Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney will deliver one of the four eulogies for President George H. W. Bush at his state funeral Wednesday.
This is fitting, and not only because the two men were close friends. Mulroney and Bush were joint architects of one of the most important environmental achievements of the past three decades: the great reduction of acid rain.
In the late 1980s, lakes and waterways across the northeastern United States and Canada were doused in rain laden with sulfuric acid. Acidic water killed trees, threatened wildlife.
The New York Times reported in 1988:
Over a quarter of the lakes and ponds in the Adirondack Mountains are so acidic that the vast majority of them can no longer support fish, a three-year study by New York’s state environmental agency has found. An additional one-fifth of the lakes in the region are so acidic they are considered “endangered,” according to the study.
Addressing a joint session of Congress earlier that year, Mulroney tallied the damage to Canadian waterways:
You are aware of Canada’s grave concerns on acid rain. In Canada, acid rain has already killed nearly 15,000 lakes, another 150,000 are being damaged and a further 150,000 are threatened. Many salmon-bearing rivers in Nova Scotia no longer support the species. Prime agricultural land and important sections of our majestic forests are receiving excessive amounts of acid rain.
The culprit: sulfur-rich coal. Coal-fired electricity generators in both the United States and Canada emitted vast quantities of sulfur dioxide. The gas rose into the atmosphere, reacting with oxygen, water vapor, and other pollutants—especially nitrogen oxides—to seed the clouds over North America with sulfuric and nitrous acids. When those clouds released their rain, the water carried the acid back to the rivers and lakes on the surface of the Earth.