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This is just a great story. The Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Hawthorne takes a lesson from a hike we both completed while attending an environmental journalism conference in Vermont in October.

Hawthorne highlights the close parallels between the debate over the science of global warming and the 1980s debate about how to address acid rain.

Our hike along a snowy, muddy path up Camel’s Hump, Vermont’s third-highest peak, detailed the effects of sulfur dioxide pollution on the soil. As coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley spewed pollution, it carried north to Vermont, rained down on mountains and lowered the soil’s pH. Plants such as spruce trees, whose immune systems were dependent on calcium content in the ground, saw that nourishment wash away.

Hawthorne writes:

“It was staggering what was happening,” Hubert Vogelmann, the University of Vermont researcher who drew the nation’s attention to Camel’s Hump, said during a recent hike up the storied peak. “The evidence pointing to acid rain kept getting stronger and stronger. But it took some time before something was done about it.”

Years from now, people might say the same thing about global warming.

The details are different. But there are similarities between the current debate about whether greenhouse gas emissions should be regulated and the scientific and political battles that eventually led Congress to adopt tougher limits on the pollution that causes acid rain.

The chief sources are the same. Coal-fired power plants and cars are the leading producers of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas that prevents the sun’s heat from radiating back into space.

Nearly all the experts who delve into the arcane history of Earth’s climate agree that human activities – mainly the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels – are driving up global temperatures. The planet’s average surface temperature has increased more than 1 degree Fahrenheit since 1990, and the rate of warming is rapidly increasing. …

But there is still some uncertainty, just as there was about acid rain during the 1970s and ’80s. And like that earlier debate, the scientific consensus about global warming doesn’t amount to an airtight case for action, especially when there are still dissenters and vested economic interests are at stake.

ROB DAVIS

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