Friday, October 24, 2008

O Ozone, where art thou?

Ilkka Kokkarinen recalls the ozone hole scare that was part of popular parlance a decade ago, noting that it has essentially disappeared since then:

Another funny (both strange and ha-ha) thing that I recently realized was how the 90's big scare of "ozone hole" seems to have vanished into, well, a memory hole. ... You'd think that environmentalists would be screaming their lungs out for that one at every opportunity, but for some mysterious reason, they are as silent about the ozone hole as liberals and progressives these days are about Free Tibet, or for that matter, one of their most decisive victories of recent times, the democratization of South Africa. ... Another, more cynical hypothesis might be that the ozone hole scare was just like every other green scare so far, a completely meaningless dud that was just a naked and cynical attempt to grab the power away from the masses and place it securely in the hands of an unelected, self-anointed eco-elite.
I vaguely remember hearing about ozone depletion and how I'd better where SPF 30 or higher sunscreen when I went to Oceans of Fun unless I wanted skin cancer before I finished high school, but haven't heard about it at all since I've become moderately cognizant of the world around me (the last five years or so).

Quantifying the astute statements of others is a stock-in-trade, so I visited the New York Times' archives to do just that. There is scarcely any other major media publication that gives more attention to putatively anthropogenic environmental damage than the NYT does. "Ozone hole" provided too scant a return to be helpful, so I used the phrase "ozone depletion" instead.

The nearby graph (click to enhance it) shows the number of articles, adjusted for the total number of stories produced over the entire year, containing the phrase from 1981 to the present.

Ilkka's recollection is pretty accurate. Attention peaked in the early nineties and had subsided by the end of the decade. I suspect the focus on ozone depletion was replaced by "global warming" in the early part of this decade, a phrase which has since been (in the face of ten years of moderate cooling) replaced by the more nebulous "climate change".


agnostic said...

Dude, this gets addictive, I warn you. I already have like 5 to 10 graphs in the queue.

You should wear sunscreen every time you can (they put it in face moisteurizers now). The sun is the primary culprit in aging the face. It's a pretty simple thing to do to stay near the giggly ones!

Audacious Epigone said...

I saw the formula work in action both at GNXP and at Dusk in Autumn, so I shamelessly stole the method from you without even giving you credit. So, uh, here it is--thanks for introducing me to the NYT archival method of gauging the cultural presence of various ideas over time!

Stopped Clock said...

Global warming is real. Most people who don't believe in global warming explain the Earth's temperature variations as being primarily a function of the variations in solar radiation due to the fluctuations of sunspots:

However, global warming is not an "either/or". Most scientists on both sides of the debate believe that sunspot cycles have an effect on global temperatures, because looking at the data for the past 150 years or so makes it seem very likely.

As it happens, we are in a solar minimum right now, so although global warming is continuing to progress, it is fighting against the temporary solar-induced cooling. Note that the current "cool" period is still much, much warmer than the cool periods we experienced frequently before 1950. If you look at a dataset that continues beyond the 1980s, you can see that the closer you get to today, the more effect the increased greenhouse gases have, to the point where they are now beginning to overwhelm the sunspot cycle.

The scientist who authored the graph that most people refer to when they say that sunspots are the main (or only) cause of global warming is telling them to stop. He never made that claim himself. Almost all papers supporting the sunspots-only theory use data that stops at about 1985 or so, because that is the point at which anthropogenic climate change becomes the dominant term in the equation and to include it in their data would greatly weaken their hypothesis. Compare a graph that is more complete:

Anonymous said...

So, tell us, Stopped Clock, why there were periods in the past when temps were higher than now, and periods when they were lower than now?

Of course climate change happens. It happens all the time.

What seems more and more clear now is that humanity increasing CO2 by one part in 10,000 over the last fifty years can not have had the affect that the global warming scaremongers claim.

280ppm to 380ppm translates to 1 part in 10,000 increase.

Stopped Clock said...

Long term climate change can have many causes.

You can find an explanation for each and every warm period in the Earth's history. All of them have multiple causes. In many of them, the warming was enhanced by higher CO2 levels than at present ... this is certainly not the only time in Earth's history that there has been an increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.

Anyway, I find the argument that humans can't be responsible for global warming because greater warming has occurred in the past to be unconvincing. Unless someone can come up with an alternate explanation for the warming we're experiencing now, I will go with the answer that seems to fit the data best.

Anonymous said...

There can be no doubt that the Ozone-scare was a big fad for greens in the 90s. However, it was great problem, mainly caused by CFK's.

Same holds for "acid rain". They're pretty much silent about that one now too.

Still, global warming is a real problem and the evidence I've seen is pretty conclusive, valid and convincing.

Global warming is real and those who deny it are pretty much morons or politically motivated (libertarian idiots mainly) -- it's not much different from race-denying liberals, if you ask me..

Audacious Epigone said...

In posting this empirical look at the amount of media attention given to ozone depletion over the last 25 years, I'm not putting myself out as an apologist one way or the other.

To whatever extent anthropogenic activity is driving warming, I'm unconvinced that humanity on the whole will realistically be able to do anything other than marginally slow the rate of warming short of the economic viability of alternative energy sources.

And I'm not convinced that warming is bad for humanity, since throughout human history it has been good (for those alive at the time, anyway--it's presumably pulled societies away from their Malthusian limits, but we might as well institute a mandatory eugenics program if that's our goal). During the Younger Dryas, humanity was pushed southward all the way to the contemporary Spanish-French border as most of what is now Eurasia was covered in desolate ice.

Warming is not apocalyptic, especially not for the developed world: Agricultural yields will increase, warm weather is good for economic activity, IQ and latitude are inversely correlated globally at .67, and .70 in the US (.81 if only the lower 48 are considered). As living becomes more affordable in the more advanced, intelligent regions of the world, TFR will, ceteris paribus, probably increase in those regions.

Roughly a quarter of the world's oil is in the Arctic, yet oil likely requires animal and (especially) plant life to form. Obviously this oil did not materialize underneath an icy tundra. It was warm there at some point in time, long before any SUVs or Exxon-Mobil. It is only speculation as to whether or not humans are significantly affecting climate change, because the earth has been through warmer and more turbulent times than the less than one degree rise in average temperatures we've seen over the last few decades.

Pragmatically, of the 162 venerable countries that signed on to Kyoto, how many have met their obligations thus far? Would you guess a whopping three [this is a little dated, I'm not sure exactly what the number/countries are now, but they are in a small minority]?! And two of those (Germany and France) have had stagnant economies. Pretty easy to keep emissions down when no one is producing any extra (the third country is Great Britain). Obviously China and India are concerned with economic growth, not limiting pollutants (unless of course it hurts economic growth, which is a problem in some places in India especially). No country (outside of Western European nations, which have an incredible threshold for economic self-destruction) is going to needlessly carry the ballast of forced restriction. Technological innovation is the ticket. Any negligible gains (reductions) in emissions are going to be more than negatively offset by the prodigious growth in these Asian giants (from the CSM):

"So much for Kyoto.

The official treaty to curb greenhouse-gas emissions hasn't gone into effect yet and already three countries are planning to build nearly 850 new coal-fired plants, which would pump up to five times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the Kyoto Protocol aims to reduce...

By 2012, the plants in three key countries - China, India, and the United States - are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons...

China is the dominant player. The country is on track to add 562 coal-fired plants - nearly half the world total of plants expected to come online in the next eight years. India could add 213 such plants; the US, 72."

What is often overlooked in this debate is that the developed world is much cleaner than the developing world. Better to have them modernize now and then become more green via market-driven efficiency.

Finally, global warming could be a boon rather than a disaster. Russia east of the Urals has around 8 million people (if memory serves) scattered over an area larger than the US. Canada's metropolitan areas are concentrated along its southern border--few people live in the north. Greenland is three times the size of Texas yet it has a population (~50,000) half the size of Green Bay. All this land is too frigid to live in now. Warmer temperatures will potentially open much of it up.

al fin said...

Very interesting. Barak Obama promises to regulate CO2 as a dangerous pollutant. The economic and legal consequences of such regulation cannot be overstated.

The US relies on its energy supply for its economic strength. Take away the energy and the US economy crashes and burns. Obama will make the current credit crash look like boom times.

If you think trial lawyers are powerful now, just wait until they are given the new Obama regulations--the goose that lays the golden eggs for trial lawyers.

BTW, ozone regulations from the EPA are a sleeping time bomb just about to go off. New rules on refrigerants are going to start hitting the economy like suicide bombs within the next couple of years.

The effect of an Obama Environmental Regime will have incalculable consequences for the world economy. But if you like watching things burn, it will be entertaining.

Anonymous said...

So was there ever an ozone hole?

Outland stop clocker said...

The cyclically fluctuating ozone hole is caused by variable extraterrestrial factors. Anthropogenic CFCs were a red herring. Nobel prizes come cheap these days if the environment is involved.

Global warming is likewise due to non anthropogenic factors and alternates normally with global cooling.

Fugu said...

There is a good reason you don't hear about the Ozone anymore. The problems that were linked to ozone depletion have been effectively resolved.

The link to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was established in the mid 80's. The science was supported by NASA, NOAA and others. Soon after, large awareness campaigns went underway, as the potential seriousness of losing the Ozone was real and observable. 160 countries signed the Montreal Protocol and began to phase out use and production of CFC's.

This was a major victory for environmentalists and scientists. Consequentially, the ozone depletion was reversed. The last I heard, they are predicting the Ozone to close back up sometime this century.

Anonymous said...

Recent science research seems to indicate that the ozone hole had noting to do with CFCs and everything to do with cosmic ray modulation by the solar wind.

Fugu said...


The link to CFCs and ozone depletion is well known, and well studied.

What you are referring to is a study that suggests cosmic rays have a serious adverse influence on the CFCs that are already in the ozone column. The cosmic rays are not the direct cause of depletion, but instead break down the CFCs to release the chlorine which are the cause.

Without the CFCs already there, this wouldn't happen.