The history of environmentalism is littered with unlikely heroes. Renowned hunting enthusiast Teddy Roosevelt was responsible for establishing America’s national park system. Bulgarians furious at the industrial pollution ravaging their local areas rose up against the Communist government to form the first rival political party, Ecoglasnost. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher? They uhhh… *checks notes* saved the world from environmental disaster.
If you just did a spit take with your fair-trade coffee, you’re not alone. But if you were conscious of what was happening in the world back around the late ‘80s, you’ll remember the ozone layer was kind of a big deal. That’s especially true for those of us who enjoyed a bit of a sunbake down here in Australia, which was fairly close to the rapidly expanding hole in that global shield from the sun’s harmful rays.
The problem was chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were (a) present in a bunch of consumer products like aerosol cans and fridges, and (b) kicking a significant hole in the ozone layer. Back in 1974, scientists Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland published findings that showed there was already damage occurring.
Naturally, the freon industry immediately took things seriously.
Oh wait, no. They dug in, attacked the research and accused the scientists of being Communist saboteurs.
A decade on, things had changed. Fresh research showed the damage was farther-reaching and happening more quickly than had been predicted. Instead of a five per cent reduction in ozone over the next century, levels had already dropped by 35 per cent - above the Antarctic. But without political will, there was a slim chance of any major changes happening.
It’s funny how often a personal experience can shape our political decisions. Ronald Reagan was by no means a green hero, but he was an outdoorsy type with a love of nature. And, possibly more relevant here, he had undergone treatment for skin cancer. This gave him a gut-instinct of what was at risk – not just for him, not just for America, but for the whole planet. Apprised of the situation by his secretary of state, George Shultz, he gave the go-ahead for the US to lead the charge on phasing out CFCs.
It wasn’t as easy as that, of course. It took a great deal of negotiation to get the Europeans on board, and the majority of the developing world wasn’t necessarily in a position to eradicate CFCs overnight. Enter Margaret Thatcher, the second part of the pincer movement. “It is life itself that we must battle to preserve,” she told the UN in late 1989. “The evidence is there. The damage is being done.”
Before becoming Britain’s prime minister, Thatcher had trained as a chemist, which gave her a unique insight among her parliamentary colleagues. She was able to ask intelligent questions of the researchers, get her head around the issues then present a challenge to the leaders of the world. Her speech, which entreated the industrialised nations of the world to contribute more to this solution than the developing countries, can be credited with making the Montreal Protocol a reality.
It took more than Reagan and Thatcher to save the world, obviously. Many scientists and researchers devoted their intelligence, training and time to working out the problem and putting together a solution, so that today we don’t get sunburnt within minutes of stepping outside. It’s the perfect example of global politics functioning to the benefit of us all.
Watch How Reagan and Thatcher Saved the World on Friday 13 July at 8:30pm on SBS.