Repairing Ozone Hole Easier to Fix Than Climate Change

Repairing Ozone Hole Easier to Fix Than Climate Change

Nobel prize winner for Chemistry Paul Crutzen says it took decades to get the Montreal treaty enacted to start repairing the hole in the ozone layer. Now there’s the first hard evidence that global action to curb emissions of the ozone-depleting chemicals was starting to work. But it will be even more difficult to get a deal on greenhouse gas emissions. He knows entrenched behaviour and industrial systems cannot be changed abruptly. Cheryl Jones of The Australian attended the conference of Nobel Laureates at Lake Constance.

Cheryl Jones in The Australian (7 July 2010):

IN 1955, some of the world’s greatest scientists attending the annual meeting of Nobel laureates at Lindau in Germany, signed a manifesto opposing nuclear weapons.

They warned that the devices could annihilate entire peoples. This year, global warming was a dominant theme of the meeting, held last week in the picturesque town on a small island in Lake Constance.

Amid delays in getting deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, and with continuing fallout from climategate (with one of the scientists involved, Michael Mann, being cleared by Pennsylvania State University last week of any wrongdoing), many of the laureates moved to tighten the world’s focus on the alarming signs of a planet yielding to the stress of human activity.

One, Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for work on the hole in the ozone layer. Crutzen tells the HES it will be a tough task to hold global warming at2C against pre-industrial levels.

“We already have increased the temperature on the pre-industrial level by 0.7 degrees, so that’s 30 per cent of the 2 degrees,” he says. “I’m rather pessimistic in this regard.”

Crutzen’s research on the hole in the ozone layer helped lay the foundations of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which regulates the production of chlorofluorocarbons and halons, which caused the hole. Earlier this year, Australian scientists released results providing the first hard evidence that global action to curb emissions of the ozone-depleting chemicals was starting to work.

Crutzen points out that it took decades to get the Montreal treaty up. He says it will be even more difficult to get a deal on greenhouse gas emissions. It will take much longer to do something about the carbon dioxide problem, he says, adding that entrenched behaviour and industrial systems cannot be changed abruptly.

“Society as it exists now will be in danger,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that in the long run we won’t get a much better situation. But we will go through a very difficult phase.”

Asked if the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would recover from climategate, he replied: “Not quickly.”

Crutzen says more research is needed to reduce uncertainty in climate modelling.

“The climate system is very complex because of human interactions, and also a lack of scientific information, and maybe a lack of validity of some of the assumptions made in the models,” he says.

He also wants to see new blood injected into climate science, and one of the aims of the Lindau meetings is to inspire young scientists across the world. This year, 675 young researchers from 68 countries attended the conference, which was opened by Bettina Bernadotte, whose family has played a central role in the meetings since their inception in 1951. They heard lectures from 59 laureates.

Palaeoclimatologist Joel Pedro was among 14 top young Australian scientists, working in fields ranging from medicine, through nanotechnology to astronomy, invited to the meeting. A PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania and the Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre, Pedro was nominated by the Australian Academy of Sciences.

He is studying Antarctic ice cores to gauge the impact on climate of changes in the energy output of the sun.

“There is some evidence that changes in solar activity triggered climatic changes in the past, perhaps including the little ice age in the northern hemisphere between the 17th and 18th centuries,” Pedro says.

He wants to find out if there is an isotopic signature of solar activity in the ice that could be lined up with other palaeoclimatic records. He is ground-truthing the method, using satellite records of solar activity stretching back to the 1950s. The 28-year-old scientist, who has long been in awe of Crutzen, is growing impatient with delays in action on climate change mitigation.

“Governments have so far failed to heed the advice of climate scientists,” he says.

In contrast, governments listened to the advice of Crutzen and his colleagues and enacted the Montreal Protocol. Because of this, the ozone hole is now repairing.

Pedro is concerned that the urgency of the greenhouse problem is not getting through to the public.

“There is a large gap between what one reads in the scientific literature about climate change and what one reads in the media,” he says.

And he worries that un-credentialled greenhouse sceptics are often given equal weight in the debate, when their views have not been subjected to the rigours of the scientific method and peer review.

Meanwhile, some scientists are considering alternatives to mitigation. Crutzen published a paper in the journal Climatic Change in 2006 canvassing the idea of injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to counteract global warming. The aerosols backscatter solar radiation to space, cooling the planet. Such geoengineering techniques, labelled solar radiation management, are controversial.

The 76-year-old scientist is surprised by the interest in the technique.

“I’m flabbergasted at how many scientists are now looking at this problem of geoengineering,” he says. “You see conferences everywhere.”

However, Crutzen is cautious, warning that the approach could have health and environmental side effects, creating a dilemma for policy makers. He favours emissions reduction and sees solar radiation management as a method of last resort.

Cheryl Jones attended the conference as a guest of the Foundation Lindau Nobel Prize Winners Meetings at Lake Constance.


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