This morning, the New York Times celebrated the huge progress made on acid rain over the past 30 years.
In an editorial, the Times noted regulatory action taken since 1990 has led to reduced toxicity in Adirondack lakes and forests, and they have rebounded. It called for further action, preferably legislative, to improve on these gains.
It’s worth recalling what this hot button issue amongst eastern environmentalists was 30 to 40 years ago and drawing lessons from it for today.
Acid rain results from the sulfur dioxide particulates pumped into the atmosphere by power plants burning bituminous Appalachian coal. Merging with water vapor, the SO2 returns to earth as acid rain.
Or does it? Is acid rain ‘natural’? Is there enough hard evidence to regulate? Even if there is, do the benefits of the regulations outweigh their inevitable economic costs?
If those questions sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same ones asked by today’s climate sceptics. That’s the first lesson of the acid rain fight. The Times didn’t make that point.
The second lesson the Times’ editorial writers did make: the human will to change can affect semingly inevitable outcomes. No small number on both sides of the controversy saw trying to fix the problem as hopeless or pointless.
Third, another point the Times didn’t make: the byproducts of mining and burning coal don’t go away. Just because power plants scrub their emissions of some particulates, the wastes don’t go away – as the Tennessee fly-ash flood revealed.
Nonetheless, the Times’ conclusion is, as farmers said in my youth, ‘right as rain’: ‘The lesson of acid rain and the Adirondacks is that good legislation can deflect and even reverse an environmental disaster.’ But do we have the will to try to avert the catastrophe of global warming?