The Future of Life Award 2021

Celebrating the contributions of Joseph Farman (left), Susan Solomon (center) and Stephen Andersen (right) for helping save our ozone layer.

On 16 September 1987, humanity took its first step towards saving the ozone layer, and thereby avoiding a climate catastrophe, by signing the Montreal Protocol. The 2021 Future of Life Award goes to Stephen Andersen, Susan Solomon, and the late Joseph Farman for their critical contributions to the most successful international environmental treaty to date. Dr. Jim Hansen, former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Director of Columbia University’s Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions said, “In Farman, Solomon and Andersen we see the tremendous impact individuals can have not only on the course of human history, but on the course of our planet’s history. My hope is that others like them will emerge in today’s battle against climate change.” In addition to preventing millions of excess skin cancer deaths, ecosystem collapse and climate change, this treaty showed that international collaboration can overcome environmental challenges without sacrificing economic prosperity. As Professor Brian Greene of Columbia University said, “the 2021 Future of Life award winners show how science can work for the betterment of humanity”.

High above our clouds, Earth’s ozone layer protects us from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. In 1985, Joseph Farman and his team from the British Antarctic Survey made the most important geophysical discovery of the 20th century: an ozone hole above Antarctica. This provided a stunning confirmation of the Rowland-Molina hypothesis that human-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer, and much faster than predicted, which galvanized efforts to do something about it.

In 1986-87, Susan Solomon led an Antarctic ozone research expedition. Her work confirmed that CFCs were causing ozone depletion and determined that sunlit cloudtops were catalysing additional ozone-destroying reactions, thereby speeding up the rate of depletion. In the years that followed, both Farman and Solomon became effective public advocates for the development of the Montreal Protocol that their scientific work inspired. Professor Guus Velders, a climate scientist at Utrecht University said, “Susan Solomon is a deserving recipient of the Future of Life Award. Susan not only explained the processes behind the formation of the ozone hole, she also played an active role as an interface between the science and policy of the Montreal Protocol.” MIT President L. Rafael Reif added: “All of us at MIT congratulate Susan Solomon on her Future of Life Award, in recognition of all she did to save the ozone layer – and thereby save civilization as we know it. Her pioneering research and advocacy for the Montreal Protocol stand as a model for how the world can face hard facts and collaborate creatively to tackle the global climate crisis.”

With the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, the hard work of phasing CFCs out of 240 industrial sectors began. Working at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Stephen Andersen founded and from 1988 to 2012 co-chaired the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel (TEAP) for the Montreal Protocol. Andersen’s tireless efforts brought together leaders from industry, government and the scientific community to develop new, CFC-free technologies.  His efforts played a critical role in making the Montreal Protocol a success. Professor Ted Parson from the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment said, “For over a decade, Andersen brilliantly led the Montreal Protocol’s Technology and Economic Assessment Panel process. Andersen made the Montreal Protocol happen.” Emphasizing the importance of the Montreal Protocol, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees added, “In the face of threats to humanity’s future, we need to be think globally, rationally and long-term, empowered by technology. The story and success of the Montreal Protocol shows us that this is possible.”

Our thanks go out to Jenny Kjellgren and Justin Ihlein for nominating our winners!

Videos on the award

In this special episode of the Future of Life Institute Podcast, Lucas Perry is joined by Susan Solomon and Stephen Andersen to discuss the story of the Montreal Protocol and their roles in pulling us back from the brink of disaster.

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Future of Life Award, FLI collaborated with popular Youtube channel MinuteEarth to produce a video drawing together lessons from the stories of the Montreal Protocol, the focus of this year’s award, and the eradication of smallpox, the focus of last year’s award, for managing global catastrophic threats — from ecological devastation to the spread of pandemics and beyond.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and co-host Chuck Nice interviewed Susan Solomon and Stephen Andersen on the podcast StarTalk, where they explored a suite of fascinating questions: How do you save the world? What is the Montreal Protocol? How did the ozone layer get depleted? What is a Chlorofluorocarbon or CFC? How do you convince people to get rid of what they have if you don’t have something for them to replace it with? How do we create a sustainable civilization? What lessons can we learn to apply to the ongoing climate crisis?

In the media

History of the Award

The Future of Life Award is a $50,000 prize given to an individual who, without receiving much recognition at the time, has helped make today dramatically better than it may otherwise have been. We are confident that there are many unsung heroes out there, who have done incredible work to ensure a beneficial future of life on Earth. We need your help to ensure they get the recognition and honor they deserve.

Dr. William Foege and Dr. Viktor Zhranov made critical contributions to the eradication of a virus that killed 30% of those it infected: Smallpox.  It was the first time in human history that we completely eliminated a human disease. This has saved over 200 million lives – and counting – since 1979.

Their 2020 Future of Life Award was covered in Axios.

2019 Winner

Matthew Meselson

Dr. Meselson was a driving force behind the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, an international ban that has prevented one of the most inhumane forms of warfare known to humanity. April 9th marked the eve of the Convention’s anniversary. Meselson’s long career is studded with highlights: proving Watson and Crick’s hypothesis on DNA structure, solving the Sverdlovsk Anthrax mystery, ending the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But it is above all his work on biological weapons that makes him an international hero.

The 2019 Future of Life Award to Dr. Matthew Meselson was covered in Vox, and you can see a video about Meselson’s life below.

2018 Winner

Stanislav Petrov

One of the closest calls occurred thirty-five years ago, on September 26, 1983, when Stanislav Petrov chose to ignore the Soviet early-warning detection system that had erroneously indicated five incoming American nuclear missiles. With his decision to ignore algorithms and instead follow his gut instinct, Petrov helped prevent an all-out US-Russian nuclear war, as detailed in the documentary film “The Man Who Saved the World”.

The 2018 Future of Life Award to Stanislav Petrov was covered in VoxDaily Mail, and The Daily Star.

2017 Winner

Vasili Arkhipov

Vasili Arkhipov single-handedly prevented nuclear war during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Arkhipov’s submarine captain, thinking their sub was under attack by American forces, wanted to launch a nuclear weapon at the ships above. Arkhipov, with the power of veto, said no, thus averting nuclear war.

The 2017 Future of Life Award to Vasili Arkhipov was covered in The TimesThe GuardianThe Independent, and The Atlantic.