Peter Dykstra: Two enduring signs of hope
Credit: Royal Navy Media Archive

Peter Dykstra: Two enduring signs of hope

Can the world come together to arrest climate change and turn back other environmental threats? Two successful treaties can show the way.

It was 1957. I was born. Elizabeth had been queen for four years. Elvis had been king for one, give or take.


For the world's scientists, '57 was the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The IGY gave special focus to the science of Antarctica, prompting an unprecedented wave of interest in the Frozen Continent.

But 1957 was also a peak year for the Cold War, and Antarctica's potential mineral wealth and other resources were still fair game for anyone.

Two years later, Cold War be damned. The Soviets, Americans and 10 more countries active in Antarctic exploration signed the Antarctic Treaty. Since then, 41 more nations have signed on. The treaty took effect in 1961, and for nearly 60 years, the world has agreed to protect a continent.

Oil, gas and coal deposits are known to exist beneath the Antarctic ice. But fossil fuel recovery is unrealistic – unless oil, gas, and coal lead the way to someday liberating the continent from its ice cover. Valuable metals may exist there, but firm evidence of any sizeable mineral wealth doesn't yet exist.

But in the 50s, diplomats and scientists posted a durable warning that the Antarctic would stay off limits to corporate and government pressure to tap into it all: Not only an undrilled and unmined free zone, but offshore fisheries that are among the least exploited on earth.

Nations have gone to war over much less than Antarctica may have to offer. But the Treaty has kept the peace for more than half a century.

A rare, hole-some agreement 

At an August 1985 meeting in Prague, atmospheric scientist Pawan Bhartia presented this satellite-based image that revealed for the first time the size and magnitude of the Antarctic ozone hole. (NASA)

With science in the unfamiliar role of trumping exploitation on the continent, more Antarctic research led to an alarming discovery: Manmade chemicals, notably chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) used as refrigerants and propellants, were eating holes in the stratospheric ozone layer that protects the Earth from the sun's more harmful rays.

An expanding ozone "hole" over the South Pole, and a smaller one in the Arctic, threatened to impact plant and animal life by allowing ultraviolet solar radiation to reach the earth. Three scientists who were key to connecting the dots – Sherwood Rowland, Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen – began studying the effects of CFC's in 1973, and later shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work.

Concern grew throughout the 1980's as more research confirmed that the ozone holes were growing, and the ozone layer over temperate parts of the planet was thinning. Scientists, environmental advocates and industry all played their familiar roles, sounding the alarm, or drawing heavily on the doubt and denial playbooks.

But three world leaders defied assumptions and stereotypes, playing key roles in forging a global agreement to protect the ozone layer: Ronald Reagan, whose government normally fought environmental regulation; his conservative soulmate, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; and Canadian PM Brian Mulroney, who lobbied to become the host nation for a crucial meeting.

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was signed, phasing out CFC's and other ozone depleting chemicals. It's now ratified by 197 nations and the EU. By the mid-2000's, scientists confirmed a gradual closing of the ozone holes, with a return to normal levels by 2100.

It's hard to imagine the contemporary conservative heirs of Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney showing similar leadership. Trump's anti-regulatory rampage included a departure from the Paris climate accord; the UK's Brexit quagmire was partially inspired by disdain for European Union environmental policy; and Stephen Harper, the most recent Canadian conservative PM, directed a thorough purge of government environmental science.

But the urgent need for action on climate change, biodiversity, the nearly-unthinkable collection of plastic in our oceans, and other challenges may someday turn the corner for Tea Partiers and Brexiteers.

The Antarctic Treaty and the Montreal Protocol are real-life examples of how it can be done.

Argentina faces pivotal decision with proposed oil extraction bill

A proposed bill could drive Argentina's economic future by tapping into its vast oilfields, despite concerns about environmental impacts and hindering energy transition efforts.

Sylvia Colombo reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
vermont farmers flood risks
Credit: Nicholas Erwin/Flickr

Vermont farmers face uncertain future amid increased flood risks

Vermont farmers, reeling from last summer’s devastating floods, now face an uncertain future as persistent rains continue to threaten their livelihoods.

Sarah Mearhoff reports for VTDigger.

Keep reading...Show less

Hurricane Beryl leaves millions of Texans without power amid soaring heat

Millions of Texans face a third day without power as Hurricane Beryl's aftermath coincides with dangerously high temperatures.

Pooja Salhotra, Emily Foxhall, and Alejandra Martinez report for The Texas Tribune.

Keep reading...Show less

Tim Dunn, evangelical oil magnate, aims to boost Trump’s campaign

Billionaire Tim Dunn, a Texas oil mogul, is using his wealth to support Donald Trump's bid for the White House, reflecting his desire to influence national politics with his religious and conservative values.

Mike Soraghan reports for E&E News.

Keep reading...Show less

Citizen scientists map New Hampshire’s beaches

Citizen scientists have spent six years helping to track the changes in New Hampshire's coastline, providing crucial data on how different beaches respond to weather events.

Claire Sullivan reports for New Hampshire Bulletin.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
WATCH: Enduring the “endless” expansion of the nation’s petrochemical corridor

WATCH: Enduring the “endless” expansion of the nation’s petrochemical corridor

As mounds of dredged material from the Houston Ship Channel dot their neighborhoods, residents are left without answers as to what dangers could be lurking.

US Steel pollution

Nippon Steel shareholders demand environmental accountability in light of pending U.S. Steel acquisition

“It’s a little ironic that they’re coming to the U.S. and buying a company facing all the same problems they’re facing in Japan.”

Another chemical recycling plant closure offers ‘flashing red light’ to nascent industry

Another chemical recycling plant closure offers ‘flashing red light’ to nascent industry

Fulcrum BioFuels’ shuttered “sustainable aviation fuel” plant is the latest facility to run into technical and financial challenges.

nurses climate change

Op-ed: In a warming world, nurses heal people and the planet

Nurses have the experience, motivation and public support to make an important contribution in tackling the climate crises.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.