Anatomy Of An Environmental Scare

I've been reading a new book, "Green Tyranny," just out from Encounter Books, written by a Brit named Rupert Darwall.  The overriding theme is that the project to transform society by doing away with fossil fuels is fundamentally inconsistent with the basic American ideals of freedom and democracy.  As Darwall puts it (p. 263-64):

[T]he United States is the biggest political obstacle to transforming society through deep decarbonization.  America is different from every other nation, something many non-Americans admire and many others deeply resent. . . .  Such a transformation and the means to achieve it are not compatible with the idea of freedom for which Americans declared themselves independent in 1776. . . .  

The book is filled with one instance after another of leaders of the decarbonization movement appearing to be far more concerned with imposing authoritarianism on society than with any meaningful goal having to do with protecting the environment.  I could choose any of several of Darwall's examples to illustrate the point, but for today, I'll pick just one -- the so-called "acid rain" scare of the 1970s to 90s.  

Have you even heard of the "acid rain" scare?  By the mid-1990s it had almost entirely dissipated, so it's likely to mean nothing to you if you are under 30.  But in the 1980s it was big -- far bigger at the time than the global warming scare, that was then just getting under way.  The idea was that burning coal and other fossil fuels in power plants to generate electricity put chemicals into the atmosphere (e.g., sulfur dioxide) that then caused the rain to turn acidic.  If allowed to continue, the acid rain would kill off the forests, wipe out the fish in lakes, destroy ecosystems, and more generally render the earth uninhabitable.  This was indeed a planetary crisis.  The proposed solution?  Eliminate fossil fuels!

Among many activist groups pushing acid rain hysteria at the time, Darwall focuses on a 1981 Report put out by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.  (You will recognize the NAS as a big player in pushing the global warming scare today.)  The Report was titled "Atmosphere-Biosphere Interactions: Toward a Better Understanding of the Ecological Consequences of Fossil Fuel Combustion."  It asserted great scientific certainty as to the imminent ecological crisis to be caused by the acid rain.  Excerpt:

"Perhaps the first well-demonstrated widespread effect of burning fossil fuel is the destruction of soft-water ecosystems by 'acid rain.' . . .  Owing to the concentrated efforts of scientists in the Northern Hemisphere, most notably in Scandinavia during the past decade, we have a much more complete knowledge of the causes and consequences of acid deposition than we have for other pollutants. . . ."  Long-term [acidic] precipitation "is likely to accelerate natural processes of soil leaching that lead to impoverishment in plant nutrients.  When freshwater effects are considered, the positive effects are greatly outweighed by the negative."

Obviously then, government directives to the populace to decrease the use of fossil fuels would be imperative to save the planet!  From the Report:

Strong measures are necessary if we are to prevent further degradation of natural ecosystems, which together support life on this planet. . . .  In the long run, only decreased reliance on fussil fuel or improved control of a wide spectrum of pollutants can reduce the risk that our descendants will suffer food shortages, impaired health, and a damaged environment.        

As you undoubtedly know, governmental restrictions on the use of fossil fuels did not start at all in the 1980s, and only barely got under way with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.  Surely, then, the acid-rain-induced ecological catastrophe must have been upon us by the mid-1990s?  Actually not.  Not only did the evidence of catastrophe fail to emerge as predicted, but in addition the government funded a big study called NAPAP (National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program) to the tune of some $570 million (!).  NAPAP released an interim Report in 1987, and a final version in 1991.  Some of the conclusions of the NAPAP Reports (in Darwall's paraphrase except the part in quotes):

[T]he effects of acid rain were neither widespread nor serious and less than had been anticipated ten years before.  There was sufficient uncertainty to preclude determination of the need for, or the nature of, abatement strategies such as emissions reductions. . . .  "The vast majority of forests in the United States and Canada are not affected by [acid-rain-induced] decline."

So what happened to the people who had demanded a transformation of the economy and a vast loss of freedom in order to avert the coming ecological catastrophe?  Did they lose their reputations and jobs, and become subject to ridicule and scorn?  Of course not!  Instead, the whole acid rain thing just faded away as if it had never happened:

The world had moved on. . . .  Acid rain had not been "solved."  It faded away. . . .  Scientists claimed trees were being damaged and forests would die.  The evidence showed that they weren't. . . .  At no point did any environmental regulator or any of their political masters acknowledge that the scientific basis for policies against acid rain had gone.  

Indeed, Darwall states that as of the time of his writing the book, EPA's website still falsely proclaimed that "acid rain is a serious environmental problem that affects large parts of the United States and Canada."  (That line appears to have been removed in the recent re-write of EPA's website by the Trump administration.)

Many of the parallels between the acid rain scare and current global warming hysteria are obvious, and come in for extensive discussion in Darwall's book.  But he also insightfully draws the following distinction:  the promoters of forced decarbonization were not again going to make the mistake of having fulfillment of their goal turn on a hypothesis that was falsifiable "in the present tense."  For the next round, the prognostication of planetary disaster would be a good 100 years out.  But don't worry, the certainty of the prediction of disaster is expressed completely without qualification or doubt.  As it was with the acid rain scare.