Scientific Uncertainties as Political Escape Routes: Negotiating the 1979 United Nations’ Convention on Transboundary Air Pollution

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 9:30 AM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Rachel Rothschild, Yale University
Acid rain first began to receive widespread international attention in the late 1960s, when data from the European Air Chemistry Network suggested that fossil fuel emissions were acidifying precipitation in areas far from pollution sources, particularly across Norway and Sweden. The findings prompted Scandinavian scientists to organize international research projects on the atmospheric transport of pollutants across national boundaries and the environmental impact of acid rain. These took shape during the 1970s within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations (UN), and were deeply interconnected with the international community’s fledging apparatuses for environmental policymaking. Although initiated by scientists, the research was funded and overseen by an emerging class of international civil servants tasked with negotiating cooperative solutions to regional pollution problems based on scientific expertise.

 This paper analyzes the development of these projects and their mandate to provide “sufficient knowledge” to facilitate an international agreement on transboundary air pollution. I will argue that certain governments initially used exhortations to ascertain the “truth” about acid rain as a way to compel recalcitrant countries into supporting collaborative scientific research.  Yet governments accused of perpetuating the problem soon deployed similar arguments in order to avoid potentially costly reductions in pollution emissions, denying that there was sufficient “proof” of the existence of transboundary air pollution and the adverse environmental impact of acid rain.  As the decade of the 1970s drew to a close, these competing objectives collided as governments sought to negotiate an international agreement on acid rain through the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe. By examining the development of these scientific research programs alongside a regulatory regime for air pollution, I intend to shed light on a particularly revealing episode of environmental expertise and intergovernmental politics during this period.

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