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Ozone treaty offers insurance against climate change

Arctic activist and past chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council

For decades, Inuit across the Arctic have borne the brunt of the effects from our world's weakened ozone layer. Because one of the major "holes" sits over the North Pole, our people are bombarded with the sun's damaging ultraviolet radiation at much higher levels than the rest of the world.

Inuit are at higher risk for sun poisoning and skin cancer, and the animals we rely on for food are similarly affected. One of the main culprits in the creation of ozone holes are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), gases once commonly used in refrigerators and aerosol cans and still in production in some parts of the world. While the sun's rays now bake down on our icy home more intensely due to global releases of CFCs, more of the sun's heat and radiation is also being locked into our atmosphere by another set of pollutants: greenhouse gases. For Inuit, these problems are very much connected, as the rapidly increasing temperatures around our Arctic combine with the heightened UV radiation, affecting our ability to hunt, travel and maintain our traditional subsistence culture.

Moreover, the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment tells us the problems themselves are very much linked in our atmosphere. While the 1987 Montreal Protocol has dramatically decreased global emissions of ozone-damaging pollutants such as CFCs, and while scientists now believe our ozone is on the mend, they also predict that the warmer the atmosphere, the more slowly the ozone will heal itself. This means that, in addition to watching our ice melt and coasts erode in the Arctic, Inuit will continue to absorb far more UV radiation for far longer than initially predicted.

But these connections also offer great hope for us in the North. Many of the ozone-damaging chemicals are also extremely potent heat-trapping greenhouse gases, causing far more warming than even much larger amounts of carbon dioxide. So, a small additional reduction in ozone-damaging gases can make a huge difference to global warming. Already, the Montreal Protocol has proved to not only be effective at reducing the chemicals harming the ozone layer but has also made an amazing contribution to reducing climate change.

In fact, without the Montreal Protocol and the earlier American and European efforts to reduce the use of CFCs in hair sprays and other aerosols, half of today's global warming would have been caused by CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals. Without these early efforts, starting in 1974 and continuing through the 20 years of the Montreal Protocol, we would be 35 to 41 years further along with climate change. In the Arctic, we might already be facing the ice-free summers that scientists now predict are only a few decades away.

If we do not take dramatic action, the projected impact of climate change remains dire, particularly for the Arctic, the small island developing states and the low-lying coastal areas. Inuit communities in Alaska are already preparing to relocate from some of their erosion-ravaged coastal villages. And rising sea levels and flooding from extreme weather events continuously threaten nations such as Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

When nations gather this month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, however, they will have a historic opportunity to not only protect the ozone but also to further delay these severe climate-change effects. They will have the chance to accelerate the phasing out of an additional class of ozone-damaging chemicals: hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). If states carefully manage this change, this phasing out could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 25 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent between 2010 and 2050. This is roughly five times the reduction expected under the Kyoto Protocol.

If the governments of the world can immediately mitigate climate change as the result of one decision in September, don't they have the responsibility to do this? They must come together to recognize a joint solution to these interconnected problems. They must not forget that the Montreal treaty has the potential to do much more to save the Arctic and other regions of the world most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier received the Rachel Carson Prize in June.

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