What it takes to change the world

Were it not for John Hinckley and his crazed passion for a Hollywood child star, climate change would be far more advanced. Don’t believe me? Read on.

What might have been, in blue; what is, in green.

What might have been, in blue; what is, in green.

In the early 1970s, years before Hinckley fired on Reagan, chemists hypothesized that the widespread use of CFCs for refrigeration and spray bottle propellant might lead to much higher rates of deadly skin cancers.

Ozone gas high in the stratosphere normally absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet-B rays. What UV-B does get through is enough to cause skin cancers. CFCs are harmless at ground level. But they float up to the stratosphere where UV rays break the CFCs down, releasing high concentrations of chlorine atoms. A single chlorine atom can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules. And we were releasing nearly 1 million tons of CFCs a year. A skin cancer epidemic was highly probably without a ban on CFCs.

The 1987 treaty that banned CFCs took years to negotiate and was strongly opposed by many in the UK, France and Germany.

One of those opponents was Ronald Reagan. He won the presidency in 1980 on a platform of deregulation. Important Reagan appointees questioned CFC science. Anne Gorsuch, head of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), challenged the link between CFCs, stratospheric ozone depletion, and skin cancer epidemics.

But by 1986 Reagan was quietly supporting an aggressive global ban on CFCs according to Andrew Benedick, the lead US negotiator. Why did Reagan act against his principles?

No more for you, Mr. President.

No more for you, Mr. President.

Benedick and others credit Reagan’s fight with skin cancer. Reagan loved the outdoors. Whenever possible he would sneak away from the office to ride his horses and chop wood. In early 1985 the bill for Reagan’s decades of unsafe sunning came due when doctors diagnosed aggressive skin cancer. To get rid of it doctors operated two, possibly three times, between November 1985 and July 1987.

But there had to be more. It can be hard to change your mind. But to change policy you have to resist the social pressure of your entire community – and win. Reagan faced strong opposition to the CFC ban from his own cabinet as well as the Republican party. Reagan’s support for a ban on CFCs makes him the only GOP president or candidate in over 30 years to defy the party line.

Some argue that Margaret Thatcher, a trained chemist, persuaded Reagan. But Thatcher only joined the ban-CFC bandwagon in late 1987 after the initial treaty was signed in July. Benedick says Thatcher came around after scientists, who had been denied direct access, were allowed to pitch Thatcher directly.

If not for this moment, climate change would be much worse now.

If not for this moment, climate change would be much worse now.

The appearance of the ozone hole likely played a part.

Scientists predicted that ozone levels would gradually decline. Instead a huge ozone hole formed in the skies over Antarctica in the space of a few years. It was obvious that the same collapse would soon happen in northern latitudes. This news became public in 1985 around the time Reagan’s dermatologist was giving him the bad news.

Before any of that, there was Hinckley. He missed assassinating Reagan in 1981 by the tiniest of margins.

Aid Michael Deaver told interviewer Charlie Rose that after the attempt on Reagan’s life he became more stubborn. He believed that he was chosen by a higher power, and that the shooting was a reminder of this. Reagan decided to more closely follow his own instincts.

As bad as the droughts, famine and flooding are today it could be much worse. CFCs are a very much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Without a CFC ban the effects of climate change would be far more advanced.

But thanks to a love of the outdoors, skin cancer, the ozone hole — and Hinckley — we have a ban on CFCs.

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