A Tale of Two Treaties: One Saved the Ozone Layer, the Other Aims to Curb Climate Change

Will Trump undermine both of them?

November 09, 2017

This year, the hole in earth’s ozone layer was the smallest observed since 1988

NASA/NASA Ozone Watch/Katy Mersmann

First, the good news: The hole in our atmosphere’s ozone layer is the smallest it’s been since 1988—and you can credit the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 treaty banning ozone-destroying chemicals, with this extremely positive development.

Now, the bad news: Our current presidential administration seems to think, despite overwhelming evidence, that global pacts like this one just don’t work. And that spells trouble for any and all environmental treaties that require international cooperation, the most important one currently being the Paris climate agreement. 

And finally, some more good news: Syria decided this week to sign on to Paris. As one of only two remaining holdouts, the struggling nation—ravaged by a civil war that has turned it into a barely functioning pariah state—surprised the world by getting its act together enough, at least, to join the global pact to cut carbon pollution. In doing so, it left but a single, lonely country standing in the “uncommitted” column.

That would be the United States. The same nation that, under President Obama, played such a crucial role in the architecture and passage of the Paris climate agreement in 2015—and also the nation that President Trump so ignorantly and ignominiously pulled out of the treaty earlier this year. Now, with Syria’s reconsideration, the country that likes to think of itself as a beacon unto the free world finds itself a singular object of international scorn.

So much for American exceptionalism.

Trump’s stated reason for withdrawing from Paris was that adhering to its terms would unfairly “punish” the United States by destroying jobs and stifling competitiveness. Underlying his disdain was the argument, fueled by conservative pundits and amplified by GOP lawmakers, that other nations were unlikely to fulfill their pledges even if we did.

But recent history provides a far more compelling counterargument. Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol, a global agreement that dramatically reduced the emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other industrial gases that chip away at the planet’s ozone layer, a part of the stratosphere that protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which can cause skin cancer and other ailments. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the treaty has spared hundreds of millions of people from skin cancer and saved more than a million lives. 

The Montreal Protocol didn’t just work; it worked exactly as its framers hoped it would. And the reason it worked so well, and continues to keep us safe, is that every nation brought something to the table—which gave it a universally acknowledged weight and authority. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan believed it to be not only the most successful environmental treaty in history but also “perhaps the most successful international agreement to date” of any kind. Over the last 30 years, it has effectively eliminated CFCs worldwide and, thanks to its frequent updates and revisions, ramped up its protections over the decades to include other ozone-depleting hazards, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HCFCs). And since many CFCs and HCFCs are also potent greenhouse gases, there’s actually evidence that the protocol has helped in the fight against climate change and even reduced the intensity of tropical cyclones.

In his budget for fiscal year 2018, President Trump proposed gutting our nation’s contribution to the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund, which was established to help sustain the ongoing activity and research that keep it healthy and effective. The executive committee meets later this month in the treaty’s namesake city to determine its near future. As of right now, no one knows the degree to which the United States will contribute. (The fund has spent about $3 billion since it was created in 1990; about a quarter of this amount has come from the United States.) The Trump administration has made no secret regarding its disdain for multilateral treaties; that this particular multilateral treaty—signed by an iconic Republican president, supported unanimously by a divided Senate, and considered by anyone who knows anything about it to be as exemplary as it is important—simply may not matter to them.

It’s hard to believe that the United States would be willing to show up in Montreal with empty pockets, given how successful the fight to protect the ozone layer has been. Then again, it’s even harder to believe that ours is now the only country in the world to remain, stubbornly and stupidly, outside of the Paris climate agreement.

When some Dickensian scribe of the future is looking back at the U.S. environmental policy of this era and trying to capture the predicament we’re in, what choice will he or she have but to describe it thusly?

“It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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