Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2017
A coal-fired power plant in Kentucky
Today’s the day the Trump Administration makes its bid to set the coal industry free, against all the basic research demonstrating that this will be terrible for both the climate and the health of the American people. It reminds me of a time, not so long ago, when wiser Republicans saw the value of basic research, and genuinely worked to make America a better country. I wrote what follows for the National Academy of Sciences, so its not a personal piece. But as I wrote, I was remembering that my daughter Clare had asthma all the time she was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. And as the the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 gradually came into effect, sharply reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants, Clare’s asthma went away. That’s an experience many other families have shared, without ever stopping to think that they owed their improving health to basic research by–of all people–economists.
by Richard Conniff/National Academy of Sciences
On the morning of June 13 1974, readers of The New York Times swirled their coffee and mulled the front-page headline, “Acid Rain Found Up Sharply in East.” A study in the journal Science was reporting that rainfall on the eastern seaboard and in Europe had become 100 to 1000 times more acidic than normal—even “in occasional extreme cases,” said the Times, “as acidic as pure lemon juice.” The analogy was a little misleading: Lemon juice is not nearly as corrosive as the nitric and sulfuric acids then raining down on the countryside. But it was enough to make acid rain a topic of anxious national debate.
Both the recognition of the problem and the eventual solution to it would be products of basic research, the one in physical science, the other in social science, neither directed at any narrow purpose. The journey from problem to solution would be tangled and difficult, across unmapped scientific and political territory, over the course of decades. Along the way, it would become apparent that acid rain was more serious than anyone suspected at first, threatening the health of tens of millions of Americans. The solution, when it came, would demonstrate the potential of basic research to be literally a lifesaver.
The authors of the Science study hadn’t set out to find acid rain. Their long-term project was aimed merely at understanding how forest ecosystems work, down to the chemical inputs and outputs. But the first rain sample they collected in the summer of 1963, at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, was already surprisingly acidic. By the early 1970s, after almost Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: acid rain, asthma, cap-and-trade, coal pollution, externalities, premature death | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on June 14, 2014
(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 Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Tagged: acid rain, cap-and-trade, Climate change | 1 Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on June 3, 2014
The “cap-and-trade” idea is back in the news. Here’s my article from the August 2009 issue of Smithsonian reminding everyone that this was originally a Republican innovation:
John B. Henry was hiking in Maine’s Acadia National Park one August in the 1980s when he first heard his friend C. Boyden Gray talk about cleaning up the environment by letting people buy and sell the right to pollute. Gray, a tall, lanky heir to a tobacco fortune, was then working as a lawyer in the Reagan White House, where environmental ideas were only slightly more popular than godless Communism. “I thought he was smoking dope,” recalls Henry, a Washington, D.C. entrepreneur. But if the system Gray had in mind now looks like a politically acceptable way to slow climate change—an approach being hotly debated in Congress—you could say that it got its start on the global stage on that hike up Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain.
People now call that system “cap-and-trade.” But back then the term of art was “emissions trading,” though some people called it “morally bankrupt” or even “a license to kill.” For a strange alliance of Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: cap-and-trade, carbon emissions, Climate change, Republicans | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Richard Conniff on October 17, 2008
MSN Money asked me to write a series of pieces about where the presidential candidates stand on major issues. Here’s the one about energy. Check out the MSN Money web site for video clips of the candidates and other pertinent add-ons.
Energy prices and policy are one of the most divisive issues out there, with middle class voters growing angrier and more frightened every time they fill up a gas tank or think about heating their homes this winter. Candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have both ramped up their rhetoric on energy issues as they struggle to set themselves apart. But both have also flip-flopped. So when it comes to energy, what do these guys really believe? Read the rest of this entry »
Posted in Environmental Issues | Tagged: Barack Obama, cap-and-trade, John McCain | Leave a Comment »