Where did the political will to ban CFCs come from? (I)

The election of Barack Obama heralded a new era, one filled with optimism that effective (or at least some) measures would be fashioned to begin dealing with the global warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Then the President arrived in Copenhagen for the Climate Conference 2009 and the result was the farcical non-binding agreement which “recognizes” the scientific case for limiting average climate increases to “only” 2º C. Then six months later, after an agonizing year of repeatedly watering-down the House’s cap-and-trade bill (which itself represented important concessions to industry), Harry Reid announced that the President’s signature initiative to address climate change was dead. It is perhaps time to amend Marx’s observation; it seems now every time a great historical event occurs, the first time it is farce and the second time it is farce.

We have become so used to the dominance of entrenched money-interests willing to sacrifice human welfare for their own enrichment that neither of these outcomes was particularly surprising, depressing as they were. In fact, it is probably a fair conclusion that given the economic and social organization of humans now it will be impossible to address any sort of medium- to long-term threat, if the solution involves the actual or perceived diminution (however slight) to the economic well-being of any major industry or any major segment of the developed world’s consumers.

This may be just a corollary of  some larger principle that large complex systems are incapable of responding to any sort of major change. Rain forests, for example, cannot recover from major incursions and changes in ecosystems over time almost alway occur only after major extinctions of the dominant organisms in those systems. Our global economic and social system has perhaps developed to the point that it is impervious to change (whether by political action, revolution, environmental changes) except by total collapse.

Not too long ago (less than 25 years in fact) another significant threat to the plant was dealt with by a major international treaty, when the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed to on September 16, 1987. The threat identified by atmosphere scientist was that chlorofluorocarbons and related chemicals when released into the atmosphere could deplete the stratospheric ozone layer and greatly increase the amount of solar ultraviolent radiation reaching the surface of the earth. The Montreal Protocol provided a mechanism for the elimination of the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons, carbon tetrachloride, and methyl chloroform by 2000 (2005 for methyl chloroform). UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that the Montreal Protocol was “[p]erhaps the single most successful international agreement to date …”

In considering this treaty, the first thing that is remarkable is that it was signed by the US during the administration of Ronald Reagan. That administration was littered with political appointees whose sole purpose was to gut environmental regulations, lease or sell public lands, open public real estate to mining, drilling and lumbering operations, and, in short and in compliance with the philosophy of the administration on all matters, to take decision-making process away from those who at least professed to make them on the basis of collective public welfare and place them in the hands of those solely motivated by private self-interest. Among the notorious appointments were: Interior Secretary James G. Watt, born-again anti-environmentalist, who reached a plea deal in a federal perjury and obstruction of justice investigation, and who now spends his time bemoaning the “ugly” attacks of the liberals and celebrating his own moral rectitude in turning public assets over to private interests; EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch, who rose to prominence as one of the “House Crazies” in the Colorado legislature and spent her 22 months in the EPA reducing its budget and dismantling environmental regulations, before resigning in disgrace in a Superfund mismanagement scandal; and Energy Secretary James B. Edwards, appointed to head the department Reagan the candidate pledged to eliminate, whose qualifications for the appointment consisted of being a dentist, then the first Republican governor of South Carolina since Reconstruction. His later appointments to these posts were less publicly confrontational, but the original ones genuinely expressed the view of the President about government’s role in environmental protection (i.e., that it had little to none).

Beyond Reagan’s personal penchant (as it were), there was the reality of global business. This is how America’s chief negotiator on the subject, Richard E. Benedick (now President of the National Council for Science and the Environment) described the situation in 1986:

“Very few gamblers would have wagered at that time that such negotiations could succeed. CFCs were virtually synonymous with modern standards of living, finding new uses in thousands of products and processes. Billions of dollars of international investment and hundreds of thousands of jobs worldwide were involved. Technological alternatives were nonexistent or considered too costly or unfeasible. Powerful governments and global economic interests were aligned in adamant opposition to controls, as were ideological elements within the administration of President Reagan. Still other governments and publics were unaware or indifferent to an arcane threat. Perhaps most significant of all, the arguments for control rested on unproven scientific theories: throughout the protocol negotiations there was firm evidence neither of the predicted ozone layer depletion nor of any harmful effects.” (from “Science, diplomacy, and the Montreal Protocol” in the Earth Encyclopedia.)

So how was it possible that the Montreal Protocol was negotiated and agreed to? Reiner Grundmann of Aston University attempts to answer that question in a paper entitled “The Protection of the Ozone Layer” (pdf file) written as a Case Study for the UN Vision Project on Global Public Policy Networks. This is something of a puzzling document. Mr. Grundmann appears to have a solid understanding of the chronology of the international negotiation process, having written twice before on the subject: Grundmann, “The Strange Success of the Montreal Protocol: Why Reductionist Accounts Fail” 10 International Environmental Affairs 10, 197–220 (1998); Grundmann, Transnationale Umweltpolitik zum Schutz der Ozonschicht. USA und Deutschland im Vergleich (Frankfurt a.M.: Campus 1999).  He seems, however, to have an oddly pollyannaish view of the motives behind advocates for and opponents of regulations of enterprises involving large sums of money. He claims that until the mid-1980s there was not certain scientific evidence of the dangers of CFCs and at least in the 1970s “advocate scientists were small in number and not representative of the atmospheric science community” (p8). From this he concludes that the two sides (pro- and anti- regulation) each had a principled basis for their position unrelated to their economic self-interest. To support this conclusion he cites DuPont (the leading manufacturer of CFCs under the trade name Freon): “the main producer of CFCs became more receptive to the idea of regulating this kind of business …” On the other hand, the scientists who advocated for CFC bans “showed a concern about the long-term protection of the ozone layer—something from which they might not even profit. This indicates how norms and ideas can be real and autonomous showed a concern about the long-termprotection of the ozone layer—something from which they might not even profit. This indicates how norms and ideas can be real and autonomous” (p15). This kind of equality of disinterestedness is not supported by his example, as the case of DuPont will show. Perhaps as a negotiating position allowing for the good faith of all the parties, however, it is useful. We’ll also consider whether this approach can be applied to the case of greenhouse cases. But first, in the next, we’ll have to take a closer look at what really happened in the U.S. on this head.

Part II can be found here.

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