Cheer up: climate change could be worse

The Montreal Protocol was remarkable for three reasons: It was a model for international cooperation; it succeeded in reducing atmospheric pollution; and now studies show it slowed global warming.

image: Air Hawk heating

Given the current divide, it’s hard to imagine how different the politics were back in 1987 when the Montreal Protocol was signed. Conservative leaders of Canada and the U.S. agreed on the science that demonstrated how chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were damaging the ozone layer and allowing harmful radiation from the sun to get through.

Back then, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Republican President George H. W. Bush led the signing of the protocol. Unlike now, both leaders understood that science is not a “belief system.”

Both leaders were concerned about the environment and earned a reputation as such.  Before becoming leader of the Green Party of Canada in 2006, Elizabeth May praised Mulroney as Canada’s “greenest” Prime Minister.

And President Bush established the U.S. Global Change Research Program in 1989. The program directs the President in office to improve the understanding of global climate change, develop a plan for implementation of the program, and provide recommendations for collaboration among nations.

President Trump wants nothing to with Bush’s Global Change Research Program. Some of his reactions to climate change on twitter illustrate his ignorance of science: “I don’t believe it,” “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

While the Montreal Protocol was not implemented with climate change in mind, two studies have found that eliminating CFCs have had an effect on reducing greenhouse gases.

One study is from Australia and the other is a Canada/U.S. collaboration. They found that CFCs are not only ozone layer destroyers but potent greenhouse gases, thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and can remain in the atmosphere for up to 100 years.

The Australian study found that if CFCs had not been banned, the Earth would be on average at least one degree warmer by mid-century.  Researcher Matthew England told CBC radio’s Quirks & Quarks:

“Without the Montreal Protocol, we would have had at least a quarter more global warming than we have today,”

England added that Canada’s Arctic would have experienced 25 per cent more sea ice melt than what we’re seeing today.

The Canada/U.S. study used a different method to arrive at the same conclusion. They examined what the effect on global warming would have been if CFCs had never been invented, and found that in a world without CFCs Arctic warming would be cut in half. University of Toronto climate scientist and co-author of the study Karen Smith said:

“There are added benefits of this protocol that we keep discovering as we look at the data (Globe and Mail, January 21, 2020).”

Global agreements on CO2 reductions such as the Paris Agreement have been a harder nut to crack. Climate change has become a political issue, the science held in suspicion by deniers and fervently repeated by believers.

The Montreal Protocol was a time when everyone pulled together towards the goal of saving our environment, a time I now long for.

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