How Republicans saved the ozone layer

Here’s a surprise: An environmental story with a happy ending whose heroes include Ronald Reagan, his secretary of state George Schultz and a now-forgotten bureaucrat named Lee Thomas, the EPA administrator during Reagan’s second term.

These men helped bring us the Montreal Protocol, a international treaty that took effect in 1989 and since then has protected the earth’s fragile ozone lawyer by phasing out the production of chemicals including chlorofluorocarbons, which were commonly found in spray cans and refrigeratants. The NRDC’s David Doniger calls the Montreal Protocol “the world’s most environmental treaty.”

The story of the Montreal Protocol is told in a new documentary film called "Shattered Sky" by directors Steve Dorst and Dan Evans. It had its premiere on Sunday at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington. The hour-long film cuts back and forth between the story of the ozone layer, and the (so far) unsuccessful efforts by U.S. environmentalists to enact legislation to curb climate change, most recently in 2010, when a comprehensive cap-and-trade scheme to regulate carbon pollution failed in the Senate.

“Why aren’t we as Americans stepping up?” asked Dan Evans, during a panel discussion that followed the "Shattered Sky" screening at the Carnegie Institution. The film takes a decidedly middle-of-the-road position, avoiding, for the most part, the polarizing rhetoric that characterizes so much talk about climate. “We hope this film will appeal to folks, regardless of their political stripes,” Dan said.

While I buy into the basic message of Shattered Sky -- that if we solved the ozone problem by pushing for an international treaty, we can do the same with climate -- I can’t say that I loved the film. It lacks a compelling narrative, and none of the characters get enough screen time to really come to life. Film is an emotional medium, but there’s not much emotion here. The filmmakers might have done better by digging deeper into the ozone story: describing the roles of scientists Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, who won the1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on ozone chemistry, the work of crusaders at NRDC who brought a lawsuit compelling EPA to act and the dilemmas facing the business people at DuPont who first opposed any action but later came around when they sensed business opportunity.

What’s more, the parallels between the climate crisis and the ozone problem are imperfect at best, as the film notes. Climate and energy are at the heart of the economy; spray cans and refrigerants are a sideshow. Consumers can’t easily express a preference for clean energy over fossil fuels; they can, and did, stop buying aerosol cans after they were warned of the environmental harms. People quickly understood the risks created by a hole in the ozone layer -- sunburn! -- but for reasons that remain unclear to me, they don’t worry about the peril of climate change.

Having said that, this film is valuable and well worth seeing because it reminds us that, until very recently, the environment was not a partisan issue. Republicans have often led important environmental initiatives. Teddy Roosevelt gave us the National Park Service. Richard Nixon created the EPA. Reagan backed the Montreal Protocol. George H.W. Bush helped solve the acid rain problem through a cap-and-trade system to regulate coal plants. Conservation is a conservative idea.

Indeed, until the election of President Obama, Republicans McCain, Schwarzenegger, John Warner, Pataki, Gingrich and Lindsey Graham took climate issues seriously.

[Then again, so did Obama, who just last week went to Cushing OK to endorse and oil pipeline and say:  "As long as I’m president, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure, and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people." This is impossible, of course. An "all of the above" energy policy is a climate disaster.]

As Jeff Goodell, the energy and environment writer for Rolling Stone, noted after seeing "Shattered Sky": “We’re in a political climate where we can’t even talk about climate.”

Still, assuming that Democrats can be brought to their senses, there’s probably no more important job now for climate activists than reaching out to Republicans. True conservatives like Theodore Roosevelt IV [See my blogpost: Ted Roosevelt is Lonely] and former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis are doing this important work. They need support. Quietly, some conservatives are talking about cutting talks on income and raising them on CO2 emissions, as part of a grand deficit-reduction deal. Stranger things have happened.

Interestingly, the National Wildlife Federation and its president Larry Schweiger are educational partners of "Shattered Sky." They will help get the film seen in schools. (It’ll also air on public television.) NWF’s members include hunters and fisherman who see the impacts of climate change firsthand. Many are conservative.

Bipartisan persistence helped save the ozone layer. It will take lots of both -- bipartisanship and persistence -- to deal with climate.