The ’90s were cooler than now. That’s not just nostalgia talking; I’m not still pining for the pair of Moon Shoes I never got for Christmas. Fully 97% of scientists agree, it was cooler a couple of decades ago. Lately it seems inevitable that every story about the environment ends up circling back to climate change one way or another. So that is not what this article will do. We will look not to the ever-increasing temperature of the future, but instead gaze upon the environmental doomsdays of yesteryear, at least as far back as us millennials can remember.
The news of the ’90s presented acid rain as a very real threat, hammering it home with images of dead and dying forests. Caused by gases released from the burning of fossil fuels, acid rain forms when high concentrations of said gases get mixed in with the water droplets in clouds, churning out newly acidic water vapor, which falls to the ground as acid rain.
Realistically, even normal rain is acidic. On the pH scale, it sits somewhere between 6.5 and 5.5. Lower pH numbers reflect higher acidity, so it should come as no surprise that the real trouble begins when that pH starts to dip below 5.5.
Nature was not built to sustain acidity like that. An experiment you can try at home is watering your favorite houseplant with coffee (pH of about 5). It will die. So you will throw out the dead plant and buy a new one to put in the same pot. It will die. So, you will throw out the old dirt, which was still way too acidic from all the coffee. This is where the metaphor breaks down, because in areas affected by acid rain, you can’t just “throw out the old dirt.” That dirt is our planet.
Fortunately, some of our greatest minds got together and passed legislation limiting the amount of airborne pollutants that could be produced at factories and companies across the country. Unfortunately, acid rain is still around. The new laws were a success, and many areas once affected by severe acid rain are recovering. But recovery can be agonizingly slow, and man-made acid rain still falls in some parts of the US—fingers crossed that Portland takes care of its toxic air before it circles back as acid rain.
Holes in the Ozone
An umbrella would have been a must-have survival item if the most dire predictions of the ’90s had come to pass. Not only would we be hiding from acid rain, but our own sun was set to cook us alive, via two holes in our planet’s protective ozone layer—that thing that keeps out truly damaging sun rays. Granted, in the ’90s there was only one major hole. And that hole was over Antarctica. But that hole was projected to get bigger and badder until one day we’d all get skin cancer and die.
Solving the ozone problem took the combined effort of almost every nation on Earth. Scientists discovered that the hole had been caused by a particularly nasty kind of chemical called chlorofluorocarbons. These molecules, when released into the air, would rise up into the atmosphere and eat away at our precious ozone layer. Member states at the UN drafted the Montreal Protocol, which created an outline for phasing out production of ozone-depleting chemicals. It became the first treaty to be unanimously approved by every member of the UN.
You may very well ask how we ended up with a second hole in the ozone given the frankly heroic cooperation of the international community. It turns out chlorofluorocarbons float around for a long time, casually wreaking havoc. Our second hole is over our second pole, in the Arctic. Despite the discovery of another hole, both seem to be on the mend as the overall health of our ozone layer improves.
I lied. This whole article circles back to climate change. It’s not for lack of trying to avoid the topic. The problem is, it’s always been the topic. Acid rain, holes in the ozone, and a plethora of environmental disasters between then and now— Styrofoam filling up landfills, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, melting icecaps, etc.—have just been the more apparent symptoms of ecological ignorance. Humans have disrupted the composition of the atmosphere time and time again with greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and now our climate is rapidly changing.
And somewhere out there, amid dire projections and worried scientists on the nightly news, is a kid. A kid whose parents didn’t get him a hoverboard for Christmas. I would love for that kid to one day write a retrospective article about how we solved climate change. The article could say that recovery remains slow, that the problem required global cooperation, and that at least we realized we should stop “watering our houseplants with coffee,” so to speak. I’m sure the kid will have a better metaphor.
By Kyle Bunnell