Remembering Maurice Strong, on the Eve of Paris COP 21

In the summer of 1970 Secretary-General U Thant delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that was dismissed in business circles and much of the mainstream press as alarmist nonsense. He warned that global fossil fuel demands were on a steady upward trajectory leading to an “increase in excess, unabsorbed carbon dioxide [which] could have a catastrophic warming effect, melting the polar ice, changing the marine environment and creating flooding on a global scale.” His report had been drafted as part of the preparations for the first UN conference on the global environment, held in Stockholm in the summer of 1972.

The man who was recruited to preside over this historic gathering as secretary-general was a remarkable Canadian named Maurice Strong, who died this week at eighty-six. After a short but spectacularly successful career in the Canadian oil and gas industry, he had been recruited to head up the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). So valuable was his service there over the next half-decade that when U Thant asked Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to second him to the UN to take charge of planning for Stockholm, Trudeau at first refused. It took some arm-twisting from Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme to change his mind.

One of Strong’s first decisions was to dispatch Canadian diplomat Chester Ronning to Beijing to convince Premier Chou En-Lai that the Chinese needed to break out of their diplomatic cocoon and take part in the conference. The mission was a success. Chinese attendance immeasurably boosted the conference’s prestige even though cold-war politics would provoke the Soviet Union to withdraw its delegation at the last moment. Another Ottawa diplomat, T.C Bacon, would play an important role in sorting out further diplomatic squabbles as the meetings got underway.

I covered the Stockholm conference as a young freelance writer riding a wave of public interest in environmental issues, and wrote a book about it called The Plot to Save the World, a title that reflected the zeitgeist of the time. Rising anxiety had been generated in part by the work of American scientists who for the first time had access to computing horsepower capable of simulating the impact of human activities on global ecosystems. The results their models were generating were alarming. And first-hand observations were no less unsettling: during the opening session in Stockholm’s conference centre the great maritime explorer Jacques Cousteau told a standing-room-only audience that in twenty years of roaming the seas of the world he had witnessed a general decline in marine life of between thirty and fifty percent, due to the effects of pollution.

The Swedish diplomat who first proposed the conference, Sverker Aström, was not optimistic about finding solutions: “It is one of the ironies of history,” he said, “that the principle of national sovereignty and equality received its triumphal confirmation in the Charter of the United Nations at the time when the introduction of atomic weapons, the development of communications, rapid industrialization, and the awakening of consciousness of environmental risks made it unmistakably clear that all of humanity is interdependent and that the old concept of sovereignty is inadequate…” Nevertheless, he said, “if anything is to be accomplished…it must be done within this context. We have no alternative.”

Thanks to the dogged efforts of diplomats spurred on by a new and vigorous non-governmental environment movement, Stockholm was, by all accounts, a remarkable achievement. A great deal of progress was made on the legal front, including a series of international conventions prohibiting the dumping of nuclear and other toxic wastes into the world’s oceans. A permanent system for continuous monitoring of the health of planetary ecosystems was established in the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Strong became its first director. And within a short time virtually all the world’s nations had created cabinet-level ministries or secretariats for the environment—prior to Stockholm, there had been none. Successor conferences in Rio and Kyoto and Copenhagen built, with varying degrees of success, on Stockholm’s foundation.

Canada can legitimately take credit for much of the successes of this ground-breaking earth summit forty-three years ago. It is a sad coincidence that Maurice Strong has died on the eve of another ambitious attempt, this time in Paris, to come to grips with global environmental crises that have become ever more grave. We can only hope that a reinvigorated diplomatic corps inspired by fresh political leadership will once again do our country proud.