An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2013

Social Sciences & the Alternative Energy Future

Stephen D. Ansolabehere and Robert W. Fri

STEPHEN ANSOLABEHERE, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2007, is Professor of Government at Harvard University. His publications include The End of Inequality: One Person, One Vote, and the Transformation of American Politics (with James M. Snyder, Jr., 2008), Going Negative: How Attack Ads Shrink and Polarize the Electorate (with Shanto Iyengar, 1995), and The Media Game: American Politics in the Television Age (with Roy Behr and Shanto Iyengar, 1993).

ROBERT W. FRI, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2010, is a Visiting Scholar and Senior Fellow Emeritus at Resources for the Future, where he previously served as President. He has also served as Director of the National Museum of Natural History and Deputy Administrator of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Research and Development Administration. He is Chair of the Academy's Alternative Energy Future project.

Three decades ago the United States, Japan, and the European nations entered into a treaty to limit the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals. Scientists at that time concluded that industrial and residential use of CFCs and similar chemicals had caused significant loss of ozone high in the atmosphere, especially over the polar regions. There was further consensus that the thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer would increase human exposure to ultraviolet rays, which can cause skin cancers and other adverse health effects, and would degrade the environment in other ways. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed and put into effect in 1989, and it is expected that the damage to the ozone layer will be largely repaired by 2050.1

Worldwide cooperation can solve global environmental crises.2 The Montreal Protocol stands as a clear example of such concerted action. Yet there are notable differences between the global action required to respond to climate change and what was necessary in the case of CFCs. Looking back on the experience with CFCs and the Montreal Protocol, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Mario Molina noted that the global warming challenge is as much a matter of public policy and social science as engineering, physics, and chemistry. In fact, the science behind carbon emissions and climate change is far more certain now than the science behind CFCs and ozone depletion was in 1989.3  The vastly different political responses to these two environmental challenges can be explained by their particular root causes. On the one hand, the technologies accounting for most of the ozone-depleting chemicals were highly concentrated in a few industries, and close substitutes for CFCs existed. CFCs could thus be isolated and addressed through relatively straightforward regulatory regimes.

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  • 1James Gustave Speth, Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004), 95.
  • 2Mario Molina and Durwood Zaelke, “A Climate Success Story to Build On,” The New York Times, September 26, 2012, -a-climate-success-story-to-build-on.html.
  • 3Molina made this observation in a presentation delivered at the 1998 MIT Congressional Staff Seminar sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
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