September 14, 2007
By Ben Lieberman
The international treaty to protect the ozone layer turns 20
this year. But is there really much reason to celebrate?
Environmentalists have made numerous apocalyptic predictions
over the past several decades, virtually none of which has come to
pass. Yet each time, the greens and their political allies proclaim
victory, arguing that their preventive prescriptions averted
Such is the case with the 1987 Montreal Protocol On Substances
That Deplete The Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol). The lurid
predictions of ozone depletion-induced skin cancer epidemics,
ecosystem destruction and others haven't come true, for which
Montreal Protocol proponents congratulate themselves. But in
retrospect, the evidence shows that ozone depletion was an
exaggerated threat in the first place. As the treaty parties return
to Montreal for their 20th anniversary meeting it should be cause
for reflection, not celebration, especially for those who hope to
repeat this "success story" in the context of global warming.
The treaty came about over legitimate but overstated concerns
that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, a then-widely used class of
refrigerants) and other compounds were rising to the stratosphere
and destroying ozone molecules. These molecules, collectively known
as the ozone layer, shield the earth from excessive ultraviolet-B
radiation (UVB) from the sun. The Montreal Protocol's provisions
were tightened in 1990 and again in 1992, culminating with a CFC
ban in most developed nations by 1996.
So what do we know now? As far as ozone depletion is concerned,
the thinning of the ozone layer that occurred throughout the 1980s
apparently stopped in the early 1990s, too soon to credit the
Montreal Protocol. A 1998 World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
report said that, "since 1991, the linear [downward] trend observed
during the 1980s has not continued, but rather total column ozone
has been almost constant …" However, the same report noted
that the stratospheric concentrations of the offending compounds
were still increasing through 1998. This lends credence to the
skeptical view, widely derided at the time of the Montreal
Protocol, that natural variations better explain the fluctuations
in the global ozone layer.
More importantly, the feared increase in ground level UVB
radiation has also failed to materialize. Keep in mind that ozone
depletion, in and of itself, doesn't really harm human health or
the environment. It's the concern that an eroded ozone layer will
allow more of the sun's damaging UVB rays to reach the earth that
led to the Montreal Protocol. But WMO concedes that no
statistically significant long-term trends have been detected,
noting earlier this year that "outside the polar regions, ozone
depletion has been relatively small, hence, in many places,
increases in UV due to this depletion are difficult to separate
from the increases caused by other factors, such as changes in
cloud and aerosol." In short, the impact of ozone depletion on UVB
over populated regions is so small that it's hard to detect.
Needless to say, if UVB hasn't gone up, then the fears of
increased UVB-induced harm are unfounded. Indeed, the much-hyped
acceleration in skin cancer rates hasn't been documented. U.S.
National Cancer Institute statistics show that malignant melanoma
incidence and mortality, which had been undergoing a long-term
increase that predates ozone depletion, has actually been leveling
off during the putative ozone crisis.
Further, no ecosystem or species was ever shown to be seriously
harmed by ozone depletion. This is true even in Antarctica, where
the largest seasonal ozone losses, the so-called Antarctic ozone
hole, occur annually. Also forgotten is a long list of truly
ridiculous claims, such as the one from Al Gore's 1992 book "Earth
in the Balance"that, thanks to the Antarctic ozone hole, "hunters
now report finding blind rabbits; fisherman catch blind
Overall, the Montreal Protocol isn't making these bad
consequences go away -- they were never occurring in the first
The parallels with global warming are striking. Again we face a
real but greatly overhyped environmental problem. In both cases,
virtually everything the public has been told that sounds
terrifying isn't true -- and what is true isn't
particularly terrifying. But doomsayers such as Gore simply soldier
on. His claims of blind animals from ozone depletion have been
replaced by equally dubious assertions in his book "An Inconvenient
Truth," including predictions of a massive sea level rise that
would wipe away south Florida and other coastal areas.
Perhaps decades from now, participants in the Kyoto Protocol,
the global-warming treaty modeled after the Montreal Protocol, will
meet and congratulate themselves because none of their scary
assertions came true. But how many resources will have been spent
to save a world that never really needed saving in the first
Ben Lieberman is
senior policy analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic
Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the McClatchy Tribune wire
Environmentalists have made numerous apocalyptic predictions over the past several decades, virtually none of which has come to pass. Yet each time, the greens and their political allies proclaim victory, arguing that their preventive prescriptions averted disaster.
Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment
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