restricted access 9. Burning Rain: The Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Project

From: Toxic Airs

University of Pittsburgh Press colophon
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181 When fossil fuels are burned, certain pollutants released into the atmosphere can increase the acidity of precipitation and cause severe damage to ecosystems.1 These pollutants can travel great distances until they are eventually deposited in rain, snow, fog, or dust. Collectively known as “acid rain,” these phenomena have been observed throughout the world, but have particularly affected Scandinavia. In this chapter, I assess the development of the first international study to examine the atmospheric transport of pollutants that cause acid precipitation: the long-range transboundary air pollution project. A group of meteorologists conceived the idea for such a project in May of 1969 in light of mounting evidence that the pH of inland water bodies was increasing throughout Scandinavia. The study was conducted under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental body created in 1961 to promote economic development and cooperation among democratic, capitalist countries in Europe and North America.2 It was formed from the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), which was originally created in 1948 to distribute Marshall Plan aid to Europe’s war-torn countries, but also coordinated scientific research.3 9 BURNING RAIN The Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Project Rachel Rothschild 182–––Rachel Rothschild Upon the foundation of the OECD in 1961, air pollution became a major focus of this scientific collaboration as governments struggled to improve their air quality. Through these efforts, the OECD quickly became the major international forum for member countries to work cooperatively on these problems.4 In response to the waves of environmental activism sweeping across its member countries, the OECD created a new Directorate for Environmental Affairs on July 20, 1970, to facilitate scientific research on air pollution.5 Although initiated by scientists, the long-range transboundary air pollution project was funded and overseen by an emerging class of international civil servants tasked with a clear mandate to produce policy solutions to environmental problems.6 The OECD assisted in organizing the project under the assumption that documenting the transport of pollution across national boundaries would lead to an international agreement to reduce the precursors of acid rain. However, as I will show, the negotiation of any international consensus based on the results of the OECD study was far from straightforward. My work builds upon recent scholarship from international historians examining intergovernmental organizations formed after World War II, and historians of technology who have begun to explore the intersections of environmental history with technological and scientific developments in the twentieth century.7 Historians such as John Krige, Amy Staples, and David Ekbladh have demonstrated that science and technology assumed increasing importance within international relations during the Cold War in areas ranging from physics to public health to the construction of dams in Vietnam.8 Yet as historians Jeffrey Stine and Joel Tarr have noted, most of the scholarship on the intersection of environmental policy, science, and technology in the twentieth century has been produced by journalists and political scientists, with few placing these events in a historical context.9 In his 2010 presidential address to the Society for the History of Technology, Arne Kaijser also drew attention to the need for further scholarship on these topics.10 As I intend to show, the long-range transboundary air pollution project can serve as a historical case study of scientific expertise in international negotiations on environmental problems. Acid rain required potentially costly reductions in pollution, which ultimately pitted major emitters against recipients of acidic deposition. This chapter begins with the origins of the OECD’s involvement in air pollution research. I will examine how the OECD’s experience in facilitating transnational cooperation on pollution Burning Rain–––183 problems during the 1950s and 1960s laid the foundation for its later engagement with the issue of acid rain. I then discuss the origins of the long-range transboundary air pollution project among Scandinavian scientists and the difficulties in executing the research. There were many constraints imposed on the study because of the need to generate policy-relevant information, as well as the Cold War rivalries between Eastern and Western Europe. Once the project began, resistance from Britain, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany, who were the major industrial polluters, threatened to inhibit accurate data collection and bankrupt the project. Despite these setbacks, the study went forward and ultimately was effective in demonstrating the exchange of sulfur dioxide pollution between countries, particularly the transport of sulfur dioxide emissions to Scandinavia from foreign sources. With the...