Is ozone the enemy of the climate?

Written by tim


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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  1. John

    “it would appear that fixing the ozone hole … is getting in the way of mitigating another ecological disaster, namely global climate change.”
    Like you said, technically this is correct.
    Yes, it’s dramatization.
    Yes, the author is obviously looking to distort a technical fact for gain.
    Yes, it would be obsurd to undo our ozone success story for the marginal gloabl benefit.
    Are you surprised to see this style if writing?

  2. michael

    I actually see this as good news…sort of a corollary to global warming…this too we can fix.

  3. Tim

    @John – No, I’m not surprised… it’s the norm for newspaper reporting. My goal here is to point it out and make a small issue of this style. It’s not necessary to posit two environmental problems as antagonistic. They’re both serious pollution problems with real solutions. That they should feedback (slightly) is rather irrelevant and could lead to misunderstanding the purpose of combating either problem.
    @michael – I’m glad you see the positive! It’s true that the mending ozone hole is a fantastic environmental success story. It should surprise no one that it was solved by a voluntary international treaty that was signed on, first, by most developed nations and then implemented by less developed countries as time went on. Doesn’t that sound like a potential solution to a different pollution problem?

  4. Lauren

    I think the most tragic aspect of this story is that it highlights the state of science education in this country today. The reporter obviously does not have a very good grasp what the science in the original article meant. Yes, he repeated factually that mending the ozone hole will mean a slight increase in warming – but he clearly missed larger issue and what is frustrating is that it is yet another example of a poor press for climate science that will be used by those who do not believe in climate change or that human activities have severely perturbed natural global cycles. And so in the end the blame for poor reporting on scientific community I believe goes back to lack of science education and underlying attitude by elementary school teachers that science is boring which seems to be ingrained into the minds of students at a very early age and leads to students not caring about science as they get older, thus leaving us with a general population that is illiterate in science!
    But, good news for the ozone hole!

  5. Matt

    excellent article. it really debunked a lot of misnomers about both Global Warming, and Ozone-I think a great follow up article to this would be introducing what creates CFC’s and amplifies the production of ozone in the atmosphere.Or the differences between primary air pollutants and secondary air pollutants–and their sources…ya know something about the unforeseen consequences behind our consumption rates in the Northern Hemisphere. that is the straight science methinks.