Skip to main content

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.

See the online bibliography for the book.

336 pages | 14 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

History: Environmental History

History of Science

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations


"Sometimes you need to pay attention to history in order to better understand the present. Rothschild looks at the history of acid rain to explore what happened, how countries fought about it, how scientists led the charge against it, and how all of that offers lessons for the modern world of climate change. Essential reading."

The Revelator

"[It is] a revelation to read this remarkable book on the history of acid rain, an environmental and political phenomenon that once prompted significant  research, received wide publicity, and caused political rancor. Using new evidence from seventeen European archives, this exceptionally well-researched work is set to have a lasting impact not only on the history of acid rain but also, and especially, on any future research on the nature of modern environmental governance—climate change included—and on the relationship between science and policy, the role of the energy sector in research and politics, international relations, environmental advocacy, and the scientific activities of transnational institutions. . . . This review cannot do justice to the book’s exceptionally wide coverage of themes and issues. Chapters address matters of Cold War diplomacy, the Soviet-block cooperative initiatives, the impact of the conservative 1980s, the rise of the precautionary principle in governmental policy, and policy developments and the decline of research during the 1990s. Rothschild has dug deep into archives and literature—the book boasts a stunning ninety-four pages of footnotes that are often a treat to read on their own—and has created a compelling narrative on the rise of the scientific, political, and corporate cultures surrounding the public prominence and political salience of research into the ecological costs of acid rain."

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"A comprehensive description of the acid rain history."


"After World War II, the destructive power of nuclear weapons meant that science and policy became deeply intertwined in new ways. 'The scientist,' however, continued to be imagined as an apolitical figure, driven only by the search for objective truths about nature. Plenty of recent works have complicated and displaced this construction, but few do it with such dexterity, command of sources, and chilling lessons for our current times as Rachel Rothschild in Poisonous Skies. Not simply a history of the science, 
technology, and domestic or international policy-making surrounding acid rain, Poisonous Skies is also the story of how European and American dependence on fossil fuels shaped environmental policy in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. . . . [It] is a remarkable book, built on archival research in eight countries and five languages, as well as interviews with American, Norwegian, and British scientists. Most impressive, though, is Rothschild's deliberate positioning of herself and her story within contemporary environmental concerns."

Technology and Culture

"Brilliant. . . . Poisonous Skies exemplifies the best of the transnational turn, but this tree of knowledge has grafts from the histories of science, diplomacy, and the environment too. . . . A nearly impeccable book."

Environment and History

"Poisonous Skies contributes to a growing body of literature on the history of environmental politics that demonstrates that better policies are rarely simply a matter of better science. . . . The book is impeccably researched, drawing on documents from archives in Britain, Germany, Brussels, Norway, France, Sweden, and Switzerland as well as oral histories that Rothschild conducted with many of the key players in this history. The payoff is immense. Rothschild documents how environmental problems become mired in politics but shows equally how politics can be wielded to effect change—an important lesson for our increasingly warming world."

Environmental History

"This is a very impressive book. The research base is remarkable, including the scores of interviews and hard to find documents, the writing is clear throughout, the narrative arc persuasive, with a number of great vignettes. There really is nothing like it. No one else has even approached the acid rain problem seriously."

Kurk Dorsey, University of New Hampshire

"An ambitious, brilliantly realized account of the struggle to control acid rain. Rothschild deftly analyzes the disputes over the reality and threat of acid rain, revealing the attempts of the coal industries in the United States as well as in Britain to discredit the relevant science. The book advances its arguments with persuasive and authoritative clarity, drawing on extensive published and archival sources in multiple languages as well as interviews with key participants. It is a compelling contribution to scholarship and, as Rothschild outlines in an epilogue, an object lesson for our time, showing how the past encounter with a transnational environmental threat offers approaches for dealing with the current global crisis of atmospheric warming."

Daniel J. Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor Emeritus of History, Yale University

"Part environmental history, part history of science, and part Cold War diplomatic history, this study of the development of the science and politics of acid rain is a model of interdisciplinary international history. Rothschild writes clearly and concisely, anchoring her work in vast research conducted in archives in eight countries and supplemented by interviews with scientists and diplomats involved in her story."

J.R. McNeill, Georgetown University

"A tour-de-force and a must read for anyone who wants to understand how the scientific community first came to articulate the global nature of the environmental threat posed by the burning of fossil fuels. This book will be of great interest to readers from a wide range of disciplines."

Richard L. Revesz, Lawrence King Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus, New York University School of Law

Table of Contents

List of Acronyms

Introduction: A Rain of Ashes

1: Creating a Global Pollution Problem
Death-Dealing Fogs
From the Local to the Global
The Discovery of Acid Rain

2: 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

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

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

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

6: 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

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

8: A Warning Bell for a Fossil Fuel Future
The Last Holdout
A Pyrrhic Victory for Scientific Expertise
The Environmental Legacy of Acid Rain
Epilogue: The Climate Change Reckoning

Archival Sources
Oral Histories
Published Sources

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press