GOP mocked Al Gore as “Ozone Man”: But he was right the whole time — and they knew it
“This article earlier published in Salon”
Before there was climate denial, there was “Ozone Man.”
The Republican Party’s long, messy divorce from reality began in October 1992, when President George H.W. Bush derided Al Gore, then the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, as “Ozone Man,” someone who would put us “up to our necks in owls — and outta work for every American.”
Bush was referring to Gore’s early warning about the public health threat posed by growing concentrations of CFCs, the chemical refrigerants used in air conditioners, which were rapidly degrading the ozone layer that screens the earth from dangerous UV solar radiation.
Ironically enough, as vice president himself five years earlier Bush had submitted for Senate ratification the UN’s Montreal Protocol, which aimed to phase out CFC production in response to Gore’s concerns. In fact, only a few months before Bush’s dig at Gore, the Bush administration had agreed to strengthen that very Montreal Protocol, concluding that this would “constitute a major step forward in protecting public health and the environment from …. stratospheric ozone depletion.”
But the political press allowed Bush license to mock Gore for sounding an alarm that had been fully conceded — and even acted upon — by his own administration. That was a leading indicator of the steady deterioration in media accountability around the accuracy of political debate on environmental science.
Thirty years later, just last month, we got some remarkable good news. The World Meteorological Organization issued a forecast that the ozone hole is not only shrinking but will be fully healed in most of the world by 2040. While the net effect of historic CFC degradation of the ozone layer will still mean an increase in cancer cases — likely several hundred thousand additional cases by the year 2100 — researchers estimate that without the Montreal treaty an additional 400 million people could have suffered from skin cancer.
Overall, this is an astonishing demonstration both damage that reckless technology can wreak, and the human ability to respond and dramatically limit the actual costs of these risks.
Republicans have long since stopped celebrating such progress. Bush’s “Ozone Man” jibe was the beginning of a steady Republican retreat from the two key lessons of the ozone layer threat: First, that 21st-century technology is powerful enough, when misused, to disrupt the stability of climate and other global systems on which civilization depends; and second, that collective human cooperation, combined with innovative technology and functioning markets, can limit, and even repair such damage.
The lessons of the recovery of the ozone layer can be summed up in eight simple words: “We caused these problems; we can solve them.”
One of the places to benefit most from healing the ozone layer is America’s Sunshine State, Florida. Even as Bush was chiding Gore as “Ozone Man,” Florida’s TV weather forecasters were debating how best to tell the state’s residents to stay out of the Sun without scaring off the tourists. (Unlike Republican politicians, the meteorologists didn’t think they could just make snide jokes.)
In a world without the Montreal phase-out of CFCs, Florida’s biggest asset — sunshine — would have become a lethal liability. Outdoor sunbathing would have become far too dangerous for many tourists, and outdoor recreation in general would have been significantly hampered. Instead, thanks to a UN treaty and industry development of ozone-safe refrigerants, Florida managed to dodge most of the UV cancer crisis.
Florida, of course, is also ground zero for risk from climate change today. Indeed, the early coastal indicators of climate destruction — sea level rise, hurricane intensity, algae blooms, tidal flooding — already threaten the state’s quality of life. Public concern reached levels that led Gov. Ron DeSantis far ahead of most Republican governors in campaigning, and governing, on the need to increase community climate resilience — even if DeSantis hardly ever says the word “climate.” He just says Florida is “flood prone.” The reason for the hedge is obvious: Naming the cause might cause voters to wonder whether Florida should try to minimize catastrophic flooding, not just prepare for it. Wouldn’t it be better to deal with the climate crisis as we dealt with the ozone layer — by attacking the problem at its source?
Don’t expect DeSantis to risk becoming a new Al Gore — potentially mocked by his Republican colleagues — for suggesting that the Sunshine State could lead the U.S. toward a prevention policy on climate chaos. The political media certainly wouldn’t reward him for that, even though the issue isn’t very complicated: Florida should simply harvest the state’s ample sunshine to make up for the energy the oil industry seeks off its beaches. Interestingly, almost all Florida Republican politicians, DeSantis included, oppose offshore oil drilling. He has also stood out by opposing Florida utilities’ “only outlaws install solar panels” campaign, vetoing a utility-backed bill that would have limited the state’s rooftop solar households.
In a different Republican Party, one in which candidates said things about critical environmental and climate problems that were measured for their connection to reality, DeSantis might have a viable option of saying, “I’m helping to find sensible, conservative solutions to the climate problem — and I don’t need to be a left-winger to do so.”
But that would also require the political media to start reporting on “Ozone Man”-style mockery not for its gotcha value, but as serious environmental policy with serious consequences. Serious environmental policy is exactly what George H.W. Bush ran away from in the fall of 1992. What he empowered, of course, was the fake news that still plagues us today.