone hole, which is why it's too soon to say the ozone hole is recovering," Strahan said. "We're going into a period of large variability and there will be bumps in the road before we can identify a clear recovery." (Source)

Within the span of nine months, NASA issued statements claiming of atmospheric ozone that “signs of recovery are not yet present,” there is “large variability,” it is “stabilizing,” and now, that the hole is “shrinking.”

So which is it? The answer may lie in the relevant political science, not the atmospheric. The Montreal Protocol is 25 years old this year, having been entered into force in 1989. When such milestones are reached, there is always pressure to make some statement that the work of the UN actually made some sort of difference.