The past can often provide us a blueprint for a way forward and this applies to climate change. While the task of tackling toxic industries perpetuating the crisis seems like a daunting task, campaigns have been launched and successfully executed against key environmental issues in the past, indicating that with collaborative efforts between activists, governments, the media, and industries, effective change can be actualized. In a podcast entitled “Leaded Petrol, Acid Rain, CFCs: Why the Green Movement Can Overcome the Climate Crisis,” The Guardian’s Climate correspondent Fiona Harvey discussed three examples of successful environmental problem-solving in the past, providing the hope and impetus for productive action so desperately needed today.
Removal of Lead from Petrol
Beginning in the 1920s, lead had started to be put in petrol in order to enhance the efficiency and functioning of engines. However, lead was later found to have numerous harmful impacts; in minor quantities, it can infect the body and organs. Lead is especially dangerous to the brain, especially developing brains, and can cause developmental delays, problems with learning and reading, behavioral problems, delayed growth and hearing loss, among other things. Despite this, cars had this lead put into them via gasoline, which would, in turn, end up in the air from car exhaust.
Industries at the time contested the harmful effects of lead, claiming that science did not conclusively prove that the detrimental effects of lead outweighed its clear benefits. By the 1970s, the United States had already started phasing out the use of lead in their petroleum, however, the UK had not made such progress. This led to the inception of the Campaign for Lead Free Air (CLEAR), a campaign aimed at lead-free air. Supported by donors and the media, the campaign began to gain traction. Between 1979 and 1983, there was a coordinated national effort, as a result, governments began to take notice.
There were many attempted solutions suggested to get lead-free air. The campaign, and a few years later, some politicians as well, suggested selling both leaded and unleaded gasoline and letting consumers choose. While that seemed like a smart way to allow the free market to decide, unleaded petroleum was more expensive. The chancellor at the time, Nigel Lawson, obstructed moves to tax leaded petroleum higher than unleaded petroleum. In the end, the campaign proved to be successful and lead was removed from petroleum.
Eliminating Acid Rain
Acid rain is an anomaly; this type of precipitation looks and smells like regular rain but carries poisons like sulfuric acid that comes from mining coal and coal plants. Acid rain that falls gets accumulated in rivers and lakes, polluting and effectively killing all forms of aquatic life. The bigger problem with acid rain is that it is carried by winds, which means it crosses borders. If the United States produces pollutants, acid rain will fall in Canada; if it is produced in the UK, it will rain in Scandinavia.
Governments, therefore, had to get together in order to discuss the global issue of acid rain; however, the majority of the issue rested upon industries. Much of the acid rain was produced by emissions from coal-powered plants.
In the United States, the government instituted a cap and trade program. Industries were given a cap of the levels of pollution that industries could produce, which would incrementally be reduced over the years. The way this was done was by giving businesses a limited number of permits to produce pollutants. Each company was given a specific number of permits, if a company did not use all of their pollution permits, they could trade these with other companies for profit. The system was fairly effective. The genius of the scheme was that it utilized the competitive elements of the market to achieve desired results. There was a quick and significant decrease of acid rain, lakes and forests regenerated.
Today, rivers and lakes that were previously barren are now teeming fish and aquatic plant life. While some evidence of acid rain still exists, namely in China, the issue has more or less been solved because of this cap and trade system. The same could be applied to carbon dioxide emissions to tackle climate change. The Kyoto Protocol briefly considered a global cap and trade system, however, this was never enforced.
Closing the Hole in the Ozone Layer
The deterioration of the ozone layer was a stark problem that could have kept disintegrating. However, coordinated efforts led to positive change.
The ozone layer is a protective layer that protects and filters out ultraviolet radiation from the sun that could irreversibly damage eyes and immune systems, cause skin cancer and also harm plants and animals. However, a few decades ago, nations, specifically companies, were producing high levels of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, in refrigerants, aerosols and other industrial uses. These pollutants would slowly corrode the ozone layer, but, because there was no concrete scientific evidence proving the deterioration of the ozone layer, as well as the fact that CFCs were not classified as pollutants, companies refused to convert to costly substitutes.
Once the British Antarctic Survey proved that there was a massive hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole that was indeed caused by CFCs and halons, governments decided they need to do something. Luckily, during the 1980s, governments were very responsive because the politicians in power at the time were very science-oriented. President Ronald Reagan himself suffered from skin cancer, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a chemist who realized the urgency of this issue and wanted to take immediate action.
The goal was to reduce and ultimately eliminate the emissions of CFCs, thus leading to one of the most, if not the most, successful pieces of legislation addressing climate change. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 was a treaty designed to phase out CFCs, among other substances, and protect the ozone layer, which it did.
Environmentalism cannot exist without hope. Sometimes, looking at the current state of our world and the inability for current politicians to be responsive to the climate crisis, it can seem like the future looks bleak. However, looking at these three successful movements should not only inspire enthusiasm but allow people to see the smart way to tackle these issues.
There is no doubt that the challenges facing us today are much more difficult than they were a few decades ago. For instance, chemicals that were harming the ozone layer were very easily identifiable and came from few sources whereas greenhouse gases come from many different sources and activities; we all use fossil fuels every day, making it difficult to phase them out. The cap and trade system that worked for the acid rain issue was attempted for CO2 emissions but could not gain global traction. Yet, as mentioned in the podcast, political will can enable the required change. If campaigns have succeeded in the past, then they can succeed again. Progress in terms of environmental degradation has been far too slow, yet, campaigning, organization, and will are present today; however, they require enhanced coordination, acceleration, and most importantly, optimism. As Fiona Harvey emphasized in the podcast, the power and potential of peolple power, if united, can be monumental.