- Poisonous Skies: Acid Rain and the Globalization of Pollution by Rachel Emma Rothschild
By Rachel Emma Rothschild. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. Pp. 335.
After World War II, the destructive power of nuclear weapons meant that science and policy became deeply intertwined in new ways. "The scientist," however, continued to be imagined as an apolitical figure, driven only by the search for objective truths about nature. Plenty of recent works have complicated and displaced this construction, but few do it with such dexterity, command of sources, and chilling lessons for our current times as Rachel Rothschild in Poisonous Skies. Not simply a history of the science, technology, and domestic or international policy-making surrounding acid rain, Poisonous Skies is also the story of how European and American dependence on fossil fuels shaped environmental policy in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and the "question of what level of scientific proof is necessary before acting to address an environmental threat" that came to dominate that policy (p. 8). Rothschild argues that although environmental scientists identified the threat of acid rain and brought it to the attention of their national governments and international organizations as early as the 1950s, the science was simply not enough to generate regulatory policy. The power of the fossil fuel industry in Britain and the United States meant that there was a "fundamental breach of values" concerning the uses of environmental science [End Page 1263] between polluting nations and the ones receiving that pollution; sulfur dioxide does not respect international borders (p. 111).
Over eight chapters, Rothschild tells three overlapping stories. The first explains that Norwegian and Swedish scientists detected rising acidity in their lentic ecosystems, determined that it was caused by transboundary air pollution coming largely from Britain, and attempted to turn those findings into policy. In the 1970s, Scandinavian atmospheric and soil scientists began collaborating across disciplinary lines and used international bodies such as the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to encourage binding agreements on pollution reduction. Her second story is the impact of détente diplomacy on international environmental policy. The transboundary nature of acid rain made it an early common language that communist and capitalist countries used to speak to one another, despite the limits of technology across the Iron Curtain and "lingering Cold War suspicion" about collaboration (p. 96). The third and most compelling story concerns the dilatory tactics applied by industry scientists and industry-minded state actors to obfuscate and manipulate acid rain science. These policymakers were reluctant to adapt the most widespread emissions abatement technology, flue gas desulfurization, because of the initial cost and that it might open the door for future regulation. Rothschild focuses on the British Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) and the American Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), that both used their granting power and close ties to the increasingly conservative 1980s governments to control the generation and dissemination of scientific data on acid rain.
These three narrative threads are linked by the interactions between science, scientists, and supranational policy. We hear from scientists more than anyone else in Poisonous Skies, and Rothschild is careful to trace how funding, institutional affiliation, and relationships with policy-makers changed the results those scientists produced and how those results served different agendas. Rothschild deploys the requisite interdisciplinary set of interpretive skills deftly, pitting Scandinavian scientists and administrators motivated by precaution against industry-minded scientists and environmental officials bent on weaponizing doubt.
Poisonous Skies is a remarkable book, built on archival research in eight countries and five languages, as well as interviews with American, Norwegian, and British scientists. Most impressive, though, is Rothschild's deliberate positioning of herself and her story within contemporary environmental concerns. Although not a truly "global" story as her title suggests, Rothschild argues that the destruction wrought by acid rain in Europe and America was a litmus test for international environmental policy on diverse levels, demonstrating that supranational and public pressures can affect domestic regulations. Poisonous Skies ends on a hopeful note, with Rothschild suggesting that the story of acid rain can inform how scientists, [End Page...