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Sour Diplomacy: Acid Rain and Canadian – U.S. Relations in the 1980s

Sat, April 13, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Union D


The protesters could be easily heard over Ronald Reagan’s opening remarks. Reagan had arrived in Ottawa that morning in March 1981 for what he likely imagined would be a warm reception in his first trip abroad as president. But on the lawn of the Canadian Parliament, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was pleading for civility to no avail – the swelling crowd of several thousand soon burned an American flag. What provoked such animosity from the United States’ ordinarily friendly neighbor? Sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, lofted up into the atmosphere by American industry, were drifting over the border on the prevailing winds to precipitate into and poison Canadian lakes and streams. The protesters’ chant put it simply, “Acid rain, go home.”

Over the next decade, acid rain became a central and remarkably disruptive factor in relations between the two countries. Pursuing a deregulatory agenda, Reagan pivoted between denying the severity of the problem and pursuing impractical technological solutions like liming acidified lakes. Pushing back against such recalcitrance, environmental advocates in the United States and Canada made acid rain arguably the most important environmental issue of the decade. When George H.W. Bush came to distinguish himself from his predecessor’s environmental record during his own presidential run in 1988, he chose acid rain as his major issue and spearheaded legislation to fix the problem after he was elected.

Focusing on acid rain in the context of U.S. and Canadian relations, this paper takes a transnational approach to the history of acid rain research, activism, and policymaking in the 1980s. In an increasingly acerbic diplomatic context, environmental advocates used existing and new networks to exchange evidence and political strategies. The success of those advocates in following pollutants across borders would come to serve as an inspiring if uncertain model for confronting climate change.