Twenty years ago, Brian Mulroney and George H.W. Bush signed the Acid Rain Accord. Since then, the landmark air quality agreement and its cap-and-trade program have reduced acid rain levels and SO2 emissions by a remarkable 40 per cent. It is a rare and remarkable example of a successful agreement of environmental policy between Canada and the United States.
National Green Party leader Elizabeth May, a senior federal government policy advisor and executive director of the Sierra Club at the time of the accord, spoke with the former prime minister to reflect on the breakthrough treaty. She and Brian Mulroney discussed challenging negotiations, the importance of Canadian leadership when confronting environmental issues with the U.S., and the lessons we should learn when planning effective climate change strategies going forward.
MAY: Can you recall the first time you heard the term “acid rain”? To me, it was a better way of communicating a problem than anything we’ve come up with to describe the climate crisis.
MULRONEY: I remember first hearing it around 1980, and I agree with you: the words acid rain conjure up, in a very graphic way, the reality of the problem–as opposed to air quality agreements, or even more benign descriptions. Acid rain was like a menace coming right at us, at our lakes, rivers and streams, and so people tended to get it right away.
MAY: Acid rain had been on the radar for the previous two governments, but it wasn’t until you were prime minister that it became the top bilateral issue for Canada when dealing with the United States. How did that happen?
MULRONEY: When I became leader of the party in 1983, I insisted that acid rain be placed on our agenda on a priority basis within the opposition study group system that I had implemented. In June 1984, when I went down to Washington as leader of the opposition for my first meeting with President Reagan, I raised the acid rain challenge with him in the oval office. I told him that if I were successful in the next election, I would be back to see him soon, and often, in regards to the ultimate resolution of this problem. So we made it a priority and we followed through.
MAY: DId you feel that you had an uphill battle in convincing Reagan to take this issue seriously?
MULRONEY: We certainly had an uphill job because, in the course of the negotiations of other things, I transformed the acid rain treaty into what I called the litmus test of our valued association. If we couldn’t make progress on that, then we were going to be in trouble. There was the time that [Reagan] sent Vice-President Bush to Ottawa to see me, and Bush famously told the media, “Boy, did I ever get an earful today from Prime Minister Mulroney.” And when I was invited to address the U.S. Congress, I got into the acid rain challenge at considerable length. The leading Democratic senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said he was really stunned by Prime Minister Mulroney’s description of the problem and the urgency he attached to it, and he stated that they had to respond in kind.
MAY: Canada’s complex federation is often cited as a reason we don’t make progress on environmental issues, because the mixed and shared jurisdiction gets in the way. But you achieved agreements with each of the eastern provinces and firm agreements through bilateral agreements. What were the elements of making that work?
MULRONEY: It was largely a regionally-based problem in eastern Canada, so I determined we could move to a different formula in terms of dealing with it. I felt that we should try bilateral negotiations and see how they went. We also heard early on in the process that the Americans who didn’t want progress were accusing Canadians of complaining too much, as if they themselves were not part of the acid rain problem. I said to my cabinet: We’re going to resolve this by devising a “clean hands” strategy, so when we come to the table the Americans will not be able to say the acid rain problem is because of us, because we will have implemented a program to clean up the problem. This enabled us to work closely with the provinces, and ultimately we legislated on it in 1985.
MAY: What would have happened if you had decided on this acid rain issue that we weren’t going to do anything until we saw what the Americans would do?
MULRONEY: That approach was unacceptable to us, unacceptable to me, because acid rain was not only a serious problem but also a visible problem. When I told the American Congress that acid rain was spewing from the U.S. industrial mid-west, and killing lakes and streams and forests in central and eastern Canada, I wasn’t kidding around. I told them they can come and visit and take a look.
MAY: There was a good working relationship between the governments, provincially and federally, as well as with environmental groups in Canada. Environmental groups were even encouraged to go down to Washington in work on legislation there. That government leadership and civil society engagement has never occurred as successfully as it did in that era. How do you explain the fact that there is such a different atmosphere, politically, around the climate issue, as opposed to the acid rain issue?
MULRONEY: All I can say is that that was then, and now is now. I was the prime minister then, and someone else is prime minister now. For progress on environmental issues to occur, it needs to be a top priority with the prime minister. If it’s a secondary or tertiary matter of importance for the prime minister, it’s not going to get done. That’s the manner in which you galvanize the system. If the system understands that this is the prime minister’s priority, if he wants to see it happen, you understand that the message has come down loud and clear. We better be on our game 100 per cent because the boss is going to be here and he’s going to want to know what the hell’s going on and how come we haven’t made the progress he set out for us.
MAY: Can you think of any particular lessons learned from the acid rain issue that you would recommend to anybody about how to address the climate crisis?
MULRONEY: I can’t get into anything that’s going on now, for a number of reasons. But if one is confronted with a major challenge that has both domestic implications and interprovincial ones together with nuanced international problems, to ensure that Canada is both a player and is viewed as a constructive player internationally, that it is vital, for progress to be made, that the prime minister drive the file. If the prime minister is not driving the file, then nothing’s going to happen. If he is, then it’s possible that big things will happen. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s possible.