3.2.5 The 1980s: ecological problems on a global scale

Back to 3.2.4

Unit 3 Contents



A great sea-change took place during the 1980s.  Indeed perhaps the Philippine document you have just read can be seen as one reflection of that change occurring – and indeed in helping to bring it about, as it was given considerable attention in other countries.

By the end of the 1980s, ecological concern had extended from being a fringe issue to a major source of confusion and worry about the future of the whole planet.  In Britain in 1989, the Green Party, which until then had got well under 3% of the vote in national elections, received 15% of the vote in England and Wales (in an election to the European Parliament).  While the Green Party has never matched this figure since, that showed the extent to which the ecological issues had moved centre-stage during that decade.

We focus here on two of the main reasons for that change during the 1980s.

(a)      The hole in the ozone layer

In the upper atmosphere around the earth is a layer of a chemical called ozone. This has the effect of reducing the extent to which ultraviolet rays from the sun reach the earth’s surface.  Such rays cause cancer in humans and other animals.  In 1985, British scientists discovered that, each year in the early spring, a hole in the ozone layer opens up over Antarctica, before closing again in the summer.  This means there is a thinning of ozone each year over southern parts of Chile, Argentina, Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.1. This means, in turn, that people and other animals in these countries are at increased risk of skin cancers, and indeed rates of such cancers are high in them.  The ozone hole was recognized as having been caused by use of certain chemicals in industrial products, especially chlorofluoro-carbons (CFCs) in fridges and aerosol cans.  In some years, depending on weather conditions, there is similar but much smaller-scale ozone depletion also over the Arctic.2

International response to the discovery of this global ecological problem was, it seems now, astonishingly rapid and impressive.  Negotiations beginning in 1985 led to signing of an international treaty in 1987, called the Montreal Protocol, in which all countries agreed to the phasing out of the chemicals believed to be causing the problem.  Since then, emissions of those chemicals have dropped greatly and there is beginning to be evidence of a reduction in the ozone hole.  However this is not expected to close fully until towards the end of the twenty-first century.

This outline of the story of the ozone hole and the Montreal Protocol poses a parallel question to that raised by the Great London Smog and the Clean Air Acts.  Is it possible to address ecological problems that are even on a global scale through legal agreement and changes in technology?  That story seems to point towards a positive answer.



Is the glass half full or half empty?  From what you have read so far, are you inclined to think that ecological problems can be solved by technical and legal means?  Or are they so serious that they require major changes in how people live?


(b)     The ‘greenhouse effect’ and climate change

A second reason for the explosion in ecological concern during the 1980s was growing recognition of the real possibility that human activities are affecting the atmosphere in potentially a much more serious way than the hole in the ozone layer.  This is that among the by-products of many human activities are gases that are accumulating in the atmosphere, causing it to act more and more like a greenhouse around the planet.

To give a bit more detail, the most significant such gases are carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon dioxide emissions come from energy generation and transport among other things.  A big source of methane is cattle farming.  If the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rises, it stops heat that accumulates around the earth’s surface from leaving the planet.  Therefore the earth’s overall temperature slowly rises.  In other words, ‘global warming’ takes place.  There are also other effects on the climate, because, for example, global warming means that sea temperatures rise.  Such effects include more frequent severe weather (such as hurricanes) and, scientists believe, changes in ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic which gives Britain and Ireland a warmer climate than they would otherwise have.  Moreover, as global warming takes place, the polar ice caps are expected slowly to melt, which could raise sea levels significantly and lead to inundation of large areas of low-lying land.

That is the theory of human-induced global warming and its effects.  While the extent of the evidence for this actually taking place has been subject to some dispute, it was during the 1980s that many people began to examine the emerging evidence and became convinced that there is a really major problem that could not be ignored.

Just one notable ‘convert’ to this understanding was the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who represented a party which had not previously been known for great concern about ecological issues.  Thatcher was trained initially as a chemist and, having examined the claims about possible global warming, she became the first major world statesperson to address the issue when she made a speech on environmental problems in London in 1988, the same year as the Philippine Bishops published their document.  While emphasising the need for caution about the scientific evidence, she addressed the issue again in 1989 and 1990.


Optional reading (3pp)

Section on ‘The Environment’ in Speech to the Royal Society by Margaret Thatcher, Sep. 2008


The other two speeches mentioned in the text above can also be accessed at www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/. Their dates were 8 Nov. 1989 and 4 Nov. 1990 – the latter was three weeks before she resigned from being Prime Minister.

Thatcher’s 1989 speech was to the United Nations and ended as follows: “We are not the lords, we are the Lord’s creatures, the trustees of this planet, charged today with preserving life itself – preserving life with all its mystery and all its wonder. May we all be equal to that task.”

The writer of this module came of age in Margaret Thatcher’s time and wasn’t a great fan.  I’m no doubt not alone in finding that her voice induces some trauma, but I commend a short YouTube clip that includes her saying the first part of that sentence.

YouTube, ‘Margaret Thatcher on the Environment’



End of 3.2.5

Go to 3.2.6 1990 to the present: a growing consensus


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  1. ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’ is the country name used by the Catholic Church and by other main Christian denominations. See http://www.catholic.org.nz/

  2. A reliable source of information about ozone depletion is www.theozonehole.com