In the mid 80s, humanity learned a shocking fact that certain chemicals (freons) present in our air conditioning coolants, added as a propellent in household sprays, and produced by certain industrial processes had over the decades resulted in a massive and growing hole in the protective layer of atmospheric ozone, especially over the Antarctic.
No natural sources could be blamed for these harmful, chlorinated compounds in the upper atmosphere. Their presence was clearly due almost entirely to industrial processes.
By then, food crops and forest plants already showed evidence of UV-B damage. As the hole expanded, the incidence of skin cancers and cataracts were expected to increase, and the phytoplankton–the tiny floating photosynthetic base of the marine food chain–was at risk of fatal sun injury.
This was an environmental challenge we could have learned about only by means of the instruments and methods of atmospheric science. The problem was reported widely by the newspaper and magazine journalists of the day, and we were grateful.
Humanity as a whole, while not fully understanding all the technical details of the issue, trusted the information that warned of a danger that could, if we failed to change, cause serious health problems and environmental harm around the world. Industry, with some reluctance, listened to and acted on the evidence, and found ways to limit aerosol distribution of these chemicals into the atmosphere.
The good news is that, though it is a slow process, the levels of the most harmful ozone-depleting chemicals have been significantly reduced, and the Antarctic hole could completely recover by 2050. Even with differing views of what should be done, world governments influenced their industries and citizens to act in time.
However: let’s not do the happy dance just yet. In the decades since we gave our ears and open minds to atmospheric science of the 1980s, much has happened that has made consensus-building on urgent global environmental issues more difficult and less likely for resolution. What has changed since Silent Spring?
Science as a way of understanding the world has taken a hit. American students’ science and math scores have plummeted over the past three decades. On many fronts, we’ve been lead to mistrust science and discredit scientists, fallible as they are as individuals, and have largely lost our accurate understanding of the concepts of theory and proof and of how science works.
Of all the calamities facing humankind, society’s turn away from science and toward sound-byte truthiness is to many the most alarming threat of all, because it undermines rational debate and action across a wide front of planetary health issues. Science was once a universal language for discussion. Facts were facts in any language.
As someone has said: “we are entitled to our own opinions; we are not entitled to our own facts.”
Global climate science in particular has become politicized to the extent that those who deal with data are damned if they offer too little of it, damned if they offer too much, and are held to a standard of accuracy not borne by those who are merely critics of the implications of the numbers.
We’ve thrown the science baby out with the murky bath water and sadly, science is considered by a growing number as simply a kind of faith. We say we do or don’t “believe in” climate change or global extinction as if science may be true for some but not for others. We are divided by gut reactions and fear when we must insist on and be united in response by the underlying truths.
Our problems in the soil, air and water today are far more complex and potentially future-changing than those that lead to the ozone hole decades ago. Coping wisely with the global environmental issues of tomorrow (the list has grown long) requires a return to confidence in the sciences so that we can gather the necessary facts.
The issues require science-trained writers and journalists who can help us understand the facts and interpret them accurately and comprehend their significance.
And the issues we face require that community, corporate and government leaders use their influence to help us confront the facts together through appropriate and just action. Solutions to global-scale problems will bring contention, cost and inconvenience, but we urgently need good science now if we are to map our way forward past those hardships with the fewest wrong turns possible.
This piece appeared in the Horizon section, Roanoke Times, 21 March 2010