The parallels between the two environmental frenzies are many, but the stakes are much higher now.
A majority of scientists might say a scientific theory is true, but that doesn’t mean the consensus is reliable. The science underpinning environmental claims can be fundamentally wrong—as it was in one of the biggest environmental scares in recent decades.
The acid-rain alarm of the 1970s and ’80s was a dry run for the current panic about climate change. Both began in Sweden as part of a war on coal meant to bolster support for nuclear power. In 1971 meteorologist Bert Bolin wrote the Swedish government’s report on acid rain to the United Nations. Seventeen years later he became the first chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
There are many parallels between acid rain and global warming. Each phenomenon produced a U.N. convention—the 1979 Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution in the case of acid rain, and the 1988 Framework Convention on Climate Change. And each convention led to a new protocol—the 1985 Helsinki Protocol and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Public alarm surrounding acid rain was far more intense, especially in Germany, where popular reaction to media stories about acid rain reached a pitch of hysteria not yet seen with global warming. A 1981 Der Speigel cover story featured an image of smokestacks looming over a copse of trees with the title “The Forest Is Dying.”
The most striking parallels are the role of scientific consensus in underpinning environmental alarm and the way science is used to justify cuts in emissions. The emission of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere “has proved to be a major environmental problem,” Bolin wrote in his 1971 report. National scientific academies across North America and Europe were in complete agreement. “We have a much more complete knowledge of the causes and consequences of acid deposition than we have for other pollutants,” a report by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council said in 1981. According to the NRC, the circumstantial evidence was “overwhelming.” Many thousands of lakes had been affected, rivers were losing salmon, fisheries in the Adirondacks were in a bad way, red spruce were dying, and production from Canadian sugar maple trees had been affected. Acid rain was a scientific slam dunk.
Politicians duly parroted what the scientists told them. “Acid rain has caused serious environmental damage in many parts of the world,” President Jimmy Carter wrote in his 1979 environmental message to Congress. He signed an agreement with Canada to establish five acid-rain working groups, and Congress set up a 10-year National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, which went by the catchy acronym Napap.
To Canadian anger, President Ronald Reagan was more skeptical than his predecessor. The head of Canada’s Federal Assessment and Review Office accused Mr. Reagan of “blatant efforts to manipulate” the science being done by the working groups. A formal note of protest from Ottawa pointed to the more than 3,000 scientific studies on acid rain yielding “sufficient scientific evidence” for policies to cut emissions.
Vice President George Bush promised Canada that if elected president, he would act on the problem. But as acid-rain cap-and-trade legislation was making its way through Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency encountered a major problem. Napap’s draft report concluded that the science was wrong. Yes, power-station emissions make rain more acidic—rain is naturally acidic, and more so during thunderstorms—but changes to ecosystems, the report said, were mainly caused by changes in land use. The felling of trees and the burning of stumps in the Adirondacks had reduced the acidity of the forest floor. After conservationists put a stop to it, the soil gradually returned to its previous acidity.
Rather than admit it had the science wrong, the EPA set about suppressing the inconvenient findings. The Napap report was delayed until after key provisions of cap-and-trade legislation had been agreed to in Congress. As outlined in a 1992 article in Reason, the EPA then waged a dirty-tricks campaign to discredit Edward C. Krug, a soil expert and the leading dissident Napap scientist. It assembled a group of compliant scientists to conduct a sham peer review and conclude that Mr. Krug was a bad scientist. The episode ended with an assistant administrator of the EPA, William Rosenberg, apologizing to Mr. Krug to avoid a threatened libel action.
To this day, the zombie science of acid rain lives on at the EPA’s website, which falsely states that acidification of soil, streams and lakes is caused by emissions from power stations. The EPA reckons the annual cost of anti-acid-rain measures in the U.S. will reach $65 billion in 2020, but it no longer claims that the money will prevent ecosystem damage. Now it just claims to be improving public health.
In its approach to the science of global warming, the EPA under current Administrator Scott Pruitt couldn’t offer a greater contrast with the acid-rain coverup perpetrated by the EPA during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Instead of attacking dissident scientists, Mr. Pruitt’s proposal to hold red-team/blue-team appraisals would put dissenters on the same footing as consensus-supporting scientists. This will enable proper debate between both camps to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the scientific consensus on global warming.