Building Bridges

People acted together to solve environmental crisis

Stevan Augustin

I worked as an environmental economist in the mid-1980s for the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis. We were developing economic accounts for environmental spending to supplement the United States national income and product accounts (GNP or GDP) and doing research on unit costs and the effects of pollution on people’s health. Because of my job focus, I became aware of a developing environmental crisis around 1980.

The nature of the environmental crisis was related to the earth’s protective ozone layer. According to National Geographic Magazine, “the ozone layer lies between 9.3 and 18.6 miles above Earth’s surface. This blanket of ozone, of O3, blocks most of the sun’s high frequency ultraviolet rays.

“These UV rays can cause skin cancer and cataracts in humans, as well as reproductive problems in fish, crabs, frogs and even in the single celled phytoplankton at the bottom of the ocean food chain … Ozone is unstable.”

Scientists observed that a hole was developing in the ozone layer that protects all people and certain other life on the planet. If the hole in the ozone got larger, life on earth could be threatened.

Scientists determined that a gas used in propellants and air conditioning, chloroflurocarbons (CFCs), was causing this hole. This industry had huge economic impacts and was important to all the people of the world. The problem was that there was no substitute for these critical gases. However, if these continued to be used, the ozone hole would grow.

Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, brought this to President Reagan’s attention. It was proposed that the problem be taken to the United Nations and all the nations and people of the world ban the production and uses of these CFCs. President Reagan supported these actions and the United Nations approved the measure in the Montreal Protocol of 1987, and these chemicals were banned. All the nations in the world signed on, the first UN treaty to be passed unanimously. At the same time, new chemicals were developed to substitute for these gases. All the people of the world cooperated in avoiding an environmental catastrophe. Problems such as environmental crises can seem daunting to solve, but if people cooperate and turn the world economy and environment in a different direction, people can solve daunting problems. But it only happens if people cooperate with one another.

Cooperation can be achieved by any community of people. Positive action by the united people of the world benefited all of humanity.

Today, we face environmental crises, such as the increasing number of severe storms, including tornados and hurricanes (for example, the two hurricanes last summer in the Gulf of Mexico and the hurricane in east Africa this year). They had unprecedented rainfall amounts. There is increased flooding around the world partly due to rising sea levels. Together, the world community might be able to address these daunting environmental crises just like the world solved the ozone crisis.