‘Let’s not give up now – we’re on the verge of success’

Born and raised in Chicago, Susan Solomon earned her PhD in atmospheric chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. She is known for her work in the 1980s showing how man-made chemicals were depleting the Earth’s protective ozone layer. Her studies formed the basis of the 1989 Montreal protocol – an international agreement that helped eliminate 99% of these harmful solvents. Now a professor of environmental studies ​​​​​​and chemistry at MIT, Solomon is the author of three books, the most recent of which, Dissolvable: How We Satisfied the World, and How We Can Do It Againit applies lessons from past environmental successes to the climate crisis.

What got you interested in science?
Easy answer: Jacques Cousteau – I thought he was the most incredible thing I had ever seen. But then I didn’t really like biology, and I liked chemistry. As I started reading about planetary atmospheres I thought: Oh, my goodness, chemistry on a planet instead of in a test tube! I want to do that!

What inspired you to write this book?
After much work has been done on the ozone hole, one is constantly asked: “Could we [solve the problem] on ozone, can we do it for climate change?” I had a lot of experience with the policy community with the Montreal Protocol [an international treaty to protect the ozone layer], as well as the IPCC, so I learned a lot about how policy is made. And I was interested in the question, why are these problems different?

Related: How to stop the climate crisis: six lessons from the campaign to save the ozone

What is the ozone layer and what does it do?
We wouldn’t have life on the surface of the planet if we didn’t have an ozone layer, because it protects us from ultraviolet light from the sun that would otherwise seriously damage everything biological.

But by the 1980s it was becoming clear that we were depleting it through the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols and refrigerants, among other things. We have many measurements that show that we have increased the amount of chlorine in the Earth’s atmosphere by a factor of about six compared to the small amount that nature can produce. So it’s a huge amount of man-made chlorine and almost that amount comes from CFCs – hairspray and weapon deodorants account for most of the world’s emissions.

What is the value that your child does not get asthma? How do we price that?

Despite the global scale of the issue, the ozone crisis was addressed very quickly.
The level of fixed infrastructure investment that the chemical industry had at that time was relatively small compared to what the fossil fuel industry has today. There were only a dozen companies in the world and a maximum of a few billion dollars. And the companies weren’t really being forced out of business; they were forced to change their business, and had various stages of restructuring. What I like to tell my students is: don’t imagine that the industry is going to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do, that’s not their job. It’s their job to make money and it’s your job to hold them accountable. That’s why community and consumer actions are so important. In the 1970s, just because of the possibility of ozone depletion many people in the US managed to get rid of spray cans and use a roll on weapon instead. That major step away from voluntary consumer action had a huge impact on the market.

Besides the ozone crisis, what have you learned from researching other issues like smog and lead that we could carry forward to combat global warming?
Over the years in America and the UK, we have developed this anti-regulation mentality: regulation is bad, the market will find the best possible solution. Well, the market may find the most cost-effective solution. And cost is the most important thing there, and whether it’s best or not depends on your values, because if the market finds a solution that destroys nature, some people would care about that. And what is really the value of nature? And what is the value that your child does not get asthma? How do we price that? We don’t put a price on that, because they depend on our values. This whole idea of, we’ll do it the cheapest way and don’t care about your values ​​- we just go beyond that.

The industry will continue to fight, simply because they have a lot to protect. They have huge investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. And they have all these assets, whether it’s to go out and cut this hill down and sell it as coal, or offshore oil rigs that are very expensive pieces of equipment. So you complete it and it is in the order of a $40tn industry, which was completely dwarfing the chemical industry at the time of the CFC issue. But it’s interesting that the concept of stranded assets has become part of the vocabulary, and people are starting to understand how much power they really have, in terms of how we make our investments – in your retirement fund, or in your bank of choice. And so social choice is becoming part of the way people are thinking about putting pressure on industries that are part of those assets. So this is all part of why I am hopeful.

Related: How did we save the ozone layer?

In Guardian last month, 380 Climate scientists were surveyed and many reported feeling despair – 77% The respondents believe that global temperatures will reach a minimum 2.5C above pre-industrial levels and 42% think they will exceed 3C. Do you share their pessimism?
Well, the last calendar year has been a surprise – warmer than expected, or as it should have been. There is a lot of work going on to try to figure it out. So, yes, that’s certainly scary, but I don’t share the pessimism. And I worry, frankly, about encouraging climate scientists to take a particular position. You can see it going both ways, but in this case there’s a group of people out there for a long time who believe we should tell the worst stories we can, because then the public will get it and wake up and empower change. That practice didn’t really work. Also, you can not look at the [falling] the price of solar energy and batteries and you don’t see a big change coming. And the idea that we’re going to go beyond 3C is very hard for me to see, because it’s pretty clear that the Paris agreement has already set us on a path that will not exceed that. Can we stay within 2C, given how clean energy prices have fallen? Personally, I think we can.

One lesson from your book is that if you are an ordinary person concerned about the climate crisis, the most impactful thing you can do is to meet with others to push for change.
Yes, that is the biggest influence, for sure. It was the beginning of so many environmental problems in the past and it has already started this problem for us. For goodness sake, let’s not give up now, we’re right there. That is the basic message of the book.

To come back to where we started with the ozone layer. Is there still a problem? Is it fixed now?
We saw the chlorofluorocarbons going up, up, up and now coming down, down, down. So that’s a great story, a great environmental success story. And it applies to every country in the world – the Montreal Protocol is the only UN agreement signed by every country that was a formal part of the UN. That’s pretty cool.

It also helped with the climate change issue, by the way, because chlorofluorocarbons are very strong greenhouse gases. If we didn’t pull back on them, we would be looking at an additional level of warming by 2050, and then, of course, 2C would be out of reach. But we checked step by step by dialing in chlorofluorocarbons. How cool is that?

  • Dissolvable: How We Satisfied the World, and How We Can Do It Again by Susan Solomon published by the University of Chicago Press (£21). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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