Acid Rain Treaty marked a Canada/US milestone

U.S. President George H.W. Bush, second from left, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, second from right, sign the Acid Rain Treaty on March 13, 1991. Courtesy the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney and Library and Archives Canada

KINGSTON, Ontario, Canada — Kingston’s John Smol says that an event in Ottawa that occurred 30 years ago today is definitely worth remembering.

“We have so few success stories in the environment,” Smol, the Distinguished University Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen’s University, says, “we should celebrate the few that we have.”

He is speaking of the Canada/U.S. Acid Rain Treaty signed by two conservative leaders, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President George H.W. Bush of the United States, on Parliament Hill on March 13, 1991.

With the joint 1991 commitment by Bush and Mulroney that bound the two nations to drastically reduce emissions that caused acid rain, history changed.

For the better.

“It was a very important and timely piece of legislation,” Smol says. “It recognized a transboundary atmospheric pollutant — not just between cities or provinces but countries. It brought in significant legislation (and just in time, in my view). It showed two governments can come together and make important environmental legislation.”

Reached at home, Mulroney (full disclosure; I worked as his memoirs research assistant), named Canada’s greenest prime minister by leading Canadian environmental groups in 2006, looks back with pride on his work on the acid rain treaty with America.

“The first issue I raised with Ronald Reagan [during a meeting in Washington in June 1984, while Mulroney was leader of the Opposition] and the last issue I raised with President Reagan [in 1988 as prime minister] was acid rain,” Mulroney says. “And the first issue I raised with President Bush [the elder] in 1989 was acid rain. And the last issue I raised with him ahead of the treaty signing was acid rain.”

“In the … years since the signing of the Acid Rain Treaty, few things have given me more satisfaction,” Mulroney recalled in a speech delivered in Ottawa in 2012.

“We resolved an issue and solved the problem in the very best traditions of excellence in relations between Canada and the United States. Today’s young people are the inheritors of a bountiful land, whose pristine beauty and resources have been preserved and enhanced by our action on acid rain. Today — many years later — that fact gives me enormous personal satisfaction.”

Mulroney even once took his case directly to the American people via the U.S. Congress in 1988. This was a gutsy move, particularly when you consider that some of the harshest critics of any deal between Canada and the United States were in the audience before him.

And these same critics also would be the ones whom Mulroney and Canada needed in Washington to advance other bilateral priorities on behalf of the Canadians.

Regardless, the 18th prime minister forged ahead, targeting acid rain.

“What would be said of a generation of North Americans that found a way to explore the stars but allowed its lakes and forests to languish and die?” he famously asked American legislators during that historic address to their Congress.

As for Bush, who died in 2018, he foresaw the success of the treaty during his remarks on Parliament Hill at the signing ceremony in 1991.

“[Members of the Mulroney government] were on us like an ape,” Bush said. “The fact that Canada and the U.S. were able so quickly to craft a wide-raging and effective agreement on such a complex subject says a lot about the extraordinary relations of our two countries. … And I think we’re doing something good and sound and decent today.”

From his home this month, Mulroney, who delivered one of the eulogies at Bush’s state funeral in 2018 at the invitation of the Bush family, gives much of the credit to his fallen friend.

“I think that George Bush was the hero in all of this,” he said, recalling that the 41st U.S. president signed the deal with Canada despite strong opposition from members of his own administration.

Back in Kingston, Professor Smol says Bush and Mulroney drastically cut the emissions from both countries that caused acid rain, and they did so just in time.

“Lakes were already seriously affected as were other ecosystems — and, of course, affecting infrastructure,” he said. “And perhaps of most interest to people: direct issues of human health. Once systems pass a certain threshold, it is very difficult or impossible to come back.”

The Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement is indeed an environmental success story both Canadians and Americans can and should recall with pride.

As both nations grapple with the challenges of effectively combatting climate change in North America and the world in 2021, it is also an agreement worth studying.

Unlike so much of what we hear out of Ottawa and Washington about the environment today, the Canada/U.S. acid rain agreement of 1991 was about more than words.

It actually mattered.

Arthur Milnes of Kingston, the in-house historian at the Frontenac Club Hotel, has edited or co-edited 12 books examining the lives and legacies of Canadian prime ministers and American presidents, the latter in the Canadian context.

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