Margaret Thatcher

The ozone layer: how to solve a global environmental challenge

Last month, researchers published a study showing that the hole in the ozone layer had started to close. It found that the size of the ozone layer hole is now 4 million square kilometres smaller than in 2000. Moreover, their analysis showed that this can be directly attributed to the reduction in chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere.

With this news, the danger from one of the greatest environmental challenges of the 1980s and 1990s seems to be receding. This blog will briefly examine the environmental problem, the political solution that was devised to address it, and the policy lessons for tackling other global environmental challenges.

The problem  

The ozone layer protects the Earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun. In 1985, scientists discovered conclusive evidence of a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. It was also found that this phenomenon was being caused by manmade ozone-destroying chemicals, such as CFCs, which were found in aerosols and refrigerators.   

Depletion of the ozone layer has been shown to lead to adverse health and environmental outcomes. It increases incidence of skin cancer and cataracts, as well as a harming plant growth and the production of phytoplankton, which is vital to marine ecosystems.

The solution

The international response to this scientific consensus was rapid and decisive. In 1985, the Vienna Convention was agreed, which established a framework for international cooperation on research and monitoring. This led to the signing of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which was championed by green conservatives Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Now hailed as the most successful international environmental agreement ever signed, it imposed legally binding controls on the production and consumption of ozone-depleting materials. It has now been ratified by every country in the world, making it the only international environmental treaty to enjoy such a status. 

The seminal agreement has already had a major impact on human health. Research by Cambridge University in 2012 found that the Montreal Protocol had prevented 2 million cases of skin cancer per year around the world, which represents 14% fewer skin cancer cases per year.

The environmental benefits are already being felt. Chipperfield et al. published a study in 2013 showing that, without the Montreal Protocol, the ozone hole over the Antarctic would have been 40% bigger and a new ozone hole over the Arctic would have formed. 

CFCs have a long lifetime in the atmosphere, and so scientists do not expect the hole to close up completely until 2050 at the earliest. Moreover, some of the chemicals, such as fluorinated gases (F-gases), devised to replace ozone depleting substances, are potent greenhouse gases. However, last month’s research shows positive signs that not only has the depletion been halted, but the environmental damage is starting to be reversed.

Policy lessons

Caution is required before seeking to apply the policy lessons of the Montreal Protocol to other global environmental issues like climate change. The reliance of the global economy on carbon-intensive fossil fuels is much greater than it was on ozone depleting substances. The scale of the clean energy transition, and the disruption it will cause, is therefore of a different order of magnitude to the phasing out of CFCs.

However, one important lesson that can be applied is that international agreements on the environment require broad political consensus, forged by strong leadership. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were both free-market conservatives. Yet they led the international community in imposing these environmental regulations on businesses. Unlike with ozone depleting substances, there has been a consistent failure to align the negotiating interests and priorities of the major carbon polluting nations, which has limited the effectiveness of international climate agreements to date.

As Bright Blue has argued previously, concern for the environment should not be confined to either the political left or right. Widespread political cooperation on tackling these challenges is vital if international agreements are to have a real impact. The success of the Montreal Protocol is testament to the power of evidence-led, political consensus on environmental threats.

How to build a conservative narrative on climate change and energy

There is a deep and dangerous political polarisation around climate change. Labour voters are twice as likely as Conservative voters to be very concerned about climate change and to accept that it is caused by human activity. Conversely, Conservatives are twice as likely to be unconcerned, feel that climate change has been "exaggerated", or believe that this is a natural process. These findings are found consistently across all polls, including surveys of Members of Parliament. It is important to stress that the key dividing line here lies around "small-c" conservatives values rather than party loyalties and voting patterns; Labour voters with conservative values are more likely to be sceptical of climate change than progressive Conservatives.

However, as with the debate raging about whether to leave the EU, relatively few people have a decided position and the bulk of the population sits in between as slightly concerned or slightly persuaded. In focus groups people express this ambivalence but clearly look to their more opinionated peers to indicate the position they should hold. In public opinion there is still everything to fight for.

Is this polarisation "dangerous"? I think it is. Averting extremely damaging climate change requires a high level of economic mobilisation as well as the wholehearted commitment of Parliament and the entire population. Action on a commensurate scale cannot be forced through a democratic political system. Even if it could, wise and well-informed responses on this complex and multivalent issue require intelligent debate from multiple perspectives.

Yet, there is no inherent reason why climate change should be so polarised. Yes, climate change requires strong government policy and some intervention in personal freedoms, but so too do other economic and security challenges that receive bipartisan support. Climate change threatens us equally and is, if anything, even more threatening to deeply-held conservative principles around identity, nationhood, and opportunity.

Nor is polarisation universal. In Germany, where the Christian Democrat centre-right leadership of Angela Merkel has championed energy transformation, climate change has become incorporated into a post-war mythology of reconstruction through engineering. As a result, polls in Germany cannot find any difference in attitudes along political lines.

In the English-speaking world, though, climate change has become absorbed into other long-term political struggles and become a marker of political identity. In America, attitudes on climate change are now a stronger predictor of someone's personal politics than their position on any other issue, including the hot button issues of abortion, capital punishment, and gun control.

All of this goes to show that startlingly few people build their attitudes on the basis of the consensus of expert scientific opinion. Rather - and there is now a very large body of opinion to support this - people understand climate change through the lens of culturally constructed narratives built around values and identity.

Climate narratives have for a long time been off-putting to conservatives. Early communications, which shaped all subsequent representation, were dominated by environmental organisations. They placed climate change within wider conservation campaigns (focusing on impacts to vulnerable ecosystems or high profile animals such as polar bears) or a global justice narrative (focusing on impacts to impoverished populations in less developed countries). They built on previous campaigns to present oil companies as the enemy and global growth capitalism as the systemic cause. Solutions were often based around government intervention. And they blamed individuals for their lifestyle choices around transport, consumption and diet. None of these arguments were invalid but they were highly selective. The choices about what aspects of climate change to foreground were invariably taken through the lens of a liberal environmentalist worldview.

Although speeches by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s presented a distinctly conservative narrative for action, the dominant right-wing narratives started to move in the opposite direction, rejecting the environmentalist arguments and - fatally - challenging the science that underlaid them. These counter-arguments were supported by adroit and well-funded campaigning by pro-fossil fuel interests, especially in the United States.

Over time the polarisation developed its own momentum. Like global climate patterns, public attitudes can have positive feedbacks within which small initial changes become amplified over time. The different camps accumulated their own champions, information materials, and media support, each becoming defined by their antagonism to the other side.

However, once we understand that the cause of the problem lies with these publicly held narratives rather than some innate problem with the issue itself, we are in a much stronger position to find ways to rebuild support. In this case, the priority must be to develop distinctly conservative narratives around the threats and solutions to climate change.

For the past four years my organisation, Climate Outreach, has been exploring, developing, and testing conservative language around climate change. We have run extensive surveys and focus groups and written five publicly available reports. We are the only organisation in Europe conducting such research.

Our primary finding is that conservatives can and do respond strongly to climate change narratives which appeal directly to their values - for example, emphasising and validating national identity, tradition, respect, countryside and comfort. We have found that certain key frames (meaning language that signals a cluster of values) are consistently successful.

Balance can be an explanation of the problem (the weather has become unbalanced, the seasons are coming at the wrong times), the solution (we are too dependent on fossil fuels - we need a balanced energy mix) and the political process (we need a balanced debate with different points of view).

Health is another major frame outlining both the causes (dirty carbon pollution/burning coal/car engines create major health impacts) and the impacts (heat waves, will have a major effect on our health). Health is also a meta-frame for responding and taking action: as Margaret Thatcher said to the Conservative Party conference in 1988, "it's prosperity that creates the technology that can keep the earth healthy".

Waste is a frame with strong behavioural resonance, especially for older people, and our testing found that appeals for energy efficiency are best received in terms of a wider morality about reducing needless waste.

In research people of all political stripes respond poorly to language based around apocalyptic threats, which they either find too disturbing to accept or regard as exaggerated and manipulative. Conservatives are innately sceptical of such language and are, if anything, even more resistant to negative messaging. In our research we found that positive language about the future is far more effective, especially when framed around conservative values. This does not mean that we should deny the existence of major threats, but rather that we should place these within a deeper context of constructive change.

Environmental organisations often assume that they can build broader political support by presenting positive economic opportunities of shifting to renewable energy. Such messages are relevant and important especially for financial and policy audiences. However, our own work found that such messages were less effective outside an affluent urban elite.  Grassroots conservatives responded very poorly to messaging about the opportunities for big business and became suspicious of their vested interests and profiteering. Stronger messaging for this audience is usually around opportunities for small business, local installers, and community-based enterprise.

Communicators need to be careful with how strongly they promote the change of the shift to renewable energy - and even the core terms of "transition" and "transformation" may be problematic. Although left-leaning environmentalists are very drawn to talk of radical change and "energy revolution", conservatives are extremely wary of such destabilising and politically charged language.

However, conservatives do not reject change out of hand. Rather, they recognise that there are different spheres of life within which they will tolerate different levels of change. In a context of city living, and some degree the local community, people welcome change if it might lead to a cleaner environment or more prosperity. In the context of the home, on the other hand, people prioritise values around security, comfort and family, making them highly averse to change. For twenty years energy efficiency campaigns have, quite wrongly in my view, focused almost entirely on saving money rather than these more powerful intrinsic values. If you can afford to insulate your house you are likely to be far more motivated by the prospect of a more comfortable, cleaner, healthier family home than saving a hundred pounds each year off your energy bills.

Seen from this perspective, the rapid introduction of so-called "smart meters" requires very carefully considered messaging. Forcing people to have a box on the wall of their most private and sacred space, reporting information on their behaviour to government and despised energy companies, has all the makings of a communications disaster.

People require reassurance that their home and countryside - which many regard as a key mark of national identity - will not look or feel significantly different in the future. The most successful narratives are variations on the same reassuring theme: our most important values will be defended and strengthened; change will be careful and balanced.

Finally, the acceptance of all these messages is dependent on the perceived trustworthiness of the communicator. Left-wing and environmentalist communicators should be careful not to actively antagonise conservatives, but are unlikely to win them over. Unfortunately, because of the political polarisation there is a severe lack of high profile conservative climate champions. Although many senior figures admit privately that climate change is a major problem, they see major personal risks in becoming associated with such a toxic issue. Everyone concerned with climate change, whatever their politics, needs to help create a safe and supportive environment for conservative voices to speak out strongly on the issue, in their own words and values.

For all its contradictions, society has been built through cooperation and mutual interest.  What is missing in the climate discourse is the glue that holds this together - the narrative of combined national purpose that can bring this into the political arena. Left and right can still find common ground around the need to defend our way of life, livelihoods, jobs and cultures from an existential threat. There is no need for us to settle our differences - in fact we must recognise and respect those differences in order to find the creative solutions we need. But we also need to tap into something deeper: our shared humanity and our immense capacity for empathy and cooperation.

George Marshall is the co-founder and Director of Projects at Climate Outreach, an Oxford-based charity that is an international leader in climate change communications. He is the author of Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury 2014).

Climate Outreach's specialist reports on climate communications can be found at, including recent reports on talking with the centre-right public and politicians. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.