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A Republican Way to Fix Vast Environmental Problems

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 14, 2014

(Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

(Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

It’s not a term you hear much these days, but acid rain was one of the great environmental perils of the late 1980s. Back then, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide were raining down across the countryside, particularly in New York, New England, and the Canadian Maritime provinces. The problem was coming from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. It was causing lakes to become acidic, producing a cascade of effects that killed fish and wiped out aquatic plant populations. Acid rain was also destroying timber, peeling paint, corroding bridges, and turning stone statues to mush.

Why don’t we hear much about acid rain anymore?

There’s a hint of the answer in a study just out in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Every summer for the past 23 years, the coauthors have been sampling 74 lakes across New England and New York state, and they report that acid rain is rapidly retreating. Concentrations of sulfate compounds in rain and snow declined by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2010, while nitrate concentrations fell 50 percent. Levels of these pollutants in lakes fell correspondingly.

“This is really good news for New England,” coauthor William McDowell, at the University of New Hampshire, said in a statement. “Lakes are accelerating in their recovery from the past effects of acid rain. Our data clearly demonstrate that cleaning up air pollution continues to have the desired effect of improving water quality for our region’s lakes.”

Maybe because the coauthors are scientists, not politicians, they don’t get into the details of how that cleanup came about, and that’s a pity. What happened to acid rain in 1990 could become the most practical way to address the far larger problem of climate change—and in a politically polarized era, it has what ought to be the advantage of being a remedy with Republican roots.

Here’s how the acid rain cleanup happened: In the 1970s and ’80s, the environmental movement had largely focused on an abrasive strategy of command-and-control government regulation combined with “sue the bastards” litigation. Out of frustration with the slow pace of change, one group, the Environmental Defense Fund, began to flirt with the idea of letting the marketplace come up with its own solutions. Late in 1988, EDF president Fred Krupp pitched this approach to C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel for the new administration of President George H.W. Bush. Gray bit. (I told the full story in a 2009 issue of Smithsonian.) The resulting proposal to address acid rain was built largely on what was then called emissions trading and later became known as cap and trade.

The basic idea was to get around the infuriating business of having government bureaucrats tell polluters how to clean up their act. Instead, the government simply set a cap on the level of pollution and left the polluters to figure out how to fix the problem on their own. A power company started the year with an allowance to emit a certain amount of “NOx and SOx” within the cap. (Environmentalists who opposed the idea called this “a right to pollute.”) The company could invest in cleanup and then trade away its excess allowances. Or it could delay and just buy excess allowances from a cleaner company. But the cap moved a little lower each year, meaning the pool of allowances got smaller and more expensive, increasing the pressure to reduce pollution.

Cap and trade became the law on acid rain as part of the Clean Air Act of 1990. It passed the House with 324 votes and the Senate with 89. Utility companies complained loud and hard that it was going to cost them $25 billion a year. In fact, the tab now runs less than $2 billion annually. By cutting acid rain in half—even as electrical output increased—the cap-and-trade solution also generates benefits variously estimated at $59 billion to $116 billion a year, 95 percent of it accruing to humans in the form of avoided death and illness. Healthier lakes and forests are almost an incidental side effect.

Apart from the new study demonstrating once again that, yes, cap and trade works and that we can fix vast environmental problems cheaply and quickly, why is this worth talking about now?

The real appeal of cap and trade has always been its potential to address the much larger challenge of climate change. But when that idea came up in Congress in 2009, Republicans vehemently attacked their own ingenious innovation, denouncing it as “cap and tax” and sending it to defeat in the Senate after a hard-fought battle in the House.

In the face of continuing Republican intransigence on the issue, the Obama administration has done little or nothing to address climate change in the intervening years, even as scientific evidence and real-life experience with extreme weather have made the deadly consequences more apparent.

But cap and trade may yet get another chance. The Environmental Protection Agency last week announced regulations to cut power plant greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent, and one item back on the table is a cap-and-trade program.

Does the plan have a prayer? Much as critics like to demonize government—and environmental regulation in particular—the history of the acid rain problem is a reminder that government is simply the means by which we fix problems, protect one another, and improve our lives. If you happen to be vacationing in New England this summer—whether you are a Democrat or a Republican—pay attention to the cleaner air, the healthier lakes, and the greener forests. Nice, isn’t it? That’s your government at work.

Come back believing that together, we can face up to the much larger problems ahead.

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One Response to “A Republican Way to Fix Vast Environmental Problems”

  1. […] I don’t normally print press releases verbatim, but I just wrote on the role of Republicans in the fight to solve the acid problem.  That was back when the Republican Party still believed in […]

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