Back in the late 1970s, scientists noticed that there was a marked change in the earth’s atmosphere. Ozone levels were being reduced by about four percent. This doesn’t sound like much, but the scientists knew that ozone helps reduce the amount of ultraviolet (UV) light passing through the atmosphere. Increased UV light can increase the incidence of skin cancer, blindness, sunburn and cataracts. By 1983, NASA scientists detected an actual hole in the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, creating alarm in the scientific community. In 1987 a meeting of scientists in Montreal developed a ban of chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs) that were found to be the root cause of much of the ozone layer depletion.
What did this mean for the average consumer? Not much. For example, car manufacturers shifted from using a refrigerant call R12 in their vehicle air conditioning systems to one called R134a. R134a was less harmful to the atmosphere and was put into widespread use.
Since then, even R134a has been taken out of service, replaced with something called HFO-1234yf that is even less harmful to the atmosphere.
Aerosol propellants for hair sprays, shaving creams and the like were also replaced. There was an effort to change to hand pump sprays that eliminated the use of CFCs in these products. There are still a lot of aerosols on the market, but their propellants have been replaced with hydrocarbons that are less harmful to the atmosphere.
Today, the ozone layer has substantially recovered. UV from ozone penetration is reduced. NASA thinks the hole in the ozone layer will heal before the turn of the century.
Today, we have climate change as an issue. Scientists identified climate warming as an existential threat to humanity as early as the 1960s. Through analysis of ice and sediment deposits, NASA scientists found that the climate can change very rapidly, within decades rather than centuries or longer as had been previously thought.
By the mid-1970s, scientists understood the release of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide but also things like CFCs) would be trapping heat in our atmosphere and that this could lead to climate change. Nothing much was done about this at the time. With the rise of the industrial revolution, the combustion engine and other heat sources, the atmosphere was under literal fire for almost 150 years. Carbon dioxide levels have been rising since 1750.
Unlike the ozone problem, tucked away by scientists and manufacturers and otherwise transparent to the end user, climate change means we can no longer do business as usual. Things that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, CFCs, nitrous oxide and methane have to be curtailed if we hope to stop inflicting damage on the atmosphere and subsequently, on ourselves.
This means changing from carbon based energy to low-emission energy. No more coal-fired and natural gas-fired electricity generation. More emphasis on wind and solar power which produce very few emissions. Moving to electric power for consumer, agricultural and industrial uses. Changing how we use electricity with this shift impacts the electrical grid which means we will have to manage how we use electricity with more forethought.
Unlike the ozone layer that required very little of consumers to fix, shifting away from carbon-based energy will require the involvement of everyone because it affects everyone.
My daughter asked me how an individual can really make an impact on climate change given the enormous scale of greenhouse gas emissions from things like the oil sands and private jets. It’s disheartening when a short, 40 minute trip in a private jet emits four tons of greenhouse gasses, about the same as driving a car for a year. I don’t think my answer really satisfied her. As individuals, if we can make changes to how we consume what kinds of energy, I think we can really make a difference.
It’s no wonder that climate change deniers think the science behind all of this is a conspiracy. It’s largely out of our control, we’re reliant on large industrial emitters to change their ways and there’s a feeling of helplessness at the grass roots level about making meaningful changes that are often expensive and use new, unproven technologies.
But we have to start somewhere. I know I feel better offsetting the use of the almost three tons of sheet metal called our pickup truck with our electric and hybrid cars . Our electric heat pump helps reduce our reliance on propane. The question is, and only time will tell us what the answer is, do we have the collective will to reduce the impact of the climate crisis by making the necessary hard, expensive and uncomfortable changes to our daily lives to keep the planet from overheating?
Sometimes you just need a picture of a cat.