The Einstein corollary

In the late '80s, the world gathered together and crafted an agreement to stop producing and distributing various ozone-depleting substances (most notably CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons). Reduction of the ozone layer had been observed and studied over ten years earlier and the broad stratospheric depletion, as well as the development of holes in the layer over the planet's poles, were predicted to continue to increase, eventually causing widespread biological and agricultural damage.

It was a significant moment in the history of international (both businesses and polities) cooperation.* And as a result of the accord, along with its subsequent revisions, projections now suggest that the ozone layer is recovering and will return to pre-1980 levels somewhere around the middle of this century.

Measured by its stated objectives the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has been a resounding success (former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called it, "...perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date").

Measured by the most pressing issue of our time - climate change - it may, according to a recent Economist article, be both an immense stroke of good fortune, and a model for future success.

The writers of the article gathered information from governmental and UN sources and came up with a novel, though admittedly inexact, comparison of various approaches to combating greenhouse gas pollution. As it happens, many of the compounds banned by the Montreal Protocol would also have contributed the equivalent of 135 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution to the atmosphere and substantially exacerbated the current climate situation. It appears that this one international agreement has had a remedial effect on the world climate nearly equal to everything else that we have done to date - including expanded hydro power, nuclear power, renewable energy sources, vehicle emissions standards, land-use preservation, building and appliance codes, etc., etc.

But what stands out to me is the notion that so much can be accomplished just by good-faith collaboration. Instead of complaining about restrictions, large economies such as ours need to recognize that there has always been huge opportunity to be found in the convergence of global cooperation and technological innovation. We can begin to recognize this by doing more than giving lip service to international climate conferences.

Previous U.S. approaches to UN Climate Change conferences have mostly been about protecting fossil-fuel interests, intervening on behalf of oil producers like Saudi Arabia, and disingenuously whining about how third-world and developing countries have to do their part before we (as contributors of over 1/3 of atmospheric carbon) will lift a finger. President Obama just recently took this tack in his address to the UN a few days ago. 

"We will do our part and we will help developing nations do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation, developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass."

Although some of the president's forceful and forward-looking rhetoric was compelling, the above quote's barely-improved gloss on previous administrations' excuses for inaction remains disappointing. It is self-serving and oblivious to the differences of responsibility and capacity between nations. And in the light of the success of the Montreal Protocol, this defensiveness is rightly seen as not just petulant, but self-destructive.

People are fond of quoting Albert Einstein as saying something along the lines of, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."** I'd suggest a corollary to that admonition which posits - Insanity is obstructing or refusing to repeat actions that have produced previous success.

Yes, we need renewables and new emission standards and especially a carbon cap and trade program. And for sure, China and India need to do their parts in order to prevent climate catastrophe. But the U.S.'s anemic participation in UN Climate Change programs is substantially responsible for taking something we know could work and cutting it off at the knees.

It's time for the U.S. administrations to stop limping and start leading. This isn't just a moment for environmentalists and climatologists, it's a moment for business and technology visionaries. There is an opening in the crafting of international climate change policy that the U.S. should be anxious to fill, not just because it's good for the world but because it's good for U.S. interests. Paris, 2015 would be an excellent place to begin rolling back the insanity that has crippled our global participation for so long.


[* In her book, Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes notes that the Montreal Protocol was "...the opposite of hysterical: it allowed for scientific uncertainty, and included a mechanism to respond to new evidence, whether that evidence suggested the need for tighter restrictions, or looser ones." Dupont had people involved in some of the committees, and those representatives communicated the results to the corporation's executives who eventually decided to cease production of the compounds. It's worth noting here that a campaign of ozone-depletion denialism was pursued at the time by many conservative and business-interest think tanks, including, unsurprisingly, the Heritage Foundation.]

[** Yes, I'm aware this is probably a misattribution.]