“The ozone hole is the single global environmental catastrophe that didn’t happen the way it could have happened if we would have continued with business as usual.”
“The hole in the ozone layer” is one of the most influential metaphors in modern history, shaping public and political reactions to an unfolding environmental disaster—but nobody’s really sure who coined it. We search for who did, and discuss its broader impact.
- Sebastian Grevsmühl, historian of science at Pierre and Marie Curie University
- Karen Litfin, political scientist at the University of Washington
Some additional information and resources not directly linked to within the transcript (below):
- Walter Sullivan’s 1985 article in The New York Times which announced the discovery of the “hole” debuts the phrase in the second paragraph. (The headline? “Low Ozone Level Found Above Antarctica.” Not the catchiest.)
- That article also included the first image of the ozone hole that almost anyone ever saw:
- The Real Climate site has an overview of exactly how the hole was discovered in the mid-80s, from hunch to fact.
- Ozone hole denialists were a thing, and their propaganda is very weird to look back on—it looks like today’s climate change denialism, but with a few words swapped out.
- Sebastian Grevsmühl has written at length about the power and history of the ozone hole metaphor.
- “Ozone layer scientist who ‘saved the world’ dies“—The Guardian‘s obituary of Sherry Rowland.
IAN STEADMAN: Hey, so what happened to the hole in the ozone layer?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I don’t know, is it still there? Should we be worried?
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, and no, and maybe. It’s, there’s a lot of ways to answer that question. What do you know about the hole in the ozone layer?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: OK. I know that it was like a pervasive fact of life in the background when I was a kid. In, like, kindergarten science they were like, “This is the Earth, these are the plants, this is the hole in the ozone layer that’s going to kill us all.”
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, I definitely had a very similar experience. I thought it was either going to kill me or give me sunburn at the very least but, here’s the thing, the story of the phrase, “The hole in the ozone layer,” a metaphor that potentially changed the world, that is a really interesting story and that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. I’m Ian Steadman.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I’m Chiquita Pascal.
IAN STEADMAN: And this is This Will Change Your Mind, a show where we unpack how other people have changed your mind.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah, there was something about that metaphor that was extremely effective.
IAN STEADMAN: So, I’ve been looking into this. I’ve been looking into the hole in the ozone layer, the history of the hole in the ozone layer itself and, also, the history of calling it a hole in the ozone layer because it’s not a hole and it’s not a layer.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: What?
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: We’ve been lied to?
IAN STEADMAN: Not lied so much as it’s not really a distinct layer, it’s just, like, the bit where there’s the most ozone. There’re only about ten ozone molecules per every million of other molecule in the ozone layer. The other molecules are just air.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: More like an ozone soup. Minestrone.
IAN STEADMAN: If you look back at how people talked about this, there was also this phrase “the ozone shield” because it is a shield. It protects us from ultraviolet radiation.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: I mean, ozone shield, it sounds like nothing’s getting through. You’re not messing with the ozone shield.
IAN STEADMAN: And if it wasn’t for the ozone layer, we wouldn’t be dead, as such, it’s just we wouldn’t have been born.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: What?
IAN STEADMAN: Well, yeah, like, if the Earth didn’t have an ozone layer, life would not have been able to evolve out of the oceans and arrive on land. UV, ultraviolet radiation, would have just burned everything. It sterilizes bacteria, it’s just bad news.
1985, you have the big reveal. You have three scientists, British scientists down in Antarctica, they discover the hole in the ozone layer and very quickly, you have the hole in the ozone layer making headlines around the world. And this is the same year, 1985, there is this treaty that’s signed, it’s called the Vienna Convention for the protection of the ozone layer. There’s also this thing called the Montreal Protocol, which is like a sub-protocol of the Vienna Convention, and that is basically the framework that means that CFCs are not as much as a problem today and the hole in the ozone layer is beginning to heal itself.
It’s still there, it’s still a problem, but it’s not getting worse and it’s healing. There was a ten-year period where we realized what was happening, we responded to it, passed a bunch of international law and regulate it. And people talk about this as this great success story.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: The most amazing part of that story is that people across the world worked together, on a global level, to actually affect a noticeable change in the environment. I feel like, the contrast is really stark, so I wonder what was so special about that time or how leaders approached this problem that it got that outcome. Was this just a relic of a particular period of time and we can never achieve this kind of unity again? What was their secret? Like, what was the special sauce that actually made us solve a problem?
IAN STEADMAN: So, I figure that the metaphor is the secret sauce. The phrase, “hole in the ozone layer,” was coined in 1985, the same year that the hole itself was discovered, and that’s interesting in itself, because it’s ten years before that, you already have countries and states in the U.S. and other places banning or regulating CFCs. So, this problem was already known about, but you get to 1985, you discover the hole and then everywhere you look, “hole in the ozone layer.”
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Who called it that? Was there a consensus?
IAN STEADMAN: Here’s the thing, no one knows.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: What?
IAN STEADMAN: At least, nobody wants to take credit for it.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: So, it’s like this authorless silver bullet.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah. So, I have spent a while trying to find this out, I’ve been asking around, checking up on some sources.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Doing the journalism-ing.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, exactly. So, I figured I’d start with the British scientists who found it. They’re on record saying they have no idea where it came from and they explicitly say that they didn’t come up with it, it wasn’t their idea.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Wasn’t me.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah. One of them said, one of them, Joe Farman, he died in 2013, and he says that he thinks it was a journalist at The Washington Post, or maybe it was someone at NASA.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Some marketing intern, I bet. They were like, “hey, we need a snappy phrase for this thinning of the ozone minestrone,” and they were like, “yeah.”
IAN STEADMAN: So, I went down this rabbit hole trying to find out who the hell coined this phrase. I couldn’t find the story in The Washington Post. I emailed the NASA Press Office and said, “Hey, is anybody still working there from 1985 who wants to claim credit for this?” and got no response.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: What, like you’re Publisher’s Clearing House and you’re going to give them a prize of not money, just recognition on a podcast.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, just a little line in Wikipedia, you know? I then reached out to some scientists who were looking at ozone around that time. One guy in particular, Pawan Bhartia, he’s an atmospheric scientist and he’s been at NASA since 1977. He told me he was partly responsible. So, in 1985, he took the satellite data and he turned it into this graphic and he presented it at a conference in Prague. Those were the first images of the hole in the ozone layer that anyone ever saw. But he says, “I didn’t call it the hole in the ozone layer, because it’s not a hole,” as all these scientists kept telling me.
But he said he had a hunch about who was responsible. There was this colleague of his, a guy called Donald Heath, also a NASA scientist. There was a meeting in Saltzburg shortly after this conference in Prague. Donald Heath set up this meeting, he took the images of the hole in the ozone layer into that meeting and there were two people there who might have come up with it. There was this guy called Walter Sullivan, one of the most prominent American science journalists of the 20th century, and there was also Sherry Rowland. Sherry Rowland was, in 1974, one of the two scientists who said, “ozone might be an issue, guys, we should probably do something about this.”
So, I spoke to Donald Heath and he said, “yeah, it’s probably Walter Sullivan, I don’t think it was Sherry Rowland.” I spoke to Sherry Rowland’s daughter, Ingrid, and she was like, “Well I asked my mum, she didn’t know either, but my dad did have a talent for turns of phrase.” Both of them are dead now, unfortunately, and we’ll probably never know which of the two of them it was, but it sounds like it was probably the two of them. One of those two, or maybe they did it together.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Alright. So, you’ve gone on this wild goose chase to try to track down the person who so cleverly coined this phrase, the hole in the ozone layer, which in turn inspired the world to lose is freaking mind.
IAN STEADMAN: But it still kind of leaves a mystery, unfortunately, who did it, but it also leaves some bigger questions. The “hole in the ozone layer” phrase itself, we still don’t know what the impact of that was exactly. Was it the secret sauce that meant that, in the world we are in now, international cooperation to fix the environment seems so impossible, but 30, 40 years ago, it was possible, it did happen. What role did a metaphor play in that?
So, to find out more, we spoke to someone who’s actually studied the history of, “The hole in the ozone layer,” metaphor. His name is Sebastian Grevsmühl, and he’s a historian of science from Marie Curie University in Paris.
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: There is no hole in the ozone layer. There is never a complete destruction of all the ozone in the stratosphere and, also, already, the ozone layer is something like a metaphor because these are ozone molecules that are between ten and fifteen kilometers above our heads and, if you reduce the ozone layer to the pressure at ground level, then it’s a tiny, tiny layer. It’s as thick as a dime coin. It’s difficult to grasp this idea outside of any metaphorical understanding, really.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: It’s true. As you were saying that, I kept trying to imagine that and all I could picture was just a hole.
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: It’s true, yeah. So, metaphors are quite important to do the job, to translate something that is really difficult to imagine. The basic science doesn’t suggest something like a real hole, of course.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Yeah, but I think there’s something about “hole” itself. I mean, if we could just sort of talk about the actual word here and how the metaphor is composed, but that very gut instinct level, if you’re telling me that the blanket that is protecting me from being fried up has a hole in it, that makes me feel really existentially uneasy.
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Yeah, and rightfully, because it is quite dangerous. It’s good to have a metaphor that actually translates the immediate danger that an ozone hole poses.
IAN STEADMAN: So, when was the first time “ozone hole” was used as a metaphor? Someone talked about “a hole in the ozone layer”?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Well, the first time, that happened in the 1930s. That was a British mathematician and geophysicist, Sydney Chapman. His idea was maybe one could find an agent that destroys ozone and, by creating artificially short openings in the ozone layer, astronomers would be able to observe the spectrum of the light much better from the Earth.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: They wanted to put a hole into the ozone layer?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: It was absolutely hypothetical but it was the idea that, yeah, one could create this hypothetical ozone to have better astronomical observations.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Were they also planning to, like, get some sunscreen or something because of all the other rays that were going to get in, or they weren’t really concerned with that?
IAN STEADMAN: Let’s just worry about that later.
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: They weren’t so preoccupied about the possible environmental health hazards that could be created. When you look at Chapman, he says, “Well, we probably would have to wear some hats, sun hats.”
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Wait, we would have to wear the hats?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Yeah, absolutely.
IAN STEADMAN: But it’s worth it because you can make a hole and you can look through it, and, what?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Exactly.
IAN STEADMAN: So, just to understand, he wanted to make a hole in the ozone layer because it would make it easier to do astronomical observations?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Yeah, when we look at different planets, stars, etc., we often look at the light omitted from these distant places that arrives at the Earth and the ozone layer also absorbs a part of that.
IAN STEADMAN: So this is just a kind of hypothetical thing.
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Yeah.
IAN STEADMAN: Did this idea stick around, did anyone pick it up and run with it?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Now, in the astronomical community, it didn’t stick around very long, and, of course, it was just considered as a hypothetical exercise in what would be possible.
IAN STEADMAN: Did it stick around in any way as a piece of language or did it disappear for a while and reoccur?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: So, Chapman was during the 1930s and then the Second World War, as we all know, preoccupied the scientists in many other ways. So, during the 1950s, during the Cold War, the metaphor reappeared again.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: This is ominous. During the Cold War?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Yeah, then we have a geostrategic and military interest in the ozone hole. When you think about it, an ozone hole makes a tremendously good weapon because if you could create, artificially, over enemy territory, an ozone hole, that could incapacitate crop production, it can incapacitate the people, potentially the soldiers there.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: What? That is sinister.
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Yeah, it is very sinister. The debate shifted quite a lot with, I would say, the debate on supersonic transportation. When they first intended to build the Concord, the Russians built Tupolev and Boeing intended to build, also, a supersonic transportation fleet. That’s when one started, in the 60s, to look into the possible environmental effects, in particular to ozone. So, that’s where the first phase of the ozone research got quite political. That’s the first debate on ozone destruction, really, that was engaged in the public sphere.
IAN STEADMAN: How did that first debate move into what became the mid-80s debate which is what, I think, for us is definitely the most memorable ozone debate? Not least because we’re too young to have lived through the first one.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Right.
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Exactly. During the 70s, before the ozone hole discovery, there were already individual actions taken. There was a pre-ozone hole encouragement, already, environmentalists encouraging not to use certain products, etc. But the real shift that happened with the ozone hole was that, also, industry changed trajectory and said, “We want to get onto the boat before it’s too late, before there is legislation that will tell us we can’t produce CFCs anymore.” It came, of course, because there was also a lot of pressure from environmentalists saying that CFCs are highly dangerous substances that we have to get rid of.
IAN STEADMAN: When it comes to those activists and environmental groups, how useful was the ozone hole metaphor as an icon, is maybe the word I’m looking for here, like an icon of this problem?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Yeah, it’s like an icon. You can use it on pamphlets and so on, you can use it as a visual strategy to easily parse a message that is, of course, highly catastrophic.
IAN STEADMAN: I don’t want to give a metaphor too much credit. As much as it played a role, you know, systemic change takes more than just a clever phrase, but do you think that the fact that there isn’t, “climate change” or “global warming,” as phrases, they’re not as clear and threatening, maybe? Or they’re just not as easy to visualize as something like, “The hole in the ozone layer.”
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: Absolutely. The ozone hole is the single global environmental catastrophe that didn’t happen the way it could have happened if we would have continued with business as usual. Actually, in the end, that, because of the Montreal Protocol, the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol, was signed universally, that we have a real success story. That success story, of course, one would like to reproduce that with climate change today, but it is very hard because issues are quite different here, of course.
IAN STEADMAN: What was the actual impact of the metaphor?
SEBASTIAN GREVSMÜHL: I believe it had a strong impact on the political process that led to the signing of the Montreal Protocol. The chief negotiator for the United States, [Richard Elliot] Benedick, he said they tried to not take into account the new findings on the ozone hole, of the images of NASA and so on. I don’t think that it’s quite something one can ignore, the findings from Antarctica, that they just could have ignored something like an ozone hole as an immediate threat. One didn’t know all the causes of the actual hole creation in Antarctica, one didn’t have all this scientific evidence. Let’s say the precautionary principle prevailed over what was the call for hard scientific evidence one needs, etc.
KAREN LITFIN: So, this raises the question, how do you make a decision, a big policy decision, under conditions of scientific uncertainty?
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: We’re dying to know.
KAREN LITFIN: I’m Karen Litfin, I’m a professor of political science and environmental studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.
IAN STEADMAN: How useful was it, having a metaphor like, “The hole in the ozone layer?” It’s not really accurate, but how useful a metaphor was that when it came to this kind of political action?
KAREN LITFIN: It was a very useful metaphor. Let’s talk about the width of this hole. It’s over 3000 miles wide. So, yeah, maybe it’s a kind of exaggeration but not really. We don’t see Antarctica, we don’t see ozone, we don’t see any of this. So, you can see this happening on these images and so that’s really important, having images and having language that could convey the gravity of the situation.
There’s a lot of tension within the Reagan administration over this because this is the first time since World War Two that you had a government elected with the explicit policy of basically getting rid of government as much as possible. Now, that sounds normal to us now, but in 1980, that was new. And so the secretary of the interior at that time, Donald Hodel, he suggested that rather than having international law take care of the ozone layer, what we should have is a policy of personal protection. And a personal protection policy would be that you wear sunscreen and sun hats.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Uh.
KAREN LITFIN: That’s personal protection. We don’t need government to get involved in this and, so, environmentalists just got on board with that and they made such wonderful political hay of it, they had a press conference where they had fish dressed up in sunglasses and cows dressed up with sun hats. Making the point that it’s not just us, you know?
So, in the late 80s, early 90s, I interviewed most of the main scientists who were involved with the ozone treaties but they felt that they needed to be cautious and not recommend to policy makers that they do anything drastic about CFCs because they didn’t know. Interestingly, it was the US that took the lead on this treaty. By 1985, 86, the Reagan administration was now on its third EPA head, and the guy who came in, Lee Thomas, he was conservative, but he was also science-oriented and I had one of my most interesting interviews with him. I asked him, “So, what did you actually think? Even though the science wasn’t in, what did you actually think?” He said, “Well, I thought it was most likely the CFCs that were destroying the ozone layer and, so, the only thing that I could really recommend in good conscience is that we move away from those chemicals.”
And so the U.S. position was a 95 percent cut back, but his feeling was, on something this big, better safe than sorry. The studies that came out were to figure out, basically, how deep could the destruction of the ozone layer go. This one British Antarctic Survey came up with 50 percent thinning of the Antarctic ozone layer and, so it was called a hole. It was dramatic thinning, let’s call it that.
IAN STEADMAN: So, the difference between baldness and thinning.
KAREN LITFIN: And language matters, politically, language matters. When scientists are accurate about what they’re talking about, if they said, “Dramatic thinning,” even “dramatic,” that’s not really a scientific term. If they said, “50 percent thinning,” that doesn’t carry the same oomph to is as “ozone hole.”
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: It also conjures this image of things like oxygen leaking out of the Earth or, I don’t know, space aliens getting in. To a little kid in the 90s, hearing about this hole in the ozone layer was really distressful for me.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah, we were both children at that time and it was a huge thing, being told that there was a hole in the ozone layer and having this sense of, like, if I walked outside on the wrong day, the whole might be over me that day.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Oh, my god, you too? I thought I was the only one.
KAREN LITFIN: Oh no.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: That makes sense in terms of how we confronted the issue of ozone, politically and socially and scientifically, and I guess it’s sort of bringing into play some of the dynamic about politicians and scientists, and the language around that. So, it almost sounds like a pilot program, if you will, for the real main event here, which seems to be climate change.
KAREN LITFIN: Yeah. I mean, there’s lessons to be learned. A lot of people believe that international action is meaningless and international law doesn’t have teeth and it doesn’t work and, actually, international law, by and large, has worked. We have saved the ozone layer and, of course, that could still not be true in the future, through the black market in CFCs, there’s all kinds of possibilities for wrecking that treaty system, but it is in place and it has been since 1987.
I think the big lesson of just the possibilities of international law when there’s a sense of a common goal. I think, with climate change, global warming, well, we always like it when it’s a little bit cosier and warmer, so that’s not so threatening, and climate change sounds like, “Oh, well, some change is good and some change isn’t,” you know? The word that would be the most accurate and also the most alarming would be “climate destabilisation.” Then coming back to how you perceived it as a child, in some ways, you had the right orientation, which was, “Oh, my God, this should not be happening.”
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Right.
KAREN LITFIN: Like you didn’t know anything about DuPont, or the chemical companies, or the Montreal Protocol or anything like that, but it just sounds like, “Wait a minute, the grown-ups shouldn’t be letting this happen.”
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: This is one of the few stories that we’ve told this season that actually makes me feel kind of hopeful.
IAN STEADMAN: Yeah. Something it really reminds me of is plastic straws.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: OK, say more about that.
IAN STEADMAN: OK. There’s this wave happening where people, and businesses, and companies, and even some governments are saying, “OK, you can’t have plastic bags, or you can’t have plastic straws because of plastic in the oceans,” but it’s here and there. It’s not comprehensive, it’s not this massive complete change of how we use plastic.
Back when there was still a lot of controversy and debate about whether to regulate CFCs and how to protect the ozone, it sounds like the ozone problem was in the same sort of situation. A lot of people weren’t buying aerosols anymore because they’d heard that it was a problem and they were going to do something about it but you didn’t have this large, systemic solution yet, but that actually happened and they passed this international treaty that did actually start to fix the problem. So, it is kind of inspiring. There is something encouraging there.
So, the question, I guess, is you’re not going to solve plastic pollution or you’re not going to solve something as big as climate change with just a metaphor, but it wouldn’t hurt and it might actually still help.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: Do you have any metaphors that you’ve thought about while you’ve been diving so deeply into this?
IAN STEADMAN: Well, no.
CHIQUITA PASCHAL: That’s fine. We can stop where you stop. That’s great.