Last year, the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol was celebrated, which eliminated ozone depleting substances and avoided what could have been an increase in skin cancer and global warming, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Montreal Protocol was put in place on Sept. 17 1987 by 197 countries, making it the first United Nations treaty to obtain universal agreement.
Spencer Ingley, an assistant professor of biology at BYU-Hawaii, said, “The Montreal Protocol is a good instance of people coming together to make a positive impact and demonstrates that we can come together.”
According to a simulation run by NASA, if it wasn’t for the Montreal Protocol, nearly two-thirds of the ozone layer would be gone in 2065 and the ultraviolet radiation on the earth would be so strong that it could cause sunburn in only five minutes in cities like Washington, D.C.
Rachel Fears, a senior biology major from California, said a depleted ozone layer causes higher instances of skin cancer all over the world but especially in Australia. She said Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer because it’s so close to Antarctica where there is a hole in the ozone layer. The hole lets through ultraviolet light rays that can cause cancer.
Mark Cannon, the dean of the BYUH’s College of Math and Sciences and a professor of biochemistry, explained the ozone layer is a band in the upper atmosphere around the earth that absorbs most of the high energy UV rays but lets the visible light rays pass through.
According to NASA, the Antarctic ozone hole was first detected in 1985 and “opened the eyes of the world to the effects of human activity on the atmosphere.”
Scientists found that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were widely used as refrigerants and spray aerosols were the main reason of ozone breakdown, according to National Geographic. These chemicals are damaging because they destroy the ozone and stay in the atmosphere for about 20 to 100 years, according to the Ozone Hole website.
CFCs are also considered a kind of greenhouse gas, according to EPA, and includes gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gas.
Cannon compared the greenhouse effect to a car with closed doors and rolled up windows. “The sun rays are able to come through the window and the energy from the sun is absorbed into the seats and other items of the car. This is then turned into infrared radiation.
“The energy then tries to escape back through the window, but the window is not transparent to infrared radiation and the heat gets trapped in the car, making it so hot. This is what happens to the earth, but instead the windows are GHGs that trap the heat in the atmosphere, instead of a car.”
Ingley said global warming melts ice sheets, which raises sea levels and is an overwhelming problem because over one third of the human population live near a coastline and are experiencing increasing dangers.
He said, “Global warming can increase the frequency and level of storms. Hurricanes feed off of water vapor and warm water, and a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and increases the sea’s temperature.”
Cannon explained the ocean absorbs a large amount of carbon dioxide. “The more carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere, the more it dissolves into the ocean making it more acidic.”
The ocean can only hold so much carbon dioxide, according to Cannon, and global warming decreases the amount the ocean can absorb. Eventually the ocean could become so saturated that the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide increase much faster. Fears said ocean acidification can also change the pH level and negatively affect coral, fish, and other organisms.
Cannon said, “Almost all scientists agree that global warming and climate change are happening. But the question is how much do we cause and what the heck do we do about it?”
He explained it is very hard to predict what the earth will be like years later. “The climate is extremely complex and because of our limited understanding of all the different systems that affect climate, our computer models predicting what will happen in the future cannot always be relied on.”
Ingley said, “We have to put economic interests aside for the better. Science is apolitical and it is going to affect people of all parties equally.” From a religious standpoint, he explained, “We should be good stewards to what we have and we can’t turn a blind eye to what is happening. We need to take responsibility.”
Sharon Yeap, a freshman majoring in biochemistry from Malaysia, said politicians could help because they have a lot of power. When they don’t tell people about global warming, she said, they don’t believe it’s happening.
“Politicians need to tell the truth and people have to realize it is happening. And if everyone does their part in reducing, it can help,” Yeap said.
She added, “CFCs could be banned because they could replace them, but people don’t want to ban things like fossil fuels because it’s profitable and money comes first before people.”
She explained she used to work at a palm oil company, and the NGOs would always tell them they were doing things wrong and causing pollution. She said, “It’s bad, but they had to do it anyway to make money. It just costs more to reduce pollution.”
Dr. Cannon said, “The best thing to do is to improve world economics and help poor countries. People in poverty don’t have the luxury to worry about the environment.”
NOTE: This article's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Jan. 2018 print issue.