By Lee Thomas
During the 1980s, the United States and the world faced an urgent environmental challenge. Scientists warned strongly that chlorofluorocarbons, known as CFCs, were destroying the ozone layer. If not stopped, this would wreak havoc on public health — increasing cancer rates, cataracts and worse— and on ecosystems that are essential for agriculture and marine life. The scientists made clear: Humans caused this problem and human must fix it.
Under President Ronald Reagan’s leadership, we decided to act. We engaged with the business community, environmental organizations, government officials and other nations. Less than two years after the discovery of the ozone hole over the Antarctic, many countries negotiated the Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of CFCs.
Reagan was the first head of state to endorse the treaty, and the Senate ratified it unanimously.
This isn’t a history lesson: This matters right now. New international negotiations on climate just concluded this week in Warsaw, Poland. While the world still waits for true leadership, last month’s global science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned starkly: Climate change is here, it’s getting worse, we’re causing it, and we need to act without delay.
Make no mistake: Climate change is a threat that, once distant, has moved squarely into the present. It demands immediate attention.
In the case of the ozone layer, we can learn from our success. But don’t think it was easy. Skeptical voices railed against the treaty, denying that CFCs were a problem or suggesting that adaptation was the preferred approach. Chemical and equipment manufacturers feared the costs. Those fears proved to be unfounded. Businesses soon adjusted to the new rules and identified opportunities for new products. More than a decade of economic prosperity followed the signing of the treaty, showing that American ingenuity can go a long way toward solving our nation’s challenges.
Many of the same arguments once made about CFCs — that they were not a problem or there was too much uncertainty — are being heard today about greenhouse gases. And we have even more evidence about climate change. For decades, scientists understood that man-made greenhouse gases trap heat, which is causing rapid and irreversible changes to the planet. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the Department of Energy and the Pentagon have all warned about the mounting costs and the need for urgent action.
We are seeing rising sea levels and more coastal flooding — all of which have been linked to climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that extreme weather events, like super storms and droughts, are made worse by climate change and cannot be explained by natural variability alone. We see how these events can impact food supplies, access to clean water and our homes and businesses. They pose grave risks to our communities. We have the facts. So let’s move beyond the fruitless debate about the science and focus on solutions.
We have taken important steps forward, albeit too small. China has agreed to work with the U.S. on amending the Montreal Protocol to utilize this tool against climate change. President Obama’s National Climate Plan — which tackles emissions from coal-burning power plants and expands energy efficiency and renewable energy — is the least we can do.
Ultimately, we need policy —be it a carbon tax or legislation aimed at a market-based approach. I believe bipartisan congressional approaches, based on market signals, would be the best path, but the current political dynamics make progress nearly impossible.
Federal agencies are empowered under the Clean Air Act to get started, allowing time for Congress to develop new laws. It would be a big mistake to delay.
The Montreal Protocol demonstrates that when the United States leads, other countries follow. Until recently, the United States has been slow to develop a clear approach on climate, allowing other countries —from China to Russia —to drag their heels as well.
Obama’s agreement this spring with Chinese President Xi Jinping to revisit the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs, a descendant of the ozone-depleting CFCs and a driver of global warming, is a positive step. India and other rising nations should join us.
By re-establishing the United States as a leader on climate change, we can develop practical solutions and inspire others to act.
Upon signing the Montreal Protocol, President Reagan said it was “the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”
It’s time for us to regain a sense of reason, take action based on facts and build a monumental achievement on climate change — an accomplishment that will protect and benefit us all.
Thomas served as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator under President Reagan from 1985 to 1989. He recently retired as CEO of Rayonier Corp.