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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 Skiesis 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.

Author Information

Rachel Emma Rothschild is currently a Furman Academic Scholar at New York University School of Law. She received her PhD in history from Yale University with distinction in 2015.


"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

"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

"A comprehensive description of the acid rain history."
— Ambio


Audience: Professional and scholarly;