Three Environment and Climate Successes that We Must Learn From

At Magenta Security, we see it as our responsibility to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change and what action businesses can take to help in the fight for our climate.

But we know that all fear and no hope can be paralysing, so we collected three historic examples where people took action to protect the environment, the climate and make human life safer.

The Thames was thick with toxic pollution – so we built sewers

In the summer of 1858, poor rainfall lowered the waters of the Thames and exposed sewage up to six foot deep to bake in the summer sun. The Great Stink had arrived, causing misery for Londoners and embarrassment for politicians who could no longer bear working in the Houses of Parliament.

Joseph Bazalgette was chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, a position he filled after the stress of the role killed his predecessor. He had been drafting a plan for a new sewer system which would drain downstream of London – a plan that parliament hastily approved during the height of the Great Stink.

By 1875, the new sewer works were completed, resulting in 1,800km of new street sewers, 132km of new main sewers, numerous pumping stations (cutting edge technology at the time) and the construction of the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea embankments.

Bazalgette’s work made life a lot less smelly for Londoners and, somewhat accidentally, put an end to the deadly cholera epidemics that kept plaguing the capital. The sewers he designed are still in use today.

The work was expensive and unglamorous yet necessary for life in London to be worth living. It may not generate the buzz of an electric car or the awesome scale of a wind farm but sometimes you have no choice but to fix the sewers.

Chemicals were punching holes in the ozone layer – so we banned them, quickly

Most of the Sun’s harmful radiation is blocked from reaching the Earth by ozone molecules, which are found mostly in the atmosphere’s ozone layer.

In 1976, it was discovered that ozone was being broken down by various manufactured chemicals, particularly those found in aerosol sprays and refrigerators. Holes were starting to form in the ozone layer, the biggest being found over the poles.

The Montreal Protocol – a treaty to phase out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals – was first signed in 1987 and has since become the most-signed treaty in UN history.

By the 2000s, the holes in the ozone layer had shrunk. The science was correct and the plan is working, though it will take another half-century or more for the ozone layer to return to pre-1980 levels

What is surprising to look back on from 2021 is how quickly governments responded to these findings and how many managed to cooperate. Today, we know that fossil fuels are causing potentially irreparable damage to the climate, yet people in power shuffle their feet, nervous to commit to the radical action required.

Leaded petrol was poisoning our brains – so we banned it, eventually

The story of leaded petrol is both a victory for public health and a warning of how powerful industries can guide science to their benefit while knowingly poisoning millions.

Lead has been known to be toxic since antiquity yet was used in everything from Roman aqueducts to Victorian pipes. By the 1920s, much of the world was banning lead paint and pipes, except in the United States, where the strength of the lead lobby meant such bans would not be seen for another 50 or so years.

As expected, there was an outcry from scientists and doctors when General Motors began using lead as a fuel additive. Their outcry was not heard. General Motors convinced authorities that leaded petrol was safe, despite multiple deaths in their plants and the inventor of leaded petrol himself suffering from lead poisoning.

The combined lobbying power of the lead and oil industries kept leaded petrol in supply until the turn of the century, when most developed nations banned it, though it continued to be sold elsewhere. It wasn’t until earlier this year that Algeria finally rid itself of the toxic fuel.

The leaded petrol ban came far too late. Millions of premature deaths cannot be undone and millions more are left with permanent cognitive damage as a result of lead poisoning. Lead pollution from leaded petrol is still present in London’s air and soil today and we don’t know how to get rid of it yet.

Fossil fuels and intensive farming are apocalyptically altering our climate – so what will we do?

We hope – whatever action is decided during the COP26 conference – that we will see Victorian-scale public works to transform this country and international cooperation as efficient as the ban on ozone-depleting chemicals.

What we don’t want is another leaded petrol. Governments dragged their heels on banning a known toxic substance and millions died. If the response to climate change is as slow, we may not have another chance at success.

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