What History Teaches Us About Our Environmental Challenges
It seems that the environmental challenges we face are truly daunting. That we may never be able to survive them, even if we do our best to do so. A study by MIT professor Susan Solomon says it's often helpful — and heartening — to look to the past.
Solomon points out that recent decades have seen major environmental progress: In the 1970s, the United States banned indoor leaded paint following evidence that it was poisoning children. In the 1990s, the United States put in place regulations to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide — a move that significantly reduced acid rain. Beginning in the 1970s, countries around the world began to phase out leaded gasoline; blood lead levels in children dropped dramatically in response.
During this period, Solomon herself contributed to a milestone in environmental protection: In 1985, scientists discovered that the Earth’s protective ozone layer was thinning over Antarctica. In response, Solomon led an expedition whose atmospheric measurements helped show that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — chemicals then used in aerosols and as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners — were to blame for ozone depletion. Her discovery ultimately contributed to the basis for the United Nations' Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals.
"I find it tremendously uplifting to look back at how our world has changed," says Solomon, now the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science at MIT.
"I think young people today are growing up at a time when they don't know that we actually have made tremendous progress on a whole series of past environmental challenges," Solomon says. "Climate change has been called the mother of all environmental issues --- and I think our approach to this problem can only be better informed if we understand better what we've done in the past."
Industrial Plant photo via Shutterstock.
Read more at MIT.