Douglas Varchol: Secret of keeping ‘perfectly cool’ in a warming world…

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009


With his wild hair and trendy suits, Douglas J Varchol can pass for a rock star. He is actually an accomplished independent film-maker, currently operating out of Bangkok, Thailand, covering a variety of science and environmental stories in Asia.

Last week, he participated in the Ozone Media Roundtable that TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP organised in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After showing his latest documentary film on ozone, titled Earth Report: Perfectly Cool, which was first broadcast on BBC World News in September 2009, he talked about his experience in making the film.

Perfectly Cool is a 22 minute film looking at the challenges faced in trying to phase out a chemical called Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs for short), a coolant gas used in air conditioners across the developing world. As chemicals go, it’s a double hazard: this ozone depleting substance also contributes to climate change by acting as a greenhouse gas.

But non-specialist viewers watch broadcast television for good stories, not science lessons. The challenge for journalists and film makers is to ‘sugarcoat’ the technicalities by wrapping it up in human interest stories. Douglas recalled how he did this: combining imagination, hard work and luck.

First, here’s the official synopsis of the film which sums up the story:
Air conditioners are damaging the environment. One widely used coolant gas, HCFC, damages the ozone layer. With booming sales of domestic ACs around the world, the problem has grown in recent years, despite vigorous international efforts to reduce ozone depleting chemicals. Under the international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol, HCFC will be phased out worldwide by 2030. An ozone-friendly replacement gas – HFC – is now used in Europe, but that gas is a potent greenhouse gas — which means it contributes to global warming. However, an answer may be at hand. Earth Report travels to China, centre of the global AC industry, to investigate the cost of cool and meets the industry representatives working on a solution – and Sa DingDing, a musician with extreme views on air conditioners.

Watch the first 4 mins of Earth Report – Perfectly Cool

Humanising science stories is hard enough, and when the subject is something people can’t see or feel, it becomes harder. As I wrote a few days ago, the Ozone Layer – located between 10 and 50 kilometres above the Earth, and invisible to the naked eye – is not something tangible like cuddly animals or endangered plants. Moving ordinary people to care for something they can’t see or touch is tough, even if all life on Earth depends critically on it (the Ozone Layer absorbs most of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet days).

Douglas had his work cut out for him. Throw into this mix the fact that the editorially independent film was being made pooling funds from six development agencies – each with their own agenda – and that the story was filmed in China where filming permission still involve a lot of paperwork, it’s a small miracle Perfectly Cool was completed. And as we saw, Douglas tells a good story without compromising accuracy or balance.

So did he keep perfectly cool during the making of this film, I asked. He revealed that there were moments of panic and despair, although in the end everything fell into place. While the editors at BBC World were satisfied with the film, some technical specialists consulted for the script had felt it was over-simplified.

Ah, I do know that feeling! When I made a film on ozone in 2006 (Return of the Ozone Layer: Are We There Yet?) it took us 18 months to finish, and went through endless revisions. The UN system seems to just love making films by committee…

With his film, Douglas faced additional hurdles. For example, he takes us inside the Gree company‘s factory producing air conditioners. In 2004, Gree became the largest AC manufacturer in the world, but they had never before allowed television cameras inside their plant. That took lots of time and effort to set up.

Sometimes, things not going according to plans actually helps. When on location, Douglas serendipitously came across elements that were not in the original story treatment but enhanced the human interest: for example, a modern day wedding where the new couple gifted reusable chop sticks to all their guests. That was good environmental conduct – but then they headed off to choose air conditioners for their new apartment…

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas paid a tribute to his Chinese researcher Lihong Shi and crew, without whose local knowledge and contacts he couldn’t have made the film.

In the end, Douglas pulls it off. Despite its seemingly esoteric and complex subject, Perfectly Cool is perfectly watchable — and not just for science buffs like myself.

Douglas, who once worked with Wired Science making science programmes for American PBS, said he set out to make a film on HCFCs that even his mom (a high school teacher) could understand. I can’t speak for her, but those of us who watched it in Chiang Mai were enthralled.

Why don’t the greenhouse gases escape through the Ozone Hole?

Can we blame him for the confusion?

Can we blame him for the confusion?

Don’t laugh. The perception of the TV viewer in this cartoon (which first appeared a couple of years ago in the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, United States) is more common that you’d think. In recent years, as climate change rose up in the media’s news agenda and the public’s list of concerns, I have met a number of people – from across educational and cultural spectra – who harbour similar confusion about the two issues.

I showed this cartoon, and referred to the wide-spread confusion, in my opening remarks to the Ozone Media Roundtable, an event to engage Asian media professionals on the nexus between ozone depletion and climate change. The meeting, held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on 8 – 9 October 2009, was organised jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and TVE Asia Pacific for invited senior journalists and broadcasters from the Asia Pacific region.

Ozone layer depletion and climate change are linked in a number of ways, but ozone depletion is not a direct or major cause of climate change.

In fact, the relationship between ozone and climate is both complex and nuanced, which has prompted some experts to call it a ‘Tango in the Atmosphere’. Ozone affects climate, and climate affects ozone. The authoritative UNEP GRID Arendal website says: “Ozone depletion and climate change are two distinct problems but as they both modify global cycles, they cannot be totally separated. There are still many uncertainties concerning the relations between the two processes.”

Read more about this at the Ozone Hole website.

Since the late 1980s, Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer has successfully phased-out 97 per cent of 100 chemicals that damage the protective shield that filters out harmful ultra violet rays to the Earth.

In recent years, research has outlined that global efforts to protect the ozone layer has also delivered climate benefits as many of the chemicals that damage the ozone layer – such as chloroflurocarbons or CFCs – also cause global warming.

In 2007 a scientific paper calculated the climate mitigation benefits of the ozone treaty as totalling an equivalent of 135 billion tonnes of C02 since 1990 or a delay in global warming of seven to 12 years. That same year countries meeting in Canada, under the Montreal Protocol, agreed to an accelerated freeze and phase-out of Hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs)—chemicals designed to replace the old, more ozone-damaging CFCs – in the main for the climate benefits.

Ozone: Once and Future Story? A tale of two images…

A tale of two iconic images...

A tale of two iconic images...


I am in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, conducting the Ozone Media Roundtable, a high level event to engage Asian media professionals on the nexus between ozone depletion and climate change. The meeting, held on 8 – 9 October 2009, is organised jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and TVE Asia Pacific for invited senior journalists and broadcasters from the Asia Pacific region.

The past 22 years of implementing the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987, hold many relevant lessons and experiences for countries currently trying to negotiate a new multilateral environmental arrangement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN-FCCC. These insights could be particularly helpful for the inter-governmental negotiations leading to, and during, the 15th conference of parties (COP15) of UN-FCCC in Copenhagen in December 2009.

TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP convened the roundtable meeting in Chiang Mai to explore the ozone/climate nexus from a communications perspective. We brought together a small group of senior journalists and broadcasters who have been covering ozone and/or climate issues. We also invited a few ozone and climate technical experts to discuss the close links between ozone layer protection and climate change mitigation.

I work with moving images, but I also know the power of still images — especially when they are highly symbolic. Looking for a good visual link between ozone depletion and climate change, I came up with two images of our planet, seen in different ways that represent the two global environmental challenges.

Largest ever Ozone hole, Sept 2000

Largest ever Ozone hole, Sept 2000

The first image is better known, and is a colour enhanced satellite image of the Ozone Hole that was discovered in 1985 by British scientists Joesph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. The ozone “hole” is really a reduction in concentrations of ozone high above the earth in the stratosphere. It is defined geographically as the area wherein the total ozone amount is less than 220 Dobson Units.

This discover was largely responsible for galvanising international attention and response to the threat of ozone depletion. After a series of inter-governmental meetings and negotiations, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was finally agreed upon on 16 September 1987 at the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal.

Temperature projection for Year 2100

Temperature projection for Year 2100

The second image is not as widely known, but represents an even greater environmental calamity that is currently unfolding: global warming and rapid changes in climate it has triggered. The image is a colour enhanced image of the Earth’s temperatures in 2100 AD (less than a century from now), as projected by the Earth Simulator — one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — which Japanese scientists use to project the climatic disasters in next 100 years.

The system was developed in 1997 for running global climate models to evaluate the effects of global warming and problems in solid earth geophysics. It has been able to run holistic simulations of global climate in both the atmosphere and the oceans — down to a resolution of 10 km.

Between these two images, we are looking at two of the biggest environmental challenges of our times. How the climate crisis can learn valuable lessons from the ozone crisis is what we discussed at the Ozone Media Roundtable.

More about the meeting’s outcome soon.