© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Planet Money: Has The Hole In the Ozone Been Fixed?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I think it's fair to say the world is facing some existential crises right now, don't you think? And sometimes, it really does just feel like too much. This is why Darian Woods and Kenny Malone from our Planet Money team went looking for a moment in time when the world got together and fixed something, that time we plugged the hole in the ozone layer. Here's what they learned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: The ozone layer is like Earth's natural beach umbrella. Without it, we'd have incredibly high rates of skin cancer.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: And in the early 1980s, a young researcher named Jonathan Shanklin noticed that a massive hole was opening up in the ozone layer.

JONATHAN SHANKLIN: It went, really, from the first hints in our data to over half the ozone layer over Antarctica disappearing in just 10 years - as time short as that.

WOODS: Here are some of the lessons learned from fixing that hole. Lesson 1, Shanklin says, is that scientists need a striking image to convey the problem.

MALONE: What seemed to work was this color-coded map of the Earth that made it painfully clear a hole was opening up over the South Pole.

SHANKLIN: And having that evidence in a visual form that, perhaps, you can show to your grandmother and she will say, oh, yes, I understand exactly what you mean, makes all the difference.

WOODS: One of the countries paying the most attention to this map was actually my home country of New Zealand, right next door to the hole.

MALONE: And New Zealand's representative that was supposed to help try and fix this problem was a guy called Philip Woollaston.

PHILIP WOOLLASTON: We would have an absolute plague of melanoma and other skin cancers. We were right there in the sights.

MALONE: And Lesson 2, according to Woollaston, was thinking about the incentives.

WOODS: The problem was a group of chemicals generally known as CFCs used in things like fridges, air conditioners and deodorant spray.

MALONE: And in 1987, the United Nations convened a huge meeting in Montreal to try and get rid of those chemicals. Philip Woollaston was there. And he says American chemical companies like Dupont were also there. And weirdly, they seemed to be in favor of an eventual ban on this chemical that they were making.

WOOLLASTON: My suspicion has always been - and I can't recall whether I had any hard evidence - but that DuPont actually found - they were further down the track to finding substitutes.

MALONE: One of the reasons the ozone hole got fixed was because the existing polluters realized that fixing the problem could be even more profitable.

WOODS: This is Lesson 3, something economists call first-mover advantage. If you can convince big business that the writing is on the wall, change can happen much faster. And businesses compete to innovate and be the first mover.

MALONE: And so over a long week in 1987, the world with support from chemical companies, agreed to completely phase out CFCs. The hole in the ozone layer is slowly but surely closing.

WOODS: Philip Woollaston is now happily retired in New Zealand next to that shrinking hole.

MALONE: Do you ever come out to your backyard and look south and think, that's part of my life's work, the fact that there isn't a hole there.

WOOLLASTON: (Laughter) Well, there's less of a hole (laughter). No, no, I don't.

MALONE: (Laughter).

WOOLLASTON: It's a nice thought. Usually, if I come outside, I'll look out and say, that lawn needs mowing. That tree needs trimming. There's work to do (laughter).

MALONE: Kenny Malone.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

MALONE: NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "AUSPICIOUS PATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.