Next week’s scheduled arrival of a new administration in Washington promises a return to environmental sensitivity and protection.
The commitment is there, certainly. So too is the capability, proof of which can be found in the historical record. Consider one accomplishment in that record that foreshadows an even greater challenge that we face today.
That accomplishment is about the ending of acid rain.
In 1963 a scientist at the federal Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in northern New Hampshire collected a sample of rain that he found to be unusually acidic.
His discovery set in motion an initiative that over decades led to the recovery of lakes and forests, most of them in northern regions such as New England where I live.
The cause of the high acidity: excess amounts of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxides that had been delivered largely through rain. The clouds carrying that rain had been tainted by the emissions of upwind industrial facilities such as smelters and coal-burning utilities.
The evidence of damage was plain to see: crystal-clear lakes with declining populations of fish, and trees that had been so weakened that they couldn’t survive common periodic stressors such as insect infestations and drought.
And the problem was getting worse as coal-powered utilities fueled expanding economies.
Scientists who sourced the problem to power plants recommended that emissions be reduced. Environment-sensitive politicians pushed for a freeze on emissions and cutbacks that could cost polluters $5 billion.
A resistant President Ronald Reagan all but said that acid rain was a hoax. He refused to take part in an international effort to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide,
The Hudson Institute, a major conservative voice, insisted that evidence of acid rain damage to lakes and forests was circumstantial. In any case, it said, bird poop was a more likely source of the problem than smokestacks.
Dramatically, a 1986 column in Fortune Magazine carried the headline: “Hysteria about acid rain.”
Yet President Reagan ultimately came around, prodded in part by diplomatic concerns in Canada, a neighbor that was on the receiving end of acid rain’s contamination.
In just a few years – in 1990 – the Clean Air Act was amended and an Acid Rain Program was launched in Washington.
A public-private regulatory system was put in place in which companies that were producing excess emissions could either cut back their emissions or purchase allowances to keep on polluting.
The method relied on market dynamics and attention to the bottom line in that companies could both buy and sell the allowances.
The result over the course of the following years: emissions dropped, and acid rain largely went away, at costs that were less than what had. been expected. Water quality in lakes in the Northeast improved. Fish returned. Forests returned to health.
There are lessons in the acid rain experience that we can draw on today, principally that we can correct our ways. The lessons could be put to use immediately in the cause of addressing climate instability.
The new administration in Washington is clearly committed to that cause, starting with rejoining the international effort to address climate change. And in acid rain, it has a model for action that worked.