The past year, with unprecedented wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and windstorms, was a discouraging one. The report by 13 federal agencies, released in late November, warned that by the end of the century the annual costs of environmental change in the U.S. could approach $500 billion: in lost labor, damaged crops and more extreme weather events. To gardeners, it means increasing difficulties growing the flowers, shrubs and vegetables we so love — small potatoes when measured against the loss of homes and lives it portends. The report doesn’t give us much reason to believe that we will move fast enough in the years ahead to prevent these changes. But the death of George H.W. Bush in December, which was thoroughly covered by all media, reminded us that it is possible to act on environmental issues of our times.

Remember acid rain? Before climate change, there was acid rain, which in the 1980s and 1990s was the hottest environmental issue. Here’s a brief primer on acid rain, if you’ve forgotten about it. Vehicles and coal- and oil-burning power plants emit pollution: particulates and carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Once in the atmosphere, the last two pollutants react with water molecules to form sulfuric acid and nitric acid, which, when they fall from the sky as rain or snow, can acidify lakes and ponds, killing fish and other aquatic organisms, damaging forests, accelerating the weathering of steel bridges and harming human health.

In the Eastern U.S. scientific studies showed serious effects from acid rain, which is a long-distance pollutant. The acid rain that fell on the White Mountains of New Hampshire and in Maine mostly originated in cities to the south and the stacks of coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. The pollution rode the prevailing winds to more remote parts of the Northeast.

Bush’s signing of the 1990 Clean Air Act was the biggest contribution to his significant if imperfect environmental legacy. The law is credited with making acid rain an early forgotten issue. The problem hasn’t gone away: in Russia, China, and even parts of the U.S., it still exists. But acidification of soils and lakes in the Northeastern U.S. has dropped, perhaps serving as an example of how we can solve our latest problems of climate change. After all, they both derive from the same source — the burning of fossil fuels.

Bush’s presidential leadership proved to be the decisive ingredient needed to bring victory to the decade-long struggle to cut acid rain. As a Republican President, his partnership with Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine transformed the effort into a bipartisan one for the first time. The sweeping legislation, which covered both acid rain and a host or air pollution issues, strengthened the Clean Air Act to the point of making it arguably the most significant piece of environmental and public health legislation ever enacted. It directly tackled the acid rain issue primarily by limiting sulfur emissions from power plants by almost 50 percent and creating a cap-and-trade system designed to control sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

In February 2018 a draft report issued by the Trump Office of Management and Budget found that 1) the benefits of federal regulation far outweigh the costs, 2) a significant majority of those benefits are created by Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and 3) of those, a significant majority flow from implementation of the Clean Air Act.

Bush’s version of the Clean Air Act is still largely on the books. Given the modern-day gridlock in Congress over environmental issues, the law has received no major update in the quarter-century since Bush left office. And while Maine still has way more acid rain than Oregon, for example, we’re far better off than we were. Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned from the Clean Air legislation is that legislation informed by science can craft a solution that works. The efforts to rein in sulfur and nitrogen pollution had other benefits beyond revitalizing trout streams and forests in remote areas of the Northeast. They helped reduce particulates and ozone, and curbing those pollutants led to substantial human health benefits. The economic benefits were equally impressive: a 2011 report from the Environmental Protection Agency stated that the benefits of the Clean Air Act between 1990 and 2020 paid back over $30 for every $1 invested in reducing pollutants.

Right now the big question is not whether some new initiative to further combat acid rain will be undertaken. It won’t. The question is whether the successes in a decades-long battle will be undermined, or reversed, by a White House administration that has touted the benefits of burning coal and has worked aggressively to roll back environmental regulations on a variety of fronts. Under Bush, the U.S. used science to put some good policies in place to reduce acid rain, and 30 years later the improvements are detectable. His death reminds us that it is possible to focus on the real issues of the time, not partisan politics, and move forward on tackling climate change in the coming year.