13 November 2012

Ozone Histories of Convenience: Grundmann on Sunstein

NOTE: This is a guest post by Reiner Grundmann, a professor of Science & Technology Studies of the University of Nottingham

Last weekend the eminent legal scholar Cass Sunstein commented in the New York Times expressing his optimism that the new Obama administration will finally embark on a policy leading to climate change mitigation.

He draws a parallel to a previous global challenge, ozone depletion. The Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer, signed in September 1987, is commonly regarded the only successful international treaty in matters regarding global environmental risks. Sunstein thinks there is an important lesson to be learnt. The lesson is the application of cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Ronald Regan who was at the helm at the time of the treaty negotiations, is the unlikely hero in this story. Sunstein writes:
“The Reagan administration was generally skeptical about costly environmental rules, but with respect to protection of the ozone layer, Reagan was an environmentalist hero. Under his leadership, the United States became the prime mover behind the Montreal Protocol, which required the phasing out of ozone-depleting chemicals.”
We are told that Reagan (like Obama!) embraced CBA. Because the trick worked the first time round, we should expect similar success this time, or so we are made to believe.

Sunstein correctly points out that the US, and other countries as well, would be well advised to explore energy efficiency gains for economic reasons alone. This makes perfect sense and no one in their right mind should object to these aims (albeit Sunstein is silent on necessary long term climate policies). However, it gets a little more complicated than this. In effect Sunstein is trying to rewrite the history of ozone politics, reducing the chain of events that led to the successful reduction of CFCs to an imaginary application of the principle of CBA. Below I will show that this is not borne out by the facts. But before I do so, I should make clear that there are two crucial issues involved here: the problem of international agreement, and the problem of its implementation.

Montreal was – by and large - successful on both fronts. As we know, Kyoto is failing on both. One problem is the non participation of important countries, like China, India and the United States. The other is the problem of implementation. Even countries in the Kyoto club do not succeed in cutting their emissions (they can only claim modest success because of shifting production overseas). Sunstein has an immediate interest in the prospects for a more active role of the newly elected US government, and there is nothing wrong with that. It gets problematic where he invokes a historical precedent in order to nudge Obama towards a policy which seemed to have worked in the past. This imaginary precedent is CBA. The only problem is it didn’t play a decisive role in ozone politics. It was not the reason for the US driving an ambitious treaty in Montreal.

Here are the historical facts. I am not only referring to my own research which you can read here. The widely accepted ‘official’ story of the ozone negotiations has been provided by Richard E. Benedick, in his book Ozone Diplomacy. He lays out in great detail how a coalition of different actors from within atmospheric sciences, EPA, NASA, NOAA, UNEP and the State Department was able to advance an ambitious agenda for international controls of ozone depleting substances, despite resistance from the White House. We must not forget that in 1977 the amendment of the Clean Air Act had regulated ‘non-essential use’ of CFCs without scientific evidence (of lower ozone concentrations, higher UV radiation, or actual harm). The Republicans in government did not want to see this policy repeated.

In its eagerness to prevent further CFC regulations, the Reagan government applied tactics that backfired. Benedick provides many historical details about these mistakes (I recommend reading especially chapter 5 of his book, called ‘Forging the US position’). If anything, Montreal was achieved not because of Reagan’s support, but despite his long time resistance. An advocacy coalition in favor of stringent CFC controls eventually prevailed in the US, and internationally. Many historical contingencies played a role, such as the US CFC manufacturers trying to level the playing field with their European competitors (after all there was noting comparable to the Clean Air Act in Europe). Another contingency was the fact that the EU gave up its resistance to an international treaty after German Greens were elected to parliament for the first time. By the way, little of these contingencies had much to do with getting the science settled, still a prevailing myth in ozone history (propagated by Benedick himself and Mostafa Tolba). For example, the UK, a hardliner against regulations until after Montreal, was simply outmaneuvered at the EU level (quoting uncertain science as a reason for their opposition). It came to accept the fait accompli after the ‘greening of Margaret Thatcher’.

No matter what led eventually to the agreement in Montreal, the phasing out of the problematic gases was not such a big deal as had been claimed by industry. Process and product substitutes became quickly available and the initial ambitiously looking targets could be over-fulfilled within years. No such prospects lie in wait with climate policy. Even if the international community were to somehow to agree to ambitious mitigation targets, these would be just a piece of paper, a dead treaty. At present, there are no prospects for the successful implementation of ambitious mitigation targets, as Sunstein acknowledges.

We know of one famous attempt to apply CBA to climate change. This is Lord Stern’s report which tried to make the case of climate mitigation to the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, arguing that it pays to pay for prevention. After some years of official endorsement, this approach seems to lose its political credibility (having lost its academic credibility some time ago, some would say from the very beginning).

All of this is no argument in principle against CBA. And it is no argument against increasing energy efficiency everywhere, on the contrary—such efforts are good and should be seen as ‘no-brainers’. All I am arguing is to stick to the known historical facts when pretending ‘to learn from past success’. If the story does not stack up, it is not a good starting point.

Sunstein tries to appeal to Republicans, saying “Look, your great former president did this with ozone, not based on crazy environmental principles, but on the basis of sober analysis of costs and benefits.” Again the political aim of building bridges is commendable. But the historical foundations are not sound.


  1. This is funny. Sunstein published a paper "Of Montreal and Kyoto: A tale of two Protocols" in which he quite clearly explained why Kyoto does not work, one reason being that costs are huge and benefits small.

  2. Reiner -

    ===]]] Sunstein is trying to rewrite the history of ozone politics, reducing the chain of events that led to the successful reduction of CFCs to an imaginary application of the principle of CBA. [[[===

    After reading the following article:


    which references Bendrick rather heavily, it seems to me that CBA was unlikely irrelevant to the eventual support from the US for the Montreal Protocol. The article indicates that the reasons for Reagan's individual eventual support are hard to pin down - but certainly the outcomes of CBA were a potential influence - and I'd say it seems rather unlikely that the CBA done was merely coincidental to his decision-making process.

  3. @ Joshua, Reiner: Similar conclusion here (also referring to Benedick):


    " a cost-benefit study from the President's Council of Economic Advisors"

    There is also a suggestion that Reagan's treatement for skin cancer in 1987 may have played a role.

    via Daniel H. Cole, "Climate Change, Adaptation, and Development"


    "Scott Barrett suggests a second possible catalytic event in the case of the Montreal Protocol:
    US support for the Protocol may have been strengthened when, a month before the Protocol was signed,
    then-President Ronald Reagan had skin cancer removed from his nose."

    See further the book of Scott Barrett, "Why Cooperate?:The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods", end of chapter "Ozone Depletion".

  4. Reference to a possible role for CBA can also be found in "Toxic Loopholes: Failures and Future Prospects for Environmental Law" by Craig Collins, Cambridge University Press (pp 196-198).

    And on page 196 of that book notes that, similar to Roger, DuPont saw the ban on CFC's as a business opportunity to make certain alternative refrigerants marketable (production of alternatives is much more expensive than production of CFC's).

  5. -3-Jos

    The Reagan administration committed to the process that lead to the Montreal Protocol in 1984 upon signing the Vienna Convention. It was part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by NRDC under the Clean Air Act amendments of 1977, following a last-minute regulatory action by Jimmy Carter before leaving the White House.

    That story is told here:

    If there was CBA applied, it was probably of the more prosaic political kind! ;-)

  6. The CBA was based on an EPA study about increased costs due to skin cancer. I describe it on p.151 of my book, drawing on Newspaper sources and Cagin and Dray's book (1993)Between Earth and Sky, How CFCs Changed Our World and Endangered the Ozone Layer.

    Sunstein who quotes these numbers in another article admits they are questionable and any CBA based on them would be highly uncertain.

  7. (#6)Reiner -

    ==]] Sunstein who quotes these numbers in another article admits they are questionable and any CBA based on them would be highly uncertain. [[==

    Whether the numbers were questionable and whether a CBA based on them is uncertain is not exactly germane to the question of whether or not the CBA was influential in the US government's, or Reagan's decision-making process. What is relevant is whether they, at the time, (in particular high-ranking members of Reagan's administration if not Reagan himself), felt the analysis showed that it was in the US's best interest to support the Montreal Protocol.

    Do you have any directly relevant response to my comment #2 - for example some evidence that members of the US government dismissed the CBA as questionable? And if that were the case, then what is your assessment of why the US supported the Montreal Protocol?


    Predictably, economic arguments made the most head-way in gaining Administration support. The President's Council of Economic Advisers produced a cost-benefit analysis that showed, putting all argued uncertainties aside, that:

    The monetary benefits of preventing future deaths from skin cancer far outweighed costs of CFC controls as estimated either by industry or by EPA. This conclusion, which was based on the most conservative estimates and did not even attempt to quantify other potential benefits of preventing ozone layer depletion, dismayed the revisionists and helped sway some administration officials who had been watching the controversy from the sidelines. (Benedick, 1991, p.p. 63)


    Ambassador Benedick received an “’Eyes Only’ personal cable from the White House” in which, “ignoring the advice of some of his closest political friends, the President completely endorsed, point-by-point, the strong position of the State Department and EPA.”


  8. I quoted from memory. Here is the passage from Sunstein's article, 'OF MONTREAL AND KYOTO: A TALE OF TWO PROTOCOLS' (thanks to Pirate #1 for the hint)

    "These figures were generated by a projection of over ve million skin cancer deaths by 2165, together with over twenty-five million cataract cases by that year—figures that would be cut to two hundred thousand and two million, respectively, by a 50% CFC reduction. 125 Of course it is possible to question these numbers; the science does not allow uncontroversial point estimates here, and perhaps EPA had an interest in showing that the agreement was desirable. What matters, however, is the perception of domestic costs and benefits, and in the late 1980s, no systematic analysis suggested that the Montreal Protocol was not in the interest of the United States. It should be clear that on these numbers, even unilateral action was well-justified for the United States, because the health benefits of American action would create such substantial gains for the American public. But if the world joined the Montreal Protocol, the benefits would be nearly tripled, because it would prevent 245 million cancers by 2165, including more than five million cancer deaths. At the same time, the relatively low expected cost of the Montreal Protocol—a mere $21 billion—dampened both public and private resistance, and the cost turned out to be even lower than anticipated because of technological innovation."

    Sunstein relies on the homo oeconomicus paradigm to an extent that he takes CBA as a proxy for rational decision making. Although there is the curious difference in evaluating climate change. In the article cited here, he does see the difference between the two cases.

  9. #4 Jos,

    "DuPont saw the ban on CFC's as a business opportunity to make certain alternative refrigerants marketable"

    Patents only run for about 20 years. The patent for Freon was granted in 1928. It's much more profitable to sell a 'patented' product then a product where the patent has expired.

    What good decent Nationalist-Republican president would be against a treaty that required the entire world to pay royalties to a domestic holder of a patent?

    Everyone is an environmentalist if it involves shielding a domestic industry from foreign competition.

  10. #8,

    In his earlier paper Sunstein does make some good observations about Kyoto and the 1990 baseline chosen:

    "It is worth asking why, exactly, these particular targets were chosen. The simplest answer is that national self-interest played a key role. Contrary to a widespread perception, it is simply not true that most of the world's nations were willing to sacrifice much to deal with climate change, while the United States ultimately refused to do so. The point is most obviously true for developing nations.....none of these nations is controlled by the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, many of the nations that accepted specified reductions actually promised to do little or nothing beyond what had already been done as a result of economic developments. Russia was given a target of 100% of its 1990 emissions, but by 1997 its actual emissions had already dropped to a mere 70% of that amount due to economic difficulties. The trading system created by the Kyoto Protocol actually ensured a huge economic boon to Russia as everyone was aware. Germany appeared to accept significant reduction - 8% by 2012 - but in 1997, its own emissions were already 10 % lower than in 1990.....For United Kingdom....target reduction of 8 % was less severe than it seemed because in 1997 the UK was already at a level 5% below that of 1990. By far, the largest loser, in terms of actual anticipated costs of mandatory cuts, was the United States."

    I think there is a good point here with implications for the future.The US emissions, thanks to shale gas and improved efficiency,are dropping. This makes it possible for the US to join climate treaties as one of the "good guys" with relatively low cost.

    Next time around, the free rider problem will have to be dealth with. Cutting emissions nationally makes no sense if global emissions continue to accelerate. China's emissions are already much bigger than emissions of EU and the US combined, and will probably double from 2010 by 2030.

  11. #9 harrywr2

    Replacement substances for CFCs were many, some were 'not in kind'. It was certainly not assumed that DuPont would hold all the patents and the rest of the world would have to pay royalties, see e.g. Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History
    By Stephen O. Andersen, k. Madhava Sarma, Lani Sinclair, p.219

  12. #7 Joshua

    "What is relevant is whether they, at the time, (in particular high-ranking members of Reagan's administration if not Reagan himself), felt the analysis showed that it was in the US's best interest to support the Montreal Protocol."

    I don't think it can conclusively be shown that CBA had such an influence. There were many factors at play which defined the US's best interest, also in the final weeks before US negotiators were briefed for Montreal. This is where a historical analysis differs from an economic analysis. The former emphasizes contingencies, the latter looks for single, determining factors. I admit it is always tempting to do away with historical analysis and search for the one important cause. Problem is that it often is not more than a hypothesis. In this case Sunstein elevates it into a fact.

  13. ===]]] I don't think it can conclusively be shown that CBA had such an influence. [[[===

    But my question is whether you were implying that the historical record shows that it had no or little influence. If that was your implication, it seems to be in contrast to the facts, and to the very analysis of Benedrick. The evidence supplied by Benedrick does not seem conclusive in that regard, but it does clearly suggest a significant influence of CBA on the US policy.

  14. Joshua
    I don't doubt it will have had 'some' influence but how do you show it had 'significant' influence (or in Sunstein's view, 'decisive' influence)?

  15. Reiner -

    Seems that the evidence provided via the article I linked suggests significant influence: "the economic arguments made the most head-way in gaining administrative support," and "the president completely endorsed, point by point, the strong position of the State Department and EPA (which were based on CBA)."

    It seems to me that the following characterization is, in fact, accurate:

    ==]] “Look, your great former president did this with ozone, not based on crazy environmental principles, but on the basis of sober analysis of costs and benefits.”[[==

    Decisive? I'd have to guess yes. The "singular, determining factor?" I'd say no. Do you have a quote from Sunstein where he makes that claim?

  16. Joshua

    I am sorry but the article you linked does not show a decisive influence of CBA in Reagan's decision. If you read the paragraphs that follow your selected quote you will see that

    1 the debate continued within the Administration after the CBA was made
    2 Reagan eventually made a decision but did not want the reasons be known

    If his decision was based on CBA what would he have lost in admitting it?