Main Poisonous Skies: Acid Rain and the Globalization of Pollution

Poisonous Skies: Acid Rain and the Globalization of Pollution

The climate change reckoning looms. As scientists try to discern what the Earth’s changing weather patterns mean for our future, Rachel Rothschild seeks to understand the current scientific and political debates surrounding the environment through the history of another global environmental threat: acid rain.
The identification of acid rain in the 1960s changed scientific and popular understanding of fossil fuel pollution’s potential to cause regional—and even global—environmental harms. It showed scientists that the problem of fossil fuel pollution was one that crossed borders—it could travel across vast stretches of the earth’s atmosphere to impact ecosystems around the world. This unprecedented transnational reach prompted governments, for the first time, to confront the need to cooperate on pollution policies, transforming environmental science and diplomacy. Studies of acid rain and other pollutants brought about a reimagining of how to investigate the natural world as a complete entity, and the responses of policy makers, scientists, and the public set the stage for how societies have approached other prominent environmental dangers on a global scale, most notably climate change.
Grounded in archival research spanning eight countries and five languages, as well as interviews with leading scientists from both government and industry, Poisonous Skies is the first book to examine the history of acid rain in an international context. By delving deep into our environmental past, Rothschild hopes to inform its future, showing us how much is at stake for the natural world as well as what we risk—and have already risked—by not acting.
University of Chicago Press
ISBN 13:
PDF, 4.81 MB
Download (pdf, 4.81 MB)

Most frequently terms

You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.

The Origins Of Evil In Hindu Mythology

PDF, 14.15 MB

Vértigo y pasión

PDF, 2.57 MB
Poisonous Skies

Poisonous Skies
Acid Rain and the Globalization of Pollution
Rachel Emma Rothschild
The University of Chicago Press :: Chicago and London

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637
The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London
© 2019 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in
any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case
of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information,
contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th St., Chicago,
IL 60637.
Published 2019
Printed in the United States of America
28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19   1 2 3 4 5
i s b n -­13:

978-­0-­226-­63471-­5 (cloth)
978-­0-­226-­63485-­2 (e-­book)
d o i :
i s b n -­13:

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Rothschild, Rachel Emma, author.
Title: Poisonous skies : acid rain and the globalization of pollution /
Rachel Emma Rothschild.
Description: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2019. |
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018054763 | i s b n 9780226634715 (cloth :
alk. paper) | i s b n 9780226634852 (e-book)
Subjects: LCSH: Acid rain—Research—History. | Acid rain—Political
aspects. | Acid rain—Environmental aspects. | Air—Pollution—
Classification: LCC td195.42 .r67 2019 | ddc 363.738/6—dc23
LC record available at
♾ This paper meets the requirements of

(Permanence of Paper).

ansi/niso z39.48–­1992



List of Acronyms
Introduction: A Rain of Ashes


Creating a Global Pollution Problem


Death-­Dealing Fogs
From the Local to the Global
The Discovery of Acid Rain


The Science of Acid Rain
Acid Rain and the Development of Environmental Science
Crossing Boundaries: Constructing a Science of Acid Rain
The End of the “Heroic” Era


Energy Industry Research and the Politics of Doubt
Divesting from Pollution Cont; rol Technology
The Energy Industry Enters the Environmental Science Field
A “Silent Spring” for Acid Rain?


Pollution across the Iron Curtain
Overtures to Eastern Europe
Environmental Monitoring and the Limits of Détente
Pollution Modeling without Target Maps



co n te n ts


Environmental Diplomacy in the Cold War
Economic or Environmental Catastrophe
Scientists as Diplomats
Thwarting a Convention with Teeth


An Environmental Crisis Collides with
a Conservative Revolution
Ecology and the Question of Environmental Damage
Confronting Coal Industry Influence under
Reagan and Thatcher
International Pressure Meets Domestic Politics


Acid Rain and the Precautionary Principle
Costs and Benefits of Precaution
A Scientific “Bribe”
Britain Joins the Acid Rain Club



A Warning Bell for a Fossil Fuel Future



The Last Holdout
A Pyrrhic Victory for Scientific Expertise
The Environmental Legacy of Acid Rain


The Climate Change Reckoning


Notes		203
Sources		295
Archival Sources		
Oral Histories		
Published Sources

CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board)
CERL (Central Electricity Research Laboratories)
(Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe)
(Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland)
EACN (European Air Chemistry Network)
(Environmental Protection Agency)
(International Biological Program)
IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis)
(Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)
(Institute for Terrestrial Ecology)
NAPAP (National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program)
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
NAVF	(Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities,
Norges almenvitenskapelige forskningsråd)
NILU	(Norwegian Institute for Air Research, Norsk institutt for
NTNF	(Royal Norwegian Council for Scientific and Industrial
Research, Norges Teknisk-­Naturvitenskapelige
OECD	(Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development)
OEEC (Organisation for European Economic Cooperation)
OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries)
RAINS (Regional Air Pollution Information and Simulation)

acro n y ms


SNSF	(Acid Rain’s Effects on Forests and Fish Project, Sur nedbørs
virkning på skog og fisk)
SWAP	(Surface Water Acidification Program)
(United Nations)
WHO (World Health Organization)

Introduction: A Rain of Ashes
Direr visions, worse foreboding,
Glare upon me through the gloom!
Britain’s smoke-­cloud sinks corroding
On the land in noisome fume,
Smirches all its tender bloom,
All its gracious verdure dashes,
Sweeping low with breath of bane,
Stealing sunlight from the plain,
Showering down like rain of ashes
On the city of God’s doom.1

The earliest recorded reference to air pollution from one
country harming the environment of its neighbors appeared in the above epigraph, written in 1865 by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in his tragedy Brand.2
While Ibsen lacked our modern-­day understanding of air
pollution and its ecological effects, he was responding
to a dramatic change in human society and its relationship with nature. The smoke-­clouds of Britain’s industrialization, powered by the country’s ample coal deposits,
would soon spread throughout Europe and North America. Over the course of the nineteenth century, coal extraction grew ten-­fold. By the end of the twentieth century, it
had increased nearly seven-­fold as developing countries
like China and India sought to replicate the vast economic



growth of industrialized nations. The environmental consequences have
been severe, with emissions of pollutants like sulfur dioxide more than
quadrupling in the last century.3
Yet the idea that fossil fuel pollution could travel across vast stretches
to rain down on distant lands was not seen as a topic worthy of scientific
investigation until nearly a century after Ibsen wrote those words.4 Now
in many countries it’s simply assumed that even an educated layperson
is aware of the environmental damages fossil fuels can inflict. There are
entire fields devoted to examining the biological, geophysical, and atmospheric aspects of pollution. Environmental science is a fast-­growing
interdisciplinary area of research, with scientists from an array of backgrounds studying the earth’s processes and in what ways pollution might
be damaging the natural world. This book is an attempt to understand
the history of our knowledge about fossil fuel pollutants and how scientists and policymakers came to grasp the global nature of their environmental threat. It does so by looking at the first air pollution problem
identified as having damaging effects on areas far from the source of
emissions: acid rain.
The problem of acid rain changed scientific and popular understandings of how fossil fuel pollution could cause regional, and perhaps
global, environmental harms. The term has been used to describe any
form of precipitation, including rain, snow, or fog, with high levels of
sulfur dioxides or nitrogen oxides.5 These chemicals are important components of many biological and physical processes on the earth, but after the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century they were produced in much greater quantities than occur in nature. The construction
of electrical power systems and the invention of new technologies like
steam engines and automobiles led to widespread use of coal and oil as
energy sources and the release of progressively larger quantities of air
pollutants, particularly after the Second World War.
In the late 1960s, Swedish scientists first suggested that growing
amounts of fossil fuel pollution could be responsible for an increase in
acid rain across the southern portions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
While sulfur dioxide was initially identified as the likely culprit, nitrogen oxides were soon suspected of partly contributing to the problem.
When American scientists claimed to have identified a similar phenomenon along the eastern part of the country in the early 1970s, acid rain
quickly became a top environmental issue facing industrialized nations.
Once emitted into the atmosphere, sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides
undergo several chemical reactions that result in the production of sulfate

A Rai n o f A s h e s


and nitrate, which are acidic pollutants that lower the pH of precipitation.
Upon discovering an increase in precipitation acidity across their countries, Scandinavian and American scientists became concerned that acid
rain could cause severe environmental damage by contaminating soil, polluting water, and destroying flora and fauna in freshwater and terrestrial
ecosystems. Throughout the next two decades, researchers across Europe
and North America would seek to understand whether fossil fuel pollutants were in fact responsible for acid rain, how much each country contributed to the air pollution of neighboring states, and what the environmental impact of acid rain would be in susceptible regions.
However, there were more than a few challenges with answering
these questions. The first was that a scientific apparatus to study acid
rain did not yet exist. Atmospheric scientists had never examined the
dispersion of fossil fuel pollutants across long distances, nor had biologists and soil scientists tried to track their deposition patterns and effects
on organisms. Investigations into acid rain led to new interdisciplinary
collaborations among physicists, biologists, foresters, and geologists on
a vast scale, and helped to form an emerging field of “environmental science” equipped to tackle the challenges of global pollution problems.
These collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts contributed to a change
in how scientists conceptualized environmental systems from discrete,
isolated parts to an integrated whole of physical and biological components. Today, we take for granted that environmental studies are concerned with tracing the movement of fossil fuel pollutants from smokestacks through ecosystems, across continents and national borders. But
it was studies of acid rain and other pollutants that brought about a
reimagining of how to investigate the natural world as a complete entity. The success of this method was not preordained. Other models for
environmental research put forward around the time of acid rain’s discovery eschewed “big science” projects, envisioning more of a bottom­up method that pieced together small studies rather than a top-­down, all
encompassing approach.
Who should be involved in these efforts and who should pay for
them were not easy questions to answer. Acid rain forced countries to
grapple with the benefits and drawbacks of having governments, industry, or academic institutions fund environmental research. In addition,
governments faced the prospect of trying to facilitate cooperation not
only across different fields but across national boundaries as well. Yet
acid rain emerged at a seemingly inconvenient moment for the international community, with the world divided by the ongoing Cold War and



struggling to decide how to allocate diplomatic power to intergovernmental groups like the United Nations (UN), Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD), and European Communities.
When acid rain exploded to the forefront of scientific and political
agendas, energy security was also becoming a prominent diplomatic concern as fossil fuel companies struggled with the impacts of national environmental regulations. Frustrated by what they viewed as a misguided
attack on their operations and the economic prosperity of the Western
world, the coal industries of both Britain and the US mounted an immense
effort to counter environmental research on acid rain with their own studies of the problem. The research establishment they created influenced
scientific, political, and public perceptions of acid rain, and one of the
major goals of this book is to examine the extent of their involvement
in environmental science and politics as well as some of its questionable
I have chosen to tell this story as a history of knowledge and its political implications, focusing on the scientists and environmental officials
involved in acid rain from its inception through attempts to regulate fossil fuel pollution in the late 1980s and 1990s. Because the bulk of acid
rain science and diplomacy was led by citizens of Norway, Sweden, Britain, the US, and Canada, with West Germany arriving on the scene a
bit later, the book follows actors in these countries while incorporating
the perspectives of other European nations where relevant, notably the
Soviet Union. Writing about the history of acid rain in this way invariably leaves out certain topics. For example, if a particular subject did
not prove important in international negotiations but had more local
resonance, it was left on the cutting room floor. Or in an archival box, I
should say. But I hope this work will open up new avenues and questions
for other scholars to answer, whether on domestic aspects of acid rain,
its connections to popular social movements of the period, or changing
cultural perspectives about the natural world.
Researching this book took me to eight different countries and more
than a dozen archives. In the process, I was able to slowly unravel how
decisions were made that had an enormous impact on the course of
scientific and political events concerning acid rain. Often documents of
crucial importance to understanding the actions of individuals or governments from one country were found buried in another state’s national
archives or the holdings of an intergovernmental institution. It would
not have been possible to piece together this narrative without undertaking an investigation that crossed national borders in the same ways
that acid rain has done. To cite just a few examples, this multi-­archival

A Rai n o f A s h e s


research revealed that the British government’s concerns about the 1970s
oil shocks strongly impacted its international position on acid rain, that
Norwegian scientists were the driving force behind creating an air pollution monitoring network across the iron curtain with the Soviet Union,
and that a US State Department ultimatum to its allies during UN negotiations was the key factor that led to the first successful treaty on acid
rain. None of this is public information, and part of my aim in writing
this book was to uncover what was going on behind the scenes in constructing acid rain research and policy.
I obtained some of the most valuable insights from personal interviews with scientists who worked on behalf of governments as well as
the coal industry. Many of them granted me extensive swaths of their
time, and I am grateful for their candor. To verify the accounts I received, I cross-­referenced claims or stories as much as possible with other
interview subjects or with the documentary record. In instances where
I received conflicting accounts, I have acknowledged this in my notes to
the text. Although indebted to these scientists for the detailed information I was able to obtain about the events I discuss in the book, all the
opinions and arguments expressed in this work are my own and should
not be assumed to represent their personal perspectives.
When one is talking to those who spent the better part of their professional lives studying acid rain, the significance of the problem is quite
evident, whether for understanding how even “natural” pollutants can
have harmful environmental consequences or for establishing norms in
environmental diplomacy. But if you polled your average person on the
street, acid rain would probably seem like an environmental problem
that’s already been solved. Why concern ourselves with the details of its
history? We have far more pressing environmental problems, the argument might go, climate change being the most obvious contender for our
There are two reasons that I have found persuasive in undertaking
the task of working on this project for nearly a decade, and they are ones
that I hope readers who care about the environment might find compelling as well. The first is that without past knowledge of how societies
have dealt with environmental pollution, we have little chance of improving upon these efforts. An important caveat: this book is first and
foremost a work of history, and as such, those interested in finding succinct prescriptions for tackling the environmental challenges ahead may
be frustrated with its contents. No historical period will ever be a perfect
laboratory to model how the future will unfold. There are always differences between the past and present, and it would be unwise to ignore



them when trying to draw lessons from acid rain. With that said, we have
no better options. Just as we cannot run experiments on the earth, neither can we test out human behavior on the enormous scales of science
and politics. We are still wrestling with how to weigh expertise in political decisions, how to balance the interests of the environment against
economic growth, and how to convince many nations that they should
work together for the protection of a planet we all share. Acid rain can
tell us how at least some people tried to resolve these issues, which will
better position each of us in addressing the serious tasks to come.
The second reason is less directly utilitarian and speaks more to the
interests of historians and other scholars. It is to obtain as accurate an
account as possible of the events surrounding acid rain and venture several arguments about why they transpired as they did and their larger
impact. This is the first book to try to tell its history in an international
context. It will hopefully upend some commonly received wisdom about
the acid rain story as well as science, the environment, and diplomacy
more generally. For those interested in the history of science, acid rain’s
relationship with the burgeoning field of environmental science can illuminate how the legacy of military sponsorship of physics, chemistry,
and other fields during wartime influenced the direction of research on
the environment. Scholars of the Cold War will likely find the chapters on acid rain’s relationship with the détente process especially revealing about how environmental issues intersected with Cold War politics,
in addition to the importance of non–­super power states in diplomacy.
Economic and business historians may appreciate the portions of this
work that address the role of the British and American coal industries in
environmental science and discussions concerning how to balance economic growth with pollution regulation. Environmental historians will
ideally glean the most from a study of one of the most significant pollution problems of the twentieth century, particularly its role in shaping
ideas about environmental risk and the precautionary principle.
The question of what level of scientific proof is necessary before acting to address an environmental threat runs throughout this text. When
acid rain was first discovered, scientific experts had, by and large, earned
a prominent seat at the table in many Western governments thanks to
the contributions they made in fighting the previous two world wars.6
Many policymakers from across the political spectrum hoped that scientists could play an equally important part in deciding whether we needed
to reduce fossil fuel pollution and, if so, the best way to do it. Scientists
themselves who were involved early on in acid rain research shared a

A Rai n o f A s h e s


similar faith in their expertise and a desire to get involved in the diplomatic process.
Environmental scientists were certainly crucial to identifying acid
rain as a threat and pinpointing fossil fuels as a possible cause. Without the tools of science and technology, it would have been practically
impossible for humans to discover that invisible chemicals were the culprit behind the observed damages. However, when it came time to enact
policy on acid rain at both the national and international levels, environmental scientists could not carry government officials across the finish
line to achieve agreement on how to solve the problem. In part, this was
because the coal industries of Britain and the US mounted an enormous
campaign to discredit their work, continually raising the bar for how
much scientific certainty was needed before society could act. But it was
also because scientific experts could not answer fundamental questions
about environmental values that were at the heart of disagreements over
what do about acid rain.
There is a word in Norwegian, “friluftsliv,” which roughly translates
to “open air life” in English. First made famous by Henrik Ibsen, it connotes a deep, abiding connection with the natural world and access to
an unspoiled environment. For Scandinavians, acid rain not only threatened to reduce fish populations or diminish forests. It endangered an entire way of life and culture that prized nature for its spiritual and restorative properties. There was no clear way to calculate the impact of acid
rain on friluftsliv. Even if it were possible to tally all the salmon killed
in a given year and the resulting loss of sports-­fishing in a region, it was
not so simple to calculate the value of sailing through pristine fjords or
exploring the deep woods along towering mountain ranges.
It was comparatively straightforward to measure the cost of installing new pollution control technologies in coal-­fired power plants along
the Ruhr valley, the British Midlands, and the American Midwest. The
financial burden was also immediate, with direct impacts on the price
of energy for citizens of countries that might implement restrictions on
fossil fuel emissions. Humankind has had a notoriously difficult history
with anticipating crises far in the future and taking action in the present
for potential long-­term benefits, whether on an individual, national, or
international level.
We are still grappling with how to value the environment and what
sacrifices our societies are willing to make to protect it. In the case of
acid rain, failure to examine the ethical issues involved created an unspoken gulf between the positions of polluters and recipients of acid rain.



Instead of discussing the benefits and drawbacks of tackling the problem, including who would be helped or harmed by various approaches,
too often scientific and political debates concerned only whether we
knew enough to act. This was a driving force behind the eventual turn
toward precautionary approaches, which allowed governments to sidestep the issue of scientific certitude and place the burden of proof on
industry. While a remarkable advance in policymaking, the history of
acid rain exemplifies the dangers of not having these crucial conversations out in the open. If countries are to protect the planet and maintain
the benefits of economic development, it is imperative to be clear about
what is at stake for the natural world as well as what we risk, and have
risked, by not acting.


Creating a Global Pollution Problem
Looking back, I would say we entered the acid age in 1952 although we didn’t
know it at the time. That is when a “killer smog”—­a manmade soup of noxious
chemicals—­settled over London, England. Four thousand deaths were attributed
to the smog. Due to that incident and a number of less dramatic ones around the
world, a great deal was done to clean up air pollution. In many cases, the answer
was simple. Build a tall smokestack so that industrial emissions could be widely
dispersed in the atmosphere. It was a relatively cheap and effective solution. The
trouble is that what goes up, must also come down.1
John Roberts, minister of the environment, Canada, 1981

Acid rain heralded a shift from local environmental problems to concern about
the impact of man’s activities on a regional or global scale.2
Gro Harlem Brundtland, minister of the environment, Norway, 1974

Air pollution has beset societies for centuries, but it increased noticeably after the Industrial Revolution brought
about pervasive use of fossil fuels throughout Europe and
North America. Black smoke from steam-­engine coal fires
darkened the skies and coated buildings with soot. Even
the weather in certain areas began to change. Thick smog
carrying pollution from factories and power plants blanketed cities for days, at times causing respiratory problems so severe that dozens to thousands of the very young
or very old were killed.3
The smoke and fogs of industrialization were visible to
any citizen walking the streets of London or traveling the
coal rich region of the Ruhr valley in Western Germany.4

c h a p te r o n e


Public petitions to reduce soot, dirt, and dust in the air surfaced repeatedly from the late nineteenth century through the years after the Second
World War, when a series of severe air pollution incidents spurred governments in Europe and North America to act. Like the destruction of
forests and wild areas or the disposal of sewage into waterways, smoke
from power plants required no special equipment or knowledge to identify. During the Second World War pollution reached such high levels
in some cities that automobile headlights needed to be kept on during
the daytime.5 Many governments began implementing air quality standards
to mitigate the harmful health effects of air pollution, and industries responded by installing new technologies to reduce smoke from burning
fuels or increasing the height of smokestacks to eject pollution higher
into the air.6
Although these changes reduced the amount of soot in emissions and
decreased the visible smoke from fossil fuel combustion, they did not
remove the chemical byproducts. These “invisible” pollutants included
sulfur dioxide, which scientists began to identify as the major respiratory
irritant in smog episodes. Sulfur dioxide subsequently became the first
fossil fuel pollutant suspected of posing a danger to public health during
the 1930s.7 The shift toward a more chemical understanding of pollution
and its environmental impacts deepened in the years after the Second
World War as thousands of new manmade chemicals entered the marketplace. This new way of thinking about pollution raised a number of questions about how to identify dangerous chemicals in our air, water, soil,
and food. In contrast to the visibility of black soot in urban cities, sewage in waterways, or the destruction of forests and wild areas, chemical
pollutants like sulfur dioxide were not immediately or clearly detectable
without scientific documentation and analysis. As evidence accumulated
about the potential for these invisible chemicals to damage the environ­
ment during the 1950s and 1960s, scientists began to assume new roles as
interpreters of potential environmental threats for government officials
and the public. Research teams descended upon cities with sampling devices in hand, redefining air quality from the blackness of smoke to the
presence of certain chemicals in various concentrations. It was a crucial
step in understanding the mounting environmental crisis from fossil fuels, but it was also a transfer of power from everyday citizens and urban
residents to scientists and policymakers. The privileging of new kinds of
expert knowledge about pollutants would transform our understandings
of environmental health and the tradeoffs in relying upon ever increasing
amounts of fossil fuels for industrial production.

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


The identification of particular fossil fuel chemicals as agents of harm,
rather than visible smoke, also suggested that their dispersion might prove
far more widespread than previously thought. With the introduction
of atomic weapons and nuclear testing after the Second World War, the
scientific community had begun to document the spread of radioactive fallout to nearly every corner of the planet. The ability to trace radioactive particles through ecosystems and the human body led to several novel scientific
insights about the processes of bioaccumulation and showed that it was
possible for fallout to affect populations far from nuclear detonations. Yet
it wasn’t at all evident that other types of pollutants could travel such great
distances and impact the environment in distant regions. The potential for
other chemicals to similarly accumulate in locations far from their emission only received sustained scientific attention during the mid-­1960s as evidence emerged that pesticides had reached areas as remote as the arctic. The
discovery of “acid rain” subsequently played a crucial role in demonstrating that fossil fuel pollution was not only a local issue, but a global problem
with the potential to cause long-­term, serious harm to the environment.
Swedish scientists first identified acid rain as a continental phenomenon in Europe during the late 1960s, and their findings prompted international debates over whether countries should work together on pollution
problems through supranational institutions. The increasing reliance on
science and technology to investigate the “chemical” nature of pollution
led many countries to first turn to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to facilitate environmental cooperation. As the only intergovernmental body that included the majority of
Western, capitalist countries at this time in history, the OECD initially
served as the primary forum for collaborative acid rain research as well as
projects on a host of other environmental pollution problems.
However, as evidence mounted that chemical pollutants had regional
and global effects, many government officials began to question whether
a more inclusive institution should lead environmental diplomacy. Acid
rain became the galvanizing issue for many scientists, policymakers, and
activists who wanted to see the United Nations (UN) serve as the world
leader on environmental issues. The problem eventually came to serve as
a case study for the famous 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, the first global meeting of its kind, as well as justification for
the UN to assume responsibility for negotiations on international environmental problems.
However, a multitude of difficulties with managing the 1972 conference combined with the UN’s limited experience in overseeing scientific

c h a p te r o n e


research led to mounting objections to cooperating on environmental
problems through the organization. Government officials in Western
nations were faced with the difficult choice of either working through
an organization with limited membership but a historically robust reliance on scientific experts or pressing on with a global institution that
lacked experience in managing large research projects. Faced with ongoing Cold War tensions and disagreements with developing nations over
which environmental issues should take precedence, Western governments turned to the OECD rather than face the bureaucracy and diplomatic morass of the UN. For work on acid rain, this meant an influx of
support to environmental scientists during the 1970s, which united the
emerging field and built close relationships with policymakers in the international arena. Scientists’ newfound authority as decoders of nature
for government officials and the public thus played a major part in determining how and where future research and policymaking would occur
on acid rain, shaping a new era of pollution in environmental diplomacy.
Death-­Dealing Fogs
On December 1, 1930, unusual meteorological conditions caused a thick
fog to settle across the Meuse Valley in Belgium as factories and power
plants released plumes of smoke into the air. Normally, air that is close
to the earth’s surface is the warmest and rises vertically, dispersing any
pollutants. But with the sun at a low angle in the winter sky, the ground
radiated more heat into the atmosphere than it received from the sun’s
rays, creating a pocket of cold air near the ground. As a mass of warm
air moved across the valley, it reversed the normal temperature gradient
of the atmosphere and produced a meteorological “inversion,” which
trapped cool ground air within the mountainous terrain. In just a few
days, the small town of Liège in the valley was filled with the noxious
smell of rotten eggs and more than three dozen fatalities were reported.8
It was the first documented case of a major air pollution disaster and
attracted attention from government officials, the scientific community,
and the general public across Europe and the US, making the front page
of the Sun, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.9 Victims described difficulty breathing and chest pains that
would only abate upon leaving the town, leading to suspicion that they
had been poisoned by something in the fog. The incident so frightened
urban residents that Belgium’s Queen Elizabeth visited the small city to
persuade local health officials to investigate the cause of the fog.10 At
first, many scientists and doctors in Belgium as well as throughout Eu-

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


rope were skeptical about the role of air pollution in the disaster. Some
eminent scientists, such as the British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, suggested the fatalities could have resulted from an illness like the Black
Death, while others suspected that they were caused by an accidental
leak of old, buried German chemical war gases.11 Eventually, however, a
scientific investigation launched by the Belgium government concluded
that the deaths were the result of “sulphurous bodies, either in the form
of sulphur dioxide or sulphuric acid,” and recommended the implementation of pollution control policies to prevent such accidents from occurring in the future during similar atmospheric conditions.12
The possibility that chemicals in fossil fuel emissions could be hazardous to human health had not been extensively studied by scientists
at the time of these events. Some research had been conducted on very
high levels of occupational exposures, but few of these studies focused
on sulfur oxides.13 Although sulfur gases had been identified as a potential byproduct of burning coal since the nineteenth century, discussions
of its harmful effects as a pollutant in urban areas were limited to its
potentially corrosive effect on buildings.14 Only after the Liège disaster did scientific surveys of air pollution begin to measure sulfur dioxide concentrations and identify the chemical as an important pollutant,
and by the Second World War, some doctors had linked exposure to
sulfur dioxide as a possible contributor to asthma attacks.15 However,
many scientists and public health officials remained unconvinced that
sulfur dioxide was to blame for the 1930 catastrophe, and its concentrations in cities were still commonly believed to pose no risk to public
health.16 Since the discovery of steam power, most of the general public
had viewed smoke as a sign of prosperity, a testament to the economic
growth of industrialized nations and the promise of better lives through
increasing energy consumption.17
This began to change over the next two decades as more lethal incidents occurred in the US and Britain. In Donora, Pennsylvania, dozens
died in 1948 during a meteorological inversion that trapped air pollution around the city.18 Just a few years later in 1952, the most severe
pollution disaster to date hit London, Great Britain, resulting in thousands of deaths as well as numerous respiratory illnesses.19 Transportation ground to a halt as the smog grew so thick it became too difficult
to drive without flares lighting the streets. Londoners, who had experienced many such “pea soup” fogs since industrialization, reported that
this fog was unique in thickness and intensity.20 Some of the city’s elderly population, having already lived through two wars, perished in
the months thereafter. But the fog also struck down seemingly healthy

c h a p te r o n e


young people as well as cattle and other farm animals. A British atmospheric scientist who was five years old and living in London at the time
described the smog as being so thick that it permeated his home, leaving him extremely ill. He recalled lying in bed day in and day out trying
to breathe, unable to tell which of his parents was checking in on him
through the darkened air.21
Research into air pollution surged in the 1950s across Western, industrialized countries as a result of these events. Following the Liège
disaster, the number of scientific publications per year on atmospheric
pollution doubled, and then quadrupled after the next major disaster in
Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948.22 In the aftermath of the 1952 London
smog episode, even more scientists across Europe and North America
began devoting their research to smog and air pollution. In response to
the disaster, the British government created the National Smoke and Sulfur Dioxide Survey in 1953 to monitor air pollution and subsequently
enacted the British Clean Air Act of 1956, which introduced federal control over industrial emissions and mandated increased chimney heights
to disperse pollutants high enough to prevent them from becoming
trapped around cities.23 Several research groups at US universities, such
as the California Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois,
undertook independent investigations of air pollution in cities deemed
vulnerable to a pollution disaster, notably Los Angeles.24
Public protests in areas at risk of experiencing a similar smog disaster also led to several new national programs to collect data on air pollution and to advise on possible industry regulations outside Britain. In
West Germany, the government sponsored its own “smog study” in the
Ruhr valley, an area heavily populated with coal and steel plants, after
years of community pressure following the London smog.25 Additionally, in 1955 the West German Parliament put together its first scientific
committee, the Clean Air Commission, to review atmospheric pollution
in Germany and propose ways to reduce emissions, and in 1960 its civil
code was amended to require authorization by the government for any
industrial installations that might pollute the atmosphere.26 Americans
also took to the streets to voice their concern about air quality. Many
were women anxious about the health implications for their children,
such as a group of housewives who donned gas masks and paraded
through Pasadena in 1954 to draw attention to smog problems in California. The group included a small child with a doll adorned in protective gear.27 Shortly thereafter the state began an inquiry into air pollution, with other cities and states following California’s lead in seeking to
improve air quality. Though most of the political actions in the US were

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


taken by state and local governments, in 1955 the US Congress passed
legislation declaring air pollution a threat to public health and promising assistance to states in tackling the problem. In addition, the bill set
aside $15 million in funding for scientific research to investigate smog
formation and its impact on human health.28 Comparable government
efforts followed in France; its President ordered the Ministry of Health
and Population to invest more resources in air pollution studies in 1960.
In the years after the London smog, these investigations revealed the
potentially lethal chemical cocktail of fossil fuel byproducts in air pollution. The dirty, sooty emissions masked an underlying invisible mass
of compounds, whose interactions with one another and the surrounding environment were still largely a mystery. Like the reports following
the 1930 pollution disaster in Belgium, several of the scientific studies
conducted after the pollution disasters of Donora and London on smog
began to differentiate between the dangers of “smoke,” consisting of
condensed particles of carbon, dust, and soot, and the “invisible” chemicals in fossil fuels, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon
monoxide.29 Many researchers singled out sulfur dioxide as the “invisible and far more dangerous component of smoke” and the likely cause
of death and illness in Donora and London.30 As one scientist explained
in a 1954 address for the American Association for the Advancement of
Science’s first symposium on air pollution:
Air pollution is not simply a matter of coal smoke or other visible things; instead, the vast quantities of invisible gaseous pollutants constitute the major part of the problem.31

Based on these findings, more and more scientists and medical professionals argued for the importance of government regulation of air pollution, and specifically sulfur dioxide, in the interests of public health.32
But despite the mounting evidence for the potential harm from invisible chemicals in fossil fuel pollution as opposed to dust and soot,
some scientists and public health officials were still unconvinced that
there was clear proof of the damaging effects of sulfur dioxide on human
health.33 It was extremely difficult to attribute cause of death directly to
a particular pollutant in the midst of confounding environmental factors and health conditions of the victims, many of whom were already
ill or elderly. Levels of sulfur dioxide during the smog incidents also did
not appear to rise above levels considered tolerable for factory workers.34 Frustratingly for public health researchers, a British government
committee investigating the alleged 4,000 deaths from the 1952 London

c h a p te r o n e


smog claimed it could not definitively determine whether sulfur dioxide
or smoke had been the primary culprit.35
Government regulations reflected this ambiguity in the scientific literature concerning what, precisely, was so harmful about smog. Rather
than attempting to reduce the chemical components of pollution emissions, governments sought to lower levels of smoke, grit, and dust in the
air.36 Focusing on these aspects of smog was also attractive to governments because there were readily available technological solutions that
were relatively inexpensive for industries to utilize.37 Power plants and
factories met these new regulations on smoke, grit, and dust by modifying the design of furnaces to more efficiently burn fuel and decreasing
the density of emission sources in vulnerable geographic locations.38 In
addition to these strategies, countries in Europe and North America instituted regulations to increase the height of chimney stacks with the aim
of dispersing chemical pollutants high enough into the atmosphere so
that they could not become trapped during meteorological inversions.39
While these technological changes improved air quality and visibility
on a day to day basis and may have reduced the threat of deadly smog
around urban areas, industries continued to discharge chemical pollutants at an ever growing rate. They simply released sulfur dioxide and
other pollutants higher into the atmosphere without regard for where
they might end up. Neither the possibility that sulfur dioxide emissions
could harm the environment nor the potential implications for public
health were taken into account by industries, scientists, or government
leaders in implementing air quality policies.
This would begin to change as scientists identified other “invisible”
chemicals as potential environmental threats, notably radioactive fallout, nuclear waste, and pesticides. Scientific and public concerns about
radioactive fallout became rampant in the 1950s after unexpected wind
shifts during a US atomic test in the Marshall Islands caused radioactive ash to fall on a nearby Japanese fishing boat, haplessly named the
“Lucky Dragon.” The fallout sickened crewmembers and contaminated
nearby tuna fish to such a high degree that they were deemed unfit for
human consumption.40 Fears about the potential environmental dangers
of radioactivity erupted throughout the world in the following weeks
and months.41 With the London smog episode still fresh in the public’s
mind, many people voiced concerns about the possibility of a “death-­
dealing” fog imbued with radioactive ash.42 A London doctor even refused to pay his taxes in 1957 until the British government checked coal
for radiation in order to avoid “radioactive smog” that could cause
lung cancer.43

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


Though smog reduction efforts may have allayed the menace of
radioactive smog, two scientific studies released in the years after the
Lucky Dragon accident resulted in escalating public ire over fallout from
nuclear testing. The first, published in 1958, showed alarming levels of
strontium-­90 in baby teeth as a result of nuclear testing. The second,
published in 1959, revealed that milk products in fifty different areas in
the US contained strontium-­90 as well.44 Protests against nuclear testing
eventually resulted in the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union signing the
Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which banned aboveground atomic
weapons testing.45
The specter of radiation sensitized certain scientists, such as the biologist Rachel Carson, to the environmental hazards of invisible chemicals.46
Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, utilized common understandings of radiation’s effects to explain the risk to human health and the
environment from pesticides that had entered into commercial use after
the Second World War, particularly DDT.47 Carson alerted the public
to research conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Bureau that demonstrated how DDT persisted in the environment, accumulating in animals
through ecological food chains similarly to radioactive contamination
and damaging birds and fish. Her work was one of the major catalysts for
the modern environmental movement, which spread throughout North
America and Europe over the course of the 1960s. In addition to selling
over 2 million copies in the US, Carson’s Silent Spring had a significant
impact on Western Europe, spawning a host of similar books by European authors in France, Germany, and Sweden.48 In response to massive
public protests inspired by Carson’s work, governments in Europe and
North America introduced environmental legislation to regulate harmful chemicals and reduce air and water pollution; while four laws related
to environmental protection were passed in these countries in the period
from 1956 to 1960, this increased to ten from 1960 to 1965, to eighteen
from 1966 to 1970, and to thirty-­one from 1970 to 1975.49
As states formulated these national policies on pollution, many began to consider the desirability of sharing scientific and technical expertise with one another to obtain more rapid results and maximize their
investments in research.50 Collaborating on research into pollution’s
harmful effects and the development of technologies to monitor and
control chemicals in the environment would allow governments to share
the costs of large projects and learn from one another’s efforts. As new
findings began to suggest that sulfur dioxide and other chemicals could
impact the environment far from sources of emissions, the question of
how countries could work jointly to address pollution began to have

c h a p te r o n e


greater salience for scientists, government officials, and a new cadre of
professionals at intergovernmental institutions.
From the Local to the Global
The recognition of invisible chemical pollutants as a potential public
health and environmental threat coincided with the increasing participation of intergovernmental organizations in international scientific cooperation. Their involvement in organizing research projects among politically allied governments expanded after the Second World War because
of a growing emphasis on scientific research in foreign policy among
countries in Western Europe and the US. This was particularly true for
the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
and its precursor, the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC). The only intergovernmental group consisting of the majority of Western states and excluding Eastern Europe, it functioned as the
primary venue for performing cooperative research on a number of environmental problems among its member governments throughout the
1950s and 1960s. Like many intergovernmental organizations at this
time, the OECD “Secretariat” was staffed by a new breed of civil service professionals who worked at its Paris office full-­time in support of
representatives from its member countries.51 It was subdivided into several committees, subcommittees, and working groups on topics such as
trade, education, science, and economic policy, with academic experts
and government officials from each country directing research and facilitating policy discussions.
Following the pollution disasters, the OECD began to assist with
studies and information exchange on pollution monitoring and possible smoke abatement measures.52 With rising concerns over invisible
chemicals in the environment, this role expanded to include overseeing
joint scientific projects and coordinating government policies on sulfur
dioxide and other chemical products. In this way, the OECD’s work
brought about a distinct change in collaboration on air pollution research and government policies among Western governments, with profound ramifications for international environmental diplomacy in the
late 1960s and early 1970s once states began to grapple with the possibility that pollutants could have impacts far from their point of origin.
While international scientific cooperation has a long history, after
1945, it became institutionalized in intergovernmental bodies to an extent never before seen.53 In the immediate decade after the Second World
War, 58 new intergovernmental and nongovernmental international sci­

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


entific organizations were created, more than twice the number than
had been founded in the previous twenty years. By the mid-­1960s, there
were over 250 nongovernmental and 50 intergovernmental groups engaged in scientific activities.54 To a large extent, this transformation was
the result of greater government involvement in financing scientific research and technological development to support the war effort. Innovations in atomic physics and the application of nuclear research to military purposes during the Second World War fundamentally changed the
relationship between science and government in America and Europe
as states began shouldering a large share of investment costs and control over scientific work.55 The successes of international collaborations
on wartime technologies, such as work on radar, atomic weapons, and
penicillin, convinced many governments of the advantages in continuing
joint efforts in research, particularly given rising budgetary investments
in science and technology.56
Coordination among these many new institutions became a major
objective of governments in Europe and North America during the 1950s
and early 1960s to avoid duplication of work and wasting of resources.57
This shifted the formulation of many scientific programs and policies
to international forums from national governments and provided additional motivation for joint projects.58 Cooperation was also rooted in
the need to combine resources to pursue research in areas where the cost
of equipment was very high, especially for smaller nations.59 With the
onset of the Cold War, the incorporation of scientific expertise into security considerations also assumed more importance as the US sought
to bolster the military and economic strength of a beleaguered Western
Europe. Devastated from the Second World War, governments in Western Europe were in dire need of US aid for economic reconstruction. Under President Truman, the US government had authorized $13 billion in
aid to Western Europe in 1948 in order to provide short-­term assistance
in stabilizing these countries financially and politically in what became
known as the “Marshall Plan.”60 While science was not initially part of
the strategy for assisting Europe, CIA fears about the defection of scientists from Western Europe to the Soviet Union contributed to a shift in
policy.61 Collaborating with private philanthropies like the Rockefeller
and Ford Foundations, the US government sought to finance the rehabilitation of European infrastructure and manpower in science and technology so that it would not have to shoulder the entire responsibility for
balancing capabilities against the Soviet Union.62
The OEEC emerged as an important institution in implementing
these policies after it was founded on April 16, 1948. Its purpose was

c h a p te r o n e


to distribute the Marshall Plan aid from the US and Canada, as well
as promote the economic integration and cooperation of Western Europe.63 The emphasis on science intensified once the ravaged economies
had fully recovered in the late 1950s. After the launch of Sputnik and
renewed fears of Soviet superiority, the OEEC formed the Committee
for Scientific and Technical Personnel to bolster Europe’s scientific manpower.64 The OEEC efforts focused on providing American expertise in
atomic physics to assist in the creation of a nuclear power industry on
the continent, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),
with financing from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, put programs
in place to train additional scientists and engineers.65
The fruitfulness of these endeavors and advances in economic integration motivated US and European leaders to refashion the OEEC in
order to continue coordinating scientific research with the common goal
of economic expansion.66 Its successor, the OECD, was first proposed
by President Eisenhower late in 1959 and enthusiastically welcomed by
many officials in Western Europe and Canada.67 After Eisenhower discussed his plans with President de Gaulle of France, Chancellor Adenauer of Germany, and Prime Minister Macmillan of Britain, negotiations began among all 18 member countries and concluded in December
1960 with the signing of the OECD convention in Paris.68 Significantly,
the drafting committee proposed keeping the Scientific and Technical
Personnel group together while also adding a specific committee to be
focused on scientific research.69 It recommended that member countries
provide financial resources to further international cooperation in science and technology and earmark a certain sum each year for joint research endeavors.70 The new focus on such projects reflected a growing
belief among member countries that scientific discoveries and their technological applications could spur economic growth as much as, if not
more than, the accepted classical factors of production.71
The OECD’s burgeoning responsibilities in assisting governments
with collectively forming science policies paved the way for its development as the primary agency for political and scientific collaboration on
air pollution.72 The OECD was one of the first intergovernmental organizations to exhibit an interest in air pollution studies, and soon became
the major international forum for its member governments to work cooperatively on the problem after the escalating number of pollution disasters.73 Following the 1952 London smog incident, in 1957 the OEEC
established a working group of scientific representatives to study the best
methods of measuring different components of air pollution. These included grit and dust, suspended matter, and sulfur oxides, and later hy-

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


drocarbons and fluorine compounds. With two leading British experts in
air pollution studies as chairmen, the delegates met each year to review
sampling techniques with some assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO), which was developing air quality standards at this
time.74 Throughout these meetings, scientists attempted to standardize
procedures and undertake experiments to test various methods of monitoring pollution concentrations, as well as discuss the latest developments in the field. Upon the OEEC’s refashioning into the OECD and
expansion to include the US and Canada in 1961, air pollution became a
major focus of the Committee for Scientific Research.75
Although several other intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations also facilitated collaborative endeavors for a number of environmental issues, few paid attention to air pollution during the 1950s
and 1960s.76 For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific,
and Cultural Organization was largely focused on development and natural resources in the Third World, while scientific nongovernmental organizations, such as the International Association of Meteorology and
Atmospheric Physics, were involved with less applied research.77 Among
the major intergovernmental organizations that did deal in various ways
with air pollution, most did not look at fossil fuel pollution or focused
narrowly on air pollution from particular industries. In the early 1960s,
for instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency organized a series
of panels on proper safety guidelines for radiation releases from atomic
tests and nuclear power plants, but did not move beyond its focus on
atomic energy.78 Though the WHO arranged a series of government consultations and workshops on air quality criteria and the health effects of
pollutant exposure after the pollution disasters, much of its work during
the 1960s involved studies on radioactive wastes, clean water standards,
the increasing use of pesticides, the ecology and biology of disease vectors, drug abuse, and noise.79 The UN Economic Commission for Europe
was much more focused on water pollution at this time, and its work
on air pollution was limited to a few studies of smokeless fuels and air
pollution by coking plants in the steel industry. The World Meteorological Organization did develop two types of air pollution networks in
1967, but these were intended to study long-­term climatic changes and
could not be used for regional studies of air pollution because of their
One exception was the Council of Europe, which formed its first expert committee on air pollution in 1966 and set out to adopt, in general terms, principles to address the problem of air pollution from fossil
fuels.81 It worked regularly to facilitate discussions on the environmental

c h a p te r o n e


impact of air pollutants, convening a scientific conference on the effects of air pollution on plants, both cultivated and wild.82 Yet beyond
these activities, its involvement was limited to political debates concerning the development of recommendations; while making use of ongoing
scientific research, the Council of Europe did not coordinate technical
In contrast to these groups, the OECD became much more involved
in facilitating joint scientific research and information exchange on air
pollution from fossil fuels, especially sulfur dioxide. Their work grew
considerably after 1966 as the environmental movement spread across
Europe and North America. In response to the public’s demand for government action, the OECD promoted its Committee for Cooperative Research from a subcommittee to a full Committee for Scientific Research
and initiated new research efforts on environmental topics.84 Some of
these collaborations involved sharing technical expertise and scientific
information about fossil fuel pollutants as governments struggled to improve their air quality.85 To this end, the Committee worked to create
a common glossary of terminology used in studies on air pollution to
be published in English, French, German, and Italian, as well as facilitate the exchange of publications and data among its member states.
It also hosted seminars, such as on the creation of “zero-­stations” located far away from pollution sources, so scientific representatives could
learn from other countries’ research experiences.86 This helped standardize methods of sulfur dioxide detection, which was vital in laying the
groundwork for future scientific cooperation on air pollution problems.87
Beyond serving as a forum for brainstorming research strategies and
environmental policies, the OECD was also instrumental in making data
itself global by standardizing pollution measurement techniques. In addition to exchanging information among its members, the OECD began
to oversee some of the first jointly run air pollution studies during the
1960s. It created its own network of pilot observatories to begin trials
on atmospheric measurements of fossil fuel emissions, establishing stations with the German Research Foundation in the Federal Republic of
Germany, the Research Institute of Applied Chemistry in France, the Institute for Water and Air Pollution Research in Sweden, and the Swiss
Federal Laboratory for Testing of Materials in Switzerland. Through
these activities, the OECD cultivated a group of experienced laboratories that could test sampling and analysis methods for future regional
networks of air pollution monitoring stations.88 Without synchronizing
their testing procedures against one another, scientists in different countries could not be sure of the comparability of their results, a funda­

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


mental prerequisite for conducting a research study with different national groups.
These efforts began to assume greater importance within the OECD
as concerns grew about the environmental impact of invisible chemical
pollutants on areas remote from their emission source.89 Since the 1950s,
studies on nuclear fallout released into the atmosphere from atomic testing had made it clear that these pollutants could be transported worldwide. Radiation from atomic tests in the US and Soviet Union produced
radioactive rainfall as far away as Germany, Japan, and Northern Canada.90 However, it was unclear whether chemical pollutants released
through other means could be similarly transported to distant areas.
The discovery of high levels of pesticides in the Antarctic in 1965
suggested that radioactive fallout was not unique in its ability to travel
long distances in the atmosphere. Though Silent Spring had presented
data showing DDT was accumulating in organisms far from locations
where pesticides had been sprayed, measurements of pesticides in seals
and penguins living in the Antarctic provided unmistakable evidence
that large-­scale atmospheric or oceanic transport of these chemicals was
occurring.91 In response to these concerns about pesticide accumulation
in the environment, from 1966 through 1971 the OECD oversaw a cooperative study on chemical residues in wildlife. Scientists from thirteen
of its member states participated, and it was the first international, joint
research project undertaken on the fate of chemical pollutants in the
These findings on DDT, in concert with knowledge about the atmospheric transport of radioactive fallout, prompted scientists and policymakers at the OECD to question the degree to which fossil fuel pollutants could also travel long distances across the planet.93 This shift in
thinking about pollution as a regional and perhaps even global phenomenon compelled the OECD and other intergovernmental organizations
to consider whether a common approach to studying and regulating sulfur dioxide pollution was needed, and if so, what institution would be
best suited to lead scientific and diplomatic efforts.
The Discovery of Acid Rain
The recognition that pollutants did not respect international boundaries
was part of a widespread transformation in foreign policy circles concerning the importance of environmental issues in international diplomacy. As more governments sought to enact legislation during the late
1960s in response to the environmental movement, many government

c h a p te r o n e


officials, diplomats, scientists, and business leaders began to argue that
environmental problems needed to be addressed on a global scale. Issues ranging from fears about population growth to natural resource
conservation helped spur this shift in thinking and prompted extensive
debate about how countries should engage in international cooperation
on environmental problems.94 Swedish scientists’ detection of acid rain
serendipitously coincided with the emergence of these conversations on
global environmental cooperation. After first receiving scant attention
from the Swedish government, acid rain went on to become the paramount focus of its efforts leading up to the famous 1972 UN Conference
on the Human Environment, which was the first international conference to address the environmental crises facing nations around the world.
While helping to generate attention to the acid rain problem, the UN
meeting also underscored the challenges in tackling pollution at the supranational level. Paradoxically, it hardened divisions in the international community at the same time as the conference underscored the
importance of environmental diplomacy.
Atmospheric and soil scientists first discovered an increase in acidic
rainfall quite accidentally in the course of studies conducted through the
European Air Chemistry Network (EACN) during the 1950s and 1960s.
The EACN originated out of research by a Swedish soil scientist at the
Ultuna Agricultural College in Uppsala, Hans Egnér, who set out to examine the relationship between chemicals in the atmosphere and agricultural productivity after the Second World War.95 With the help of his
assistant, the meteorologist Erik Eriksson, in 1948 Egnér fashioned precipitation samplers at farms throughout Sweden in order to study the input of nutrients like sodium, chloride, and calcium into the soil.96 These
were analyzed monthly alongside samples of air, which were tested for
levels of chemical compounds such as ammonia and sulfur dioxide.97
In the spring of 1952, their data set came to the attention of Carl-­
Gustaf Arvid Rossby, a leading Swedish atmospheric physicist who had
recently returned to Stockholm from the US after helping to train American meteorologists during the Second World War.98 Rossby developed
an interest in studying global atmospheric processes shortly before the
war began, and his encounter with Egnér and Eriksson’s work inspired
him to consider the need for meteorology to investigate the role of the
atmosphere in biogeochemistry.99 Little research had been done previously in global atmospheric chemistry and nutrient cycles, and Rossby
believed that it could have important practical applications for forestry
and agriculture as well as understanding climatic change over long periods. In the hopes of pursuing work on these large-­scale earth pro-

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


Map of stations participating in the European Air Chemistry Network in the 1950s. From Hans
Egnér and Erik Eriksson, “Current Data on the Chemical Composition of Air and Precipitation,” Tellus 7,
no. 1 (February 1, 1955): 134–­139.

Figure 1.1

cesses, he helped Egnér and Eriksson expand the number of station sites
in their small network to Norway, Sweden, and Finland between 1952
and 1954. Rossby then recruited Eriksson to help him analyze the atmo­
spheric data at the newly founded International Meteorological Institute in Stockholm.100 In addition to increasing the geographic scope of
the measurements, Rossby, Egnér, and Eriksson introduced other components to the analysis, notably pH.101 A pH value indicates whether a
chemical is acidic or basic, two extremes similar to whether a substance
is hot or cold. It is made on a logarithmic scale ranging from 0 (acidic)
to 14 (basic), which means that for every step on the scale a substance is
100 times more acidic or basic. Pure water is neutral and measures “7”
on the pH scale, though rainfall has historically been slightly acidic with
a range between 5.0 and 5.5. Originally conceived in the early twentieth century for use in chemistry experiments, pH measurements had not
been used to determine rainfall acidity on any kind of regional basis. The
pioneering EACN measurements of pH and other chemical properties
were eventually extended to Germany and Belgium over the course of

c h a p te r o n e


the 1950s, and by the end of the decade, the network had accumulated
a considerable amount of data on changes in precipitation and air composition.102
One of the most striking findings for Rossby was the pattern of increasing concentrations of rainfall acidity throughout Scandinavia. Although having no direct data on its origins, Rossby correctly inferred
that this increase in acid rain was likely caused by pollution from British and German industries.103 But despite identifying the ominous trend,
Rossby didn’t recognize that a rise in precipitation acidity could damage the environment, and his investigations ended with his unexpected
death in 1957.104 Other biologists elsewhere in Scandinavia, however,
were beginning to accumulate evidence indicating acid rain could in fact
cause serious damages to organisms. As early as 1950, Norwegian biologists suggested that fish populations in the country might be declining
from an increase in the acidity of precipitation.105 Several other researchers published similar conjectures about local effects of acidic rainfall in
Europe during the 1950s and 1960s, but their work was not widely disseminated within the scientific community.106
It was not until the late 1960s that a Swedish soil scientist, Svante
Odén, recognized acid rain could have potentially serious environmental
consequences across the region. Odén had agreed to manage the EACN
after Rossby’s untimely death and Eriksson’s simultaneous decision to
leave Sweden for a job with the International Atomic Energy Agency.107
He had previously worked on research examining the heat properties
and organic constituents of clay and humus at the Agricultural College
in Uppsala and had little experience in atmospheric monitoring.108 But
as he managed the network stations over the ensuing decade, Odén began to suspect that atmospheric pollution was an ecological threat after
beginning a project to map the precipitation data gathered each month.
Through this work, he produced a cartographic image of changing pH
across Scandinavia for the first time, which painted a striking picture of
the intensification of acid rainfall since the network’s creation. It was
through this visualization of the EACN’s data on acidity in precipitation
that Odén realized both the magnitude of the decrease in pH and its geographic extent.109
Concerned about the environmental impact of this “acid rain,” Odén
took the unusual step of publishing his scientific findings in a popular daily newspaper in October 1967 before submitting them for peer-­
review in an academic journal. Writing in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s
most popular daily press, he argued that industrial emissions of sulfur
dioxide were causing acid rain and damaging the country’s ecosystems.

F i g u r e 1 . 2 Photograph of Svante Odén. Erik Lotse, “NF Svante Odén,” Svenskt Biografiskt Lexikon
(Riksarkivet, 2013).

c h a p te r o n e


Drawing upon over fifteen years of data from the EACN and 600 lakes
in Scandinavia, Odén claimed that acid rain was contributing to fish extinctions and warned of possible damage to soils and forests.110 Calling
it a “chemical war” waged against his country, Odén sparked a huge national outcry in Sweden and across Scandinavia in the following years.111
Odén’s article was responsible for stimulating the earliest public attention to acid rain, and provoked considerable debate about the problem among Scandinavian atmospheric scientists and ecologists.112 His
work was likely given such attention not only because of the very public
way in which he spoke out about acid rain, but also because many other
scientists and government officials in Europe were beginning to fear that
sulfur dioxide might be harming the environment in addition to human
health. Approximately a year prior to his publication, national representatives to the Council of Europe’s Commission for the Conservation
of Nature and Natural Resources met to discuss emerging scientific research on the biological dangers caused by fossil fuel pollutants in the
air.113 The first European-­wide scientific conference on the environmental effects of air pollution was conceived as a result of their meeting, and
brought together more than one hundred scientists from 15 countries as
well as official representatives from many influential international organizations, including the OECD, WHO, and Euratom.114 In the wake of
the Swedish uproar, the scientists gathered in April 1968 to synthesize
the growing body of ecological and meteorological data on air pollution, with sulfur dioxide a focus of their discussions. Participants noted
that the effects of sulfur dioxide had been observed in many places far
from industries, and completely non-­industrialized areas were collecting
rainwater with a pH as low as 2.8, about the same as that of vinegar.115
Studies reported reduced crop yields in agriculture and forestry throughout affected areas, as well as the complete disappearance of lichens at
winter concentrations of sulfur dioxide above 50 micrograms per cubic
meter.116 Based on the research presented, the scientists concluded that it
was not possible to delineate limits of sulfur dioxide that would prevent
injury to plants, as even minute levels were shown to be harmful.117 Although the participants acknowledged that large gaps in scientific understanding remained, a consensus emerged that air pollution was causing
such serious damages to the environment that “governments must take
Despite the scientific evidence for the international dispersion of air
pollution, some of Odén’s own colleagues, including Eriksson, were not
convinced that acid rain was an environmental threat.119 Only a small
number of biological studies had been done specifically on the environ-

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


mental impact of acid rain, and there was little atmospheric evidence
concerning whether and to what extent sulfur dioxide could travel long
distances across national borders.120 Though a few scientists had suggested its residence time in the atmosphere could be as long as five to ten
days, others had put the figure at less than twenty-­four hours.121 If the
latter was true, then foreign pollution was unlikely to be the source of
the problem. Additionally, Eriksson and other Swedish ecologists were
not persuaded that the increase in acidity was as alarming and severe
as Odén alleged and seemed uncomfortable with his public accusations
on “such complex issues.”122 The Swedish government appears to have
had a similarly muted reaction. Although Odén presented his work in
May 1968 to the Swedish Ministry of Agriculture, which oversaw environmental issues in the country, he was denied further funding from the
Swedish government to pursue additional research on acid rain over the
next two years.123 His efforts to bring greater attention to the problem
among government officials succeeded only thanks to a small group of
Swedish representatives to the UN who sought to focus international attention on environmental problems for entirely different reasons.
Just a few short months after Odén published his findings in 1967,
Swedish diplomats proposed holding the first international conference
on environmental issues at the UN. The impetus for Sweden’s bold
proposal, however, was not acid rain. Instead, the diplomats were determined to avoid the organization of another UN conference on the
peaceful uses of atomic energy, which Swedish representatives believed
promoted the interests of the nuclear industry at the expense of international work toward disarmament.124 With the environmental movement
gaining momentum across Europe and North America, the topic seemed
a perfectly timed avenue for steering the UN toward other pressing international issues.125
Sweden was no exception to the surge in public and political agitation over the environment. Several pollution problems had generated
considerable attention to pollution and toxic chemicals in Sweden over
the course of the 1960s, and the government became a pioneer in environmental regulation in response to public pressure over the incidents.
First, fish off the southern coast of the country were found to have such
high levels of mercury that citizens were discouraged from consuming
them more than once a week, and many Swedes in Uppsala were hospitalized after eating pheasants that contained high levels of mercury in
their bodies from contaminated feed.126 Shortly thereafter, Sweden became the first country to ban the use of DDT after Swedish scientists discovered fish, birds, and plants contained rising amounts of the chemical,

c h a p te r o n e


increasing as one moved up the food chain.127 Given these domestic developments, it is unsurprising that the pollution problems Swedish representatives first identified as possible topics for international treaties
at a possible UN conference on the environment were the discharging
of oil and wastes by ocean vessels and pesticides such as DDT.128 In attempting to generate international support for the conference, Swedish officials seldom even cited air pollution problems like acid rain; initially, the issues of population growth, overuse of natural resources,
and water pollution were much more frequently listed as rationales for
the gathering.129 In fact, it was not until 1969 that Swedish government
officials first began to complain publicly about acid rain, singling out
Britain as the major contributor to sulfuric acid in their country’s
The inclusion of acid rain as part of Sweden’s preparations for the
UN conference did not occur until 1970, after the Swedish king formally
approved the formation of a national committee to oversee preparations
for the Stockholm Conference at a cabinet meeting in December 1969.
The national committee was chaired by former Prime Minister Tage Erlander with the minister of agriculture, Ingemund Bengtsson, serving as
vice chairman. They subsequently formed three subcommittees to work
on separate aspects of the conference: a committee for organizational
issues, a committee on press and information, and a committee on research. The latter, officially known as the Committee on Research and
Substantial Issues, was created in the spring of 1970 and chaired by Professor Arne Engström.131
The primary task of the committee on research was to compile a
country report on environmental issues since the UN had asked all participating governments to send background material for the meeting’s
discussions. After the group’s formation, it contacted leading Swedish
scientists and researchers requesting suggestions for potential topics.132
Though the possibility of performing a case study of acid rain was raised
in the committee’s early meetings among other suggested issues, much of
the discussion focused on areas with possible relevance for developing
nations, such as natural resource conservation.133
The major impetus in choosing acid rain for the Swedish case study
came from Odén, who submitted a proposal to make it the cornerstone
of the committee’s work in May 1970.134 To bolster his pitch, he argued
acid rain was an ideal case study not only because of its regional aspects
but also because of the likelihood that developing nations would confront the problem as they industrialized, making it a truly global, international issue.135 He suggested that Sweden’s report discuss current

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


research on the increase in acidic rainfall over Europe since the 1950s
and evidence for its impact on soils and biological systems, particularly
aquatic life and forests.136 In addition, Odén thought it would be useful
to incorporate cost-­benefit analyses on controlling acid rain that looked
at the potential long-­term effects on the environment and human health
to strengthen arguments for controlling sulfur dioxide pollution.137 In a
not so subtle attempt to remedy his lack of funding for acid rain studies, Odén concluded his proposal by adding that the Swedish Ministry of
Agriculture might provide financing to get work underway as quickly as
possible given the absence of any grants for his research on the problem
over the previous two years.
The potential international appeal of Odén’s proposition was underscored by a meeting of representatives to the Scandinavian Council for
Applied Research a week after the committee received his submission.138
The Swedish delegate to the gathering was Bert Bolin, a professor of
atmospheric science and member of Sweden’s Committee on Research
and Substantial Issues who had read Odén’s proposal just before arriving. Bolin had a longstanding interest in atmospheric chemistry and
global climate change, which he developed after a brief but influential
period working with Rossby earlier in his career.139 Upon learning of the
Nordic countries’ common interest in acid rain pollution at the meeting,
Bolin asked whether they would be willing to assist Sweden with a case
study of acidification for the 1972 UN Conference, which the other delegates enthusiastically endorsed.140 Based on the support received from
the Scandinavian representatives at this meeting as well as his own personal conversations with Swedish researchers knowledgeable about acid
rain, Bolin recommended that Sweden accept Odén’s proposal to use
acid rain as a case study for the UN Conference provided the report emphasized the regional nature of the problem, not just local ecological
effects in Sweden.141 In this way, acid rain became a beneficiary of the
1972 UN Conference, gaining scientific and political attention as a result
of the social and political enthusiasm for tackling environmental problems during this period.
With the endorsement of Bolin, in September 1970 the committee on
research approved the selection of acid rain as the topic of Sweden’s national report and secured funding for the preparation of a draft.142 Bolin
formed a working group of Swedish scientists shortly thereafter to begin synthesizing the available research concerning acid rain’s effects on
the environment and its atmospheric transport. Odén was placed in
charge of compiling studies on aquatic effects of acid rain and their impact on fish populations, while Swedish biologist Carl Olaf Tamm of the

c h a p te r o n e


College of Forestry prepared material on possible decreases in plant life
and forest production.143 Meteorologists at Stockholm University were
given responsibility for preparing material on the sulfur cycle and the
ways in which sulfur dioxide theoretically could be transported across
national borders. This work was largely based on the striking correlation
between increasing acidity in Scandinavia and the increase in anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions over the same period, since no atmospheric
research had yet been done demonstrating the connection between foreign pollution and acid rain.144 Other aspects of the problem, including
corrosive effects, possible health impacts, and cost-­benefit analyses, were
also incorporated into the case study.145 The final report was completed
in August 1971 and transmitted to the UN in the hope that the gathering
would generate discussion of the scientific findings and greater international attention to the problem.146
However, the idea to use the 1972 UN Conference as a platform for
any substantive negotiations on the issue of acid rain was looking less
and less promising as the UN began its preparations in 1970 and 1971.
Encompassing nations across the globe, the UN appeared to be the only
intergovernmental body with the capacity to facilitate diplomatic discussions on pollution problems that transcended national boundaries.
But from the outset of Sweden’s proposal to hold a conference on environmental issues at the UN, many government officials in industrialized countries questioned its ability to lead diplomatic talks on pollution problems.147 These critiques centered on two major issues: the UN’s
lack of experience in organizing scientific research and whether political
negotiations on environmental problems would be better served by regional organizations. Both issues became insurmountable obstacles to
generating substantive discussions of acid rain and air pollution during
the 1972 conference.
The importance of involving scientists in international environmental cooperation was highlighted repeatedly throughout the planning of
the 1972 meeting, particularly by its director general, Maurice F. Strong.
During preparatory meetings for the conference, he frequently stressed
“the need for science to provide many of the key answers to today’s
environmental problems” so policymakers could fully understand the
chemicals they were putting into nature and avoid “taking risks that may
be irreversible.”148 Strong argued that a partnership between science and
politics would be crucial during the conference for effective action, citing Sweden’s case study on acid rain as an exemplary model of scientific
advising on a global environmental issue.149

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


Given the importance of scientific advising for identifying and regulating dangerous chemical pollutants, many foreign policy officials
agreed with Strong that scientists were essential contributors to international cooperation.150 Yet Strong’s idealized image of the use of science
in the 1972 conference was deeply at odds with the UN’s track record as
a forum for scientific and diplomatic work on the environment. In comparison to other intergovernmental groups, the UN had little experience
in facilitating scientific research on environmental problems, and critics
of the 1972 UN conference believed that this severely handicapped the
organization from serving as a leader in international negotiations. 151
Former US diplomat George Kennan even went so far as to recommend
governments create an entirely new international organization consisting of ostensibly “independent” scientists to oversee global environmental cooperation given the UN’s past ineptitude.152
During these debates, the OECD was frequently argued to be a much
more efficient and capable organization for handling environmental issues
given its prior expertise in organizing scientific studies as compared to the
UN.153 Even Strong conceded that the OECD had a much greater amount
of experience and knowledge in carrying out research on environmental
issues, though he felt that ultimately the real arena for discussing effective
policy measures needed to be a global organization like the UN.154
However, the necessity of a global group to oversee environmental
negotiations was also heavily debated during the conference preparations because of ongoing Cold War tensions between capitalist and communist countries as well as the stark differences in environmental problems experienced by industrialized nations compared with developing
countries.155 Complaints surfaced among the more industrialized nations
that the focus on environmental issues of developing nations took time
and resources away from their pollution problems.156 Additionally, the
Cold War appeared to be an insurmountable hurdle to a truly global
UN environmental meeting, with the Soviet Union and its satellite states
pulling out of the conference when East Germany was barred from fully
Because of these obstacles, industrialized countries on both sides
of the iron curtain questioned whether the UN was the appropriate forum to discuss international environmental policies. Among Western
governments, the Cold War provided another reason to seek cooperation through other intergovernmental groups in addition to the UN’s
inexperience with scientific research. Though NATO was proposed as
a possible substitute, the OECD’s established machinery for scientific

c h a p te r o n e


cooperation and its membership of Western European nations alongside the US and Canada led many government officials to view it as the
ideal setting for environmental negotiations.158 Foreign policy officials
among the OECD’s member states also saw it as the most appropriate
forum for cooperation because of its use of recommendations rather than
mandatory regulations, which they believed intruded on national sovereignty.159 On the other side of the iron curtain, the Soviet Union harbored similar concerns about the potential for environmental diplomacy
to infringe upon national sovereignty, and its representatives to the UN
openly criticized the push toward global negotiations on these grounds.
As one Soviet diplomat argued during a preparatory meeting for the
International cooperation on the human environment should
be based on equal recognition of and respect for bilateral, sub-­
regional, regional and global actions taken by the countries participating in the cooperation. An overestimation of global or regional aspects of the problem can fetter actions of countries and
affect sovereign rights and feelings of various nations.160

Faced with the challenges of Cold War tensions alongside difficulties
forging cooperation between developed and developing nations, the
1972 UN Conference came to a close having devoted little time to the
problems of chemical pollutants in the environment, including acid rain.
As many critics of the conference anticipated, the outcome of the 1972
conference was a set of twenty-­six principles on environmental protection, known as the Stockholm Declaration, which largely dealt with issues pertaining to developing nations.161 The Swedish report on acid
rain was not discussed in detail during the conference and resulted in no
specific recommendations in the declaration, though “Principle 21” did
stipulate that states were generally obligated not to pollute the environment of other nations.162 More than affirming the need for a global effort on pollution problems, the 1972 Conference thus reinforced beliefs
among many countries that the UN was an unwieldy, ineffective organization poorly suited to the technical work that was believed to be crucial for informing environmental policies among Western industrialized
In considering whether to press for further UN involvement in research or political discussions on acid rain, the Nordic governments
largely concurred that the hopes for further cooperation were best pursued at the OECD. In meetings of the Nordic Council during final prepa-

C r eati n g a Gl o bal P o ll u ti o n P r o ble m


rations for the 1972 UN conference, Norwegian representatives argued
that the OECD was by far the most appropriate intergovernmental organization for leading international efforts on pollution problems because
its membership was restricted to industrialized countries and it could
most ably oversee scientific and technical work.163 Though some Swedish representatives believed that the global nature of pollution problems
made them more suited to cooperation through the UN, other delegates
from Sweden and the remaining Nordic states insisted that the combination of Western, industrialized membership in the OECD alongside
its “technical-­scientific activities” made it a far better avenue for this
work.164 While Scandinavian representatives hoped that the 1972 Conference guidelines and principles might help direct the work of regional
groups like the OECD, it is clear that most of their government officials
had few expectations for the UN in fostering either research or diplomacy on pollution.165
While helping to redefine acid rain and pollution as global threats,
then, the movement to bring environmental issues to the UN during the
1972 Stockholm conference faltered over Cold War divisions and the desire to oversee research and policy together in one institution. The OECD,
with its longstanding reputation for facilitating scientific cooperation,
appeared to be the obvious choice for such a project on acid rain. In the
years to come, however, the acid rain problem would call into question
the wisdom of relying upon common economic and political ties to conduct scientific research that would lead to environmental regulations.166
The decision to prioritize expertise in scientific research presumed that
the results of these studies would naturally lead to international treaties to remedy environmental threats like acid rain among allied governments. This ideal of the scientific expert as a solver of political problems
proved to be much more difficult to put into practice as the Nordic countries made arrangements to corroborate Odén’s claims through further
research within the OECD.


The Science of Acid Rain
The most serious obstacle to obtaining an understanding of large-­scale consequences of atmospheric pollution is sheer lack of information which is in turn the
result of lack of basic data, of facilities and especially of money to support this
type of work . . . It is ironic that almost all available funds go into studies of relatively small regions, that is, in the neighbourhood of cities; important though
these may be, it is a case of gross imbalance so to neglect the general problem
affecting the whole world and therefore the lives of all of us.1
James Lovelock, “Air Pollution and Climatic Change,” 1971

The hope of the acid rain study, officials said, will be first to establish the facts
in a scientific manner and then to try to devise some satisfactory international
approach on preventative measures.2
Clyde H. Farnsworth, “Norse Seek Curb on Acid Rainfall,” 1970

When scientists first discovered acid rain was a regional
problem in the late 1960s, how far fossil fuel pollutants
traveled through the atmosphere was still unknown.3
Several industrialized countries affected by the problem
soon began to question how they should adapt their research priorities on the environment and energy to this
newly identified environmental hazard. Should governments sponsor collaborative projects on fossil fuel pollution and its ecological impact? How much of this work
should be done in universities, government research centers, or the private sector? Did it make sense to coordinate
these research projects internationally, or should countries

T h e S c i e n c e o f A c i d R ai n


do their own studies and then compare the results? How closely should
researchers work alongside environmental officials, and how responsive
should this work be to public pressure for political action? Ultimately,
what kind of science would be most useful to policymakers and diplomats looking for solutions to global environmental threats?
Norway, one of the countries most at risk from acid rain pollution,
and Britain, one of the countries most responsible for the problem, offered two starkly different models for how to approach these questions.
In the wake of the Swedish findings, these nations’ research communities and environmental ministries became leaders in proposing a model
of how to construct an “environmental” science of acid rain and how to
use science in formulating environmental and energy policies. In Norway, the government launched the most extensive scientific research effort into the problem following Odén’s provocative findings. Their work
resulted in two important shifts in scientific research on pollution problems that influenced environmental science across Europe and North
America: first, promotion of international cooperation to examine air
pollution on a regional scale, and second, encouragement of interdisciplinary collaboration to gain an overarching understanding of acid rain.
New projects that emphasized these approaches helped create a “big science” of acid rain and the environment, characterized by large amounts
of government funding and new technologies. Researchers were expected
to work in teams and to be responsive to the needs of policymakers and
the public in trying to address pollution, rather than pursuing what was
typically viewed as “basic” research.
Not everyone was in favor of this push toward international, collaborative environmental science. British officials strenuously objected
to the Norwegian plan to tackle acid rain and other chemical threats
through interdisciplinary projects coordinated among multiple countries. Instead, they offered more of a “bottom-­up” approach to studying
fossil fuel pollution, with countries engaging in separate research efforts
whose results could later be compared with one another.
During the early 1970s, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation
and Development (OECD) brokered a hybrid approach between these
two visions of environmental science, with implications for its use in environmental and energy policies in the industrialized world. The OECD
created the first international atmospheric research project on fossil fuel
pollution but declined to include any biological or ecological work in the
study. OECD officials, and indeed many other government representatives at this time, assumed documenting and quantifying the pollution
transfer between countries would form the foundation of any reduction

chapter two


schemes going forward. Even if differing widely in their responses to acid
rain, government officials in Europe and North America shared a strong
belief in the ability for new scientific studies to provide clear answers to
how societies should respond to the potential threat of acid rain. However, the belief that the OECD project would serve as a guide to enacting public policy on acid rain was sharply questioned following the 1973
oil shocks. The OECD failed to issue recommendations to reduce sulfur
dioxide pollution after the ensuing energy crisis, prompting government
officials and scientists to rethink how scientific expertise should inform international diplomacy on acid rain and whether the problem could be resolved under the auspices of a Western, economically oriented institution.
Acid Rain and the Development of Environmental Science
The uproar generated by Svante Odén’s publication on acid rain coincided with new debates about how scientists should study pollution
problems in the wake of the modern environmental movement. While
concerns about radioactive contamination had already spurred different approaches to researching environmental contamination within the
US during the previous two decades, European nations had only recently
begun grappling with the role of science in analyzing chemical contaminants.4 Scandinavia, where concerns about DDT, mercury, and acid
rain originated, became a pioneer in developing innovative scientific approaches to investigating pollution.
The month prior to the publication of Odén’s article in Dagens
Nyheter, the Scandinavian Council for Applied Research, also known as
NORDFORSK (Nordisk Samarbeidsorganisasjon for Teknisk-­Vitenskapelig
Forskning), undertook a review of research and policies concerning environmental pollution in each Nordic country. Their hope was to coordinate work on air and water pollution in light of the political attention
to environmental issues across Europe.5 The Scandinavian Council for
Applied Research was founded in the years after the Second World War
to assist Scandinavian research institutes and academies of science in exchanging results or conducting joint projects.6 The organization financed
scientific collaborations on a wide variety of topics that had practical
applications and were deemed matters of common interest to all countries, ranging from foundry work to air defense.7 Its creation was part of
a broader push to politically and economically unify Norway, Sweden,
Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, a movement that was complicated by
the deepening Cold War and European integration through the European Economic Community.8

T h e S c i e n c e o f A c i d R ai n


Despite setbacks in creating a united foreign policy during the first
decades of the Cold War, scientific cooperation among the Nordic states
thrived under the Scandinavian Council for Applied Research. As apprehension about the environmental effects of pesticides spread across Europe following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962,
the Scandinavian Council for Applied Research formed its first research
committee on pesticides in 1965 and sponsored additional work on pollution problems once Odén’s acid rain treatise was released.9
Though Swedish scientists had first drawn attention to acid rain and
the problem of long-­range transport of fossil fuel pollutants, it was Norwegian scientific and environmental groups that lobbied most heavily for
the Scandinavian Council for Applied Research to conduct further research. As in its neighbor to the east, Norwegians’ enjoyment of outdoor
recreation in nature helped shape the country’s identity and culture. The
importance of protecting Norwegian “friluftsliv,” which loosely translates to “open air life,” was frequently invoked by environmental groups
and concerned citizens in debates about acid rain’s potential impact.10
But in contrast to Sweden, the Norwegian government was much more
active in institutionalizing and organizing scientific work on pollution
problems. This resulted in a close cooperation between Norwegian scientists and the government that laid the groundwork for Norway’s international leadership on acid rain.
In particular, the Royal Norwegian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Norges Teknisk-­Naturvitenskapelige Forskningsråd, or
NTNF) helped move scientists from work on chemical warfare and other
military projects into environmental research on pollution problems like
acid rain. The NTNF was founded in 1946 to help rebuild Norway’s industrial and scientific bases after the Second World War; modeled on the
British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, it was instrumental in developing the Norwegian space progr