This December, climate negotiators will meet in Paris to finalize a United Nations agreement intended to create a new framework for addressing global warming. Government officials from France and Germany have already voiced their intention to push for binding emissions cuts in the accord, a goal that other European Union officials have publicly supported. Many environmental NGOs and businesses have also pressed for the incorporation of targets to keep global temperature increases below 2°C to avoid the worst environmental impact of climate change.

Despite the strong statements, however, expectations that the Paris talks could end with a legally binding treaty have waned since the Bonn preparatory meeting in June, which dispersed without making much headway toward a viable draft. And even if an agreement is reached, it’s unclear whether U.S. President Barack Obama could get it ratified in Congress. All in all, such failures could call the entire UN negotiating system into question.

A couple looks at the temple of Parthenon in Athens, July 27, 2004. Parts of the west frieze of the Parthenon, built in 442 BC, were taken down and given a new home in the Acropolis museum. The undertaking was one of the most important for archaeologists,
A couple looks at the temple of Parthenon in Athens, July 27, 2004. Parts of the west frieze of the Parthenon, built in 442 BC, were taken down and given a new home in the Acropolis museum. The undertaking was one of the most important for archaeologists, who, over the years, have transferred parts of the ancient monument to the museum to protect them from damage by acid rain.
John Kolesidis / Reuters
And yet, a puzzle hangs over the proceedings: Why, after all this time, is the international community still unable to reach an agreement on how to address climate change? More than two decades have passed since the United Nations formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with little political progress made since then. Some point to the divergent goals of industrialized countries and the emerging economies. Others blame continued resistance from U.S. energy companies or the free market ideologies of conservative officials in the U.S. government. Another reason, some argue, is the sheer magnitude of the task ahead, which will likely require a considerable alteration in the world’s energy infrastructure. There’s also the deeper issue of whether societies can find the political willpower to act on a threat that will come to pass decades into the future.

Each of these factors has undoubtedly played a role. But they are not unique to climate change. Similar challenges faced Cold War diplomats seeking to address another largely forgotten international pollution issue of the twentieth century: acid rain. Although there are important differences between the two problems, there are also commonalities. Both implicate fossil fuel pollution in damaging the environment on a regional or global scale. Both involved the use of new and potentially costly technologies to reduce the offending pollutants. And both pose challenging questions about how to weigh scientific evidence and future risk against the more easily calculated economic costs and technological hurdles required to solve the problem.

The most powerful message from the acid rain talks is that, for any hope of success, addressing environmental issues must be linked with larger foreign policy objectives.
Yet governments were ultimately able to reach an agreement on cutting fossil fuel emissions by progressively larger amounts following the 1979 United Nations Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. Signed by Canada, the United States, 29 European nations, and the European Communities (the precursor to the modern European Union), the treaty initially committed signatories to continue negotiating on acid rain. During the 1980s, the 1979 Convention was amended twice to include specific reduction targets for sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides, the two classes of pollutants largely responsible for acid rain. By the mid-1990s, signatories had committed to more than halving their combined sulfur dioxide emissions from 1980 levels and freezing emissions of nitrogen oxides at their 1987 levels. These treaties were certainly not magic bullets—several countries have still not met their commitments. But the majority have, and the agreements have clearly been important in setting the terms of international negotiations on air pollution. How we understand the reasons for success and the obstacles that stood in the way provides lessons for breaking the current diplomatic deadlock on climate change.

The most powerful message from the acid rain talks is that, for any hope of success, addressing environmental issues must be linked with larger foreign policy objectives. It was only because the acid rain negotiations were so deeply embedded in the Cold War détente negotiations and European integration efforts that they led to real agreements. New scientific findings and technological breakthroughs in pollution control were necessary, but not sufficient, drivers of political momentum.


Identifying the precise historical moment at which scientists reach consensus on any given environmental problem is not an easy task. Scientists constantly refine and improve their understanding of pollution and its impact. The case of acid rain is no exception. Since its discovery in the late 1960s, scientists have gotten much better at pointing to particular industrial areas causing the problem, explaining the complex atmospheric chemical reactions involved in creating acidic precipitation, and teasing out the ecological damage produced by acid rain from that caused by other environmental stressors.

Although it is important to acknowledge such improvements, the general understanding of acid rain has not changed dramatically since the late 1970s. By the start of the negotiations for the 1979 Convention, scientists had demonstrated quite clearly that fossil fuel pollution could cross national boundaries and damage sensitive ecosystems. They specifically cited sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides as playing the biggest role in acid rain. Sulfur dioxide was predominantly a product of power plants; automobiles were the biggest culprit in nitrogen oxide emissions. Despite the scientific consensus among leading researchers throughout Europe and North America, government officials in the largest polluting countries were not convinced that they should compel pollution reductions. In fact, the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany actively tried to sabotage the treaty by claiming that the science of acid rain was still uncertain (sound familiar?).

Privately, many officials acknowledged that the scientists were right. They simply didn’t believe it was in their national interest to do anything about a problem that would have a far greater impact on other countries.
In recent years, leading environmental activists and scholars have argued that scientists need to do a better, more forceful job of communicating their findings to government officials and the general public in response to naysayers. They put the onus on scientists to combat doubt-mongering and admonish the media for not accurately conveying the state of scientific consensus.

However, the case of acid rain raises serious questions about whether this is the right approach. Many environmental scientists who worked on acid rain during the 1970s and 1980s were anything but shy in talking to government officials and the media about the importance of addressing the problem. Not only did many of these researchers make every effort to disseminate their work, they were also outspoken about the need for governments to reduce fossil fuel pollutants or risk significant ecological damage. Although their efforts were admirable and helped to exert pressure on industrial emitters, their arguments did not convince governments in major polluting nations to change their policies. Privately, many officials in these nations acknowledged that these scientists were right. They simply didn’t believe it was in their national interest to do anything about a problem that would have a far greater impact on other countries.


The hope that technological advances could eventually provide a cheap solution is not new to climate change. At the time that acid rain became a major issue on the international scene, the primary means for making significant cuts in power plants emissions were expensive devices known as smokestack scrubbers. These technologies trap polluting gases before they are released into the air, and a few were installed in new plants during the 1970s to evaluate their efficacy. Yet countries were going to need to install far more of them in preexisting stations in order to make a substantial cut in their pollution—an approach that was expected to cost a fortune. A 1977 editorial in Nature put the debate in sharp relief, calling acid rain “a million dollar problem with a billion dollar solution.”

Workers remove mine slag at an aluminum plant in Zibo, Shandong province December 6, 2008. China cut its emissions of water pollution and acid rain-causing sulphur dioxide in the first half of this year, state media said.

Many government officials in major polluting countries hoped that an inexpensive means to reduce power plant emissions could eventually be found if negotiations were stalled for long enough. In the meantime, economists were starting to wonder whether the Nature editorial had accurately portrayed the costs and benefits of combatting acid rain. By the early 1980s, Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief had persuasively shown that, in fact, the GDP cost of reducing acid rain pollution currently stood at one to two percent of GDP and the damage from pollution ranged between three and five percent of GDP. His calculations were widely disseminated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, but still proved unpersuasive in convincing many polluters to reduce their emissions.

The reality was that the costs and benefits of reducing pollution were not equally distributed. As with climate change, some countries had a lot more to gain environmentally while others had a lot more to lose economically. And so the years ticked past with little headway in finding cheaper pollution control options; industries were reluctant to invest in developing a technology before governments had signaled that they would actually regulate emissions. If no action was taken to combat acid rain, their pollution control devices might never be needed or used.

The acid rain case shows the problem with techno-optimism. To argue that the world needs to wait for energy technologies such as renewables to become less costly is to ignore the already very expensive consequences of the global energy infrastructure. It also belies the reality that technological breakthroughs frequently happen after government intervention, not before. Once governments signal to industry that they intend to regulate carbon emissions, investment in new technologies is likely to be forthcoming. Predicating an international agreement on knowing how we’ll lower our carbon emissions is putting the cart before the horse.


At key moments in negotiations for the original 1979 convention and its subsequent annexes, it was larger foreign policy concerns about decreasing Cold War tensions and increasing European unity that pushed major emitters to harmonize their environmental policies. During the initial discussions between the communist and capitalist blocs, the U.S. State Department exerted considerable pressure on the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany to agree to the 1979 Convention. U.S. diplomats believed that failure to negotiate an environmental treaty, which the Soviet Union supported, would seriously cripple the country’s efforts to seek agreements with the Soviet Union on nuclear armaments and human rights. At that time, negotiations to reduce environmental pollution were seen as far less contentious than discussions over the other two issues, and Washington hoped a treaty on acid rain could help build momentum to achieve the country’s other diplomatic objectives with the Soviet Union.

Unlike acid rain negotiations, which were part of larger talks about the Cold War and European integration, climate change diplomacy has been separated from other foreign policy objectives
Different foreign policy concerns subsequently influenced annexes to the 1979 Convention that required countries to reduce their pollution emissions. After West German scientists began to argue that acid rain could be affecting the country’s forests in the early 1980s, government officials there sought to harmonize emissions standards within the European Communities. Without such harmonization, many economic experts feared that industries in countries with lower environmental standards would have an unfair advantage, possibly creating trade distortions among member states. The British government under Margaret Thatcher, which had previously refused to reduce the country’s pollution to combat acid rain, eventually agreed to West German demands because of its desire to remain in the European Communities and strengthen the political and economic unity within Western Europe. The drive for European integration consequently played a considerable role in addressing acid rain.

The lessons for our current struggle with climate change are twofold. First, the world needs to stop debating whether there is enough scientific evidence about climate change and whether we’ve found the best technological solution before taking action. Further research may help refine some details, but it will not change the general consensus that continuing to burn fossil fuels will lead to a much warmer planet with dire environmental consequences. Meanwhile, as seen in the case of acid rain, technological breakthroughs and reduced economic costs are likely to come after governments signal that they will regulate greenhouse gases.

Second, it is time to put an end to the debates that have allowed governments and the public to avoid important and realistic conversations about how much environmental damage from climate change we’re willing to accept in order to continue our energy-intensive lifestyles. The ethical implications of allowing a certain degree of warming are serious, since its impact will be felt much more severely by poor countries with the least ability to cope. Rather, the world should start intertwining negotiations on reducing greenhouse gases with other diplomatic efforts on matters of national security and trade.  

Specialists in economic development have long noted that efforts to reduce poverty around the world will be all the more difficult as global warming intensifies. Military analysts have also argued that climate change could have serious security implications by further destabilizing volatile regions in the Middle East and Africa. Unlike acid rain negotiations, which were part of larger talks about the Cold War and European integration, climate change diplomacy has been separated from other foreign policy objectives. If diplomats pay attention to these lessons from acid rain during the Paris talks this December and in the years to come, we will have a much greater chance of seeing substantive international action on climate change.

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