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Float On: Forging International Networks for Air Pollution Research and Policy Across the Twentieth Century

Sat, April 13, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Union D

Session Submission Type: Panel


Air pollution is a problem at once universal and inherently local. The nitrogen oxides that clouded Osaka’s sky in the 1920s were chemically identical to the nitrogen oxides that worried Soviet researchers in the 1950s and those that drifted over the U.S. - Canadian border as acid rain in the 1980s. But filtered through the lens of industrializing Japan, the Cold War U.S.S.R., or the Reagan era United States, the risks of nitrogen oxides and other pollutants were construed quite differently – to say nothing of the urgency and method of pollution control. Nonetheless, in each setting, environmental advocates strove to connect their knowledge of air pollution and possible policies for pollution control to other places and times in the hopes of transcending local constraints to better comprehend and confront the problem they faced.

The three papers in this panel consider international exchange on air pollution research and policy in three different times and places as a means of exploring the international history of air pollution. The long time frame and different contexts complement an emerging literature that has tended to focus on research and policy in the late twentieth century, particularly around anthropogenic climate change. By expanding this perspective, this panel helps to trace the pathways of exchange that later advocates and researchers traveled.

The three papers also consider the relationship between the physical properties of air pollution and institutions of governance. From the beginning of the twentieth century, airborne emissions floated over political boundaries – frustrating first municipal, then state, and finally national efforts to protect environmental quality. As the papers show, over the twentieth century, environmental advocates built new institutions to monitor, study, and control the pollutants that transcended jurisdictional borders. The panel thus offers a chance to consider the foundation of global environmental advocacy and politics.

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