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Irvine: The Little Engine That Could (New Climate Change Series)



ICNV is pleased to be publishing a series of articles on climate change — asking us all to think globally and act locally.  We are proud to introduce a team of Orange County science writers specializing in key aspects of this global and local climate crisis.  The first article in this series is by Sarah Mosko, Ph.D.  Dr. Mosko vividly illustrates how — in the face of this environmental challenge — local activism can significantly impact global policy.

Regardless of political persuasion, everyone seems to agree that the Earth’s climate is rapidly and dramatically changing.  Many localities, around the world, are taking action to protect their citizens against rising sea levels and extraordinarily destructive storms.

We hope you find this series illuminating and motivating.  Dr. Mosko would welcome any comments our ICNV readers may have on this topic.  Please write to: Editor@IrvineCommunityNews.org.

— Harvey H. Liss, Ph.D., ICNV editor for Science and Technology

Irvine: The Little Engine That Could
by Sarah Mosko, Ph.D.

Irvine led on restoring the ozone layer and should lead now on climate change. 

Ozone Depletion: The First Global Environmental Crisis

The depletion of the protective ozone layer in the Earth’s atmosphere by manmade chemicals was the global community’s first environmental crisis.  Today, climate change, largely attributable to greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, is the second and far more frightening crisis.

The people of Irvine can be proud that actions taken by the City Council in 1989 were instrumental in creating a blueprint at the local level for carrying out the aspirations set forth in the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the international agreement to restore the ozone layer.  It is widely hailed as the most successful global environmental treaty ever.  As the global community today faces the reality that unchecked global warming could unleash catastrophic effects impacting all future generations, Irvine can and should resurrect the same purpose and determination that inspired the City to make a difference back then.

In 1974, scientists at UC Irvine, led by Nobel laureates (1995) F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina, predicted that the Earth’s protective ozone layer would be seriously diminished by the rampant use of halogens — chemicals, such as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and other ozone-depleting compounds then used as refrigerants, spray can propellants, and solvents.  The ozone layer acts as a shield, preventing the most harmful ultraviolet radiation in sunlight (UVB) from reaching the Earth’s surface.  Excessive exposure to UVB is known to cause not only sunburn, skin cancers and cataracts but also damage to crops and reduction of plankton populations vital to the ocean food web.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the infamous hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was discovered, as Rowland and Molina predicted. That triggered the international alarm that led to the Montreal Protocol.  Because action at the federal level was painfully slow in coming, the Irvine City Council, then led by Mayor Larry Agran and City Councilmember Cameron Cosgrove, boldly passed the most far-reaching, legally enforceable measure anywhere to eliminate CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances.  This remarkable ordinance prohibited using CFCs and other targeted halogens in most industrial processes in the City of Irvine. 

The City Council, in taking responsible action at the local level, believed that other jurisdictions would be empowered to use Irvine’s ordinance as a model.  That is exactly what happened in many cities and counties across America and throughout the world, and today we know that the hole in the ozone layer is shrinking and we have overcome that global environmental crisis.

Climate Change: The Second Global Environmental Crisis

Now we are faced with a second, far greater global environmental crisis.  News reports worldwide tell us that the effects of climate change are already being felt, while scientists tell us that the window of opportunity to take aggressive actions to prevent runaway global warming is the next 10 to 15 years, at best.  Though the 2015 Paris Agreement shows there is worldwide consensus on the urgency of tackling climate change, President Trump has threatened to throw a wrench into the agreement by pulling the U.S. out of this historic international agreement.  Even if the U.S. remains a participant, there is no guarantee that Congress or the President has the political will to enact laws in time to move from an economy based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable energy sources.

As in 1989, local jurisdictions can and are leading the nation in solving the climate crisis.  The State of California and 45 cities around the nation have enacted resolutions calling on Congress to take decisive action on climate change, or more specifically, to impose some form of a fee on carbon, with dividends returned to consumers.  What’s more, dozens of cities and counties in California are formulating plans allowing public entities to purchase energy from renewable sources, though none is in Orange County.

As a leading example, the City of San Diego has courageously passed the first comprehensive, legally binding Climate Action Plan that is crafted to cut the city’s carbon footprint in half by 2035.  Components of the plan include: commitment to 100% renewable electricity; upgrading buildings to be more energy and water efficient; guiding development to make mass transit, walking and biking more accessible; 100% waste diversion from landfills; and making the City more climate resilient with measures like increasing the tree canopy.

The impact Irvine had in reining in ozone-depleting chemicals in 1989 is concrete proof that thinking globally and acting locally is more than a feel-good mantra.  Irvine should take a cue from San Diego and once again become a leader in environmental protection — this time as a driving force in formulating and propagating an innovative blueprint for climate change action that other jurisdictions can then replicate.

When Irvine took the lead in meeting the ozone challenge, it became front-page news in the New York Times and other papers throughout the world.  The City even won a United Nations award for leadership in environmental protection.

Irvine was once the little engine that could, and did lead the world.  It should do so, again, this time to meet the climate change crisis.

Sarah Mosko, PH.D.


Irvine, CA
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