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Is ozone the enemy of the climate?

The logic of the New York Times: the ozone hole is mending (good), but in doing so it is speeding warming in Antarctica (bad). This is lazy journalism.

In the author’s defense, the biggest problem is in the headline: “Ozone Hole Is Mending. Now For The ‘But'” followed by “Scientists say averting one threat may add to another: warming.”

The basic story is factually correct. That ozone has a slight warming effect is not news. But the way the editors of the New York Times phrased their headline, it would appear that fixing the ozone hole (an unquestionably great thing) is getting in the way of mitigating another ecological disaster, namely global climate change.

In reality, the problems are almost entirely unrelated. The ozone hole is caused by a suite of chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. In the upper atmosphere, these CFCs undergo a chemical transformation in the presence of strong UV radiation, which tears them apart. The broken CFC molecules then split oxygen atoms from the ozone in the atmosphere, destroying the protective layer that prevents much of the sun’s UV radiation from reaching the surface of the planet.

The global warming problem is caused by a different suite of gases, the proverbial greenhouse gases. These molecules, like carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), absorb and re-emit long-wave radiation back towards the earth’s surface, creating the greenhouse effect.

CFCs are used as refrigerants, and were widely phased out after the Montreal Protocol was signed by most countries in 1989. Greenhouse gases continue to vex international treaty makers, because they are diffusely created and central to our entire economic system.

The fact is, the earth is warming because we are spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates. Fixing the ozone hole may marginally amplify the effect of these greenhouse gases, but we aren’t fixing the ozone hole to prevent global warming, and ultimately the only solution to climate change is to reduce our production of heat-trapping gases.

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