We are leaving for COP21 in Paris with the knowledge that one of the greats in the environmental field has died. Maurice Strong passed away in Ottawa, Canada, on the eve of the conference. He had not been well for the past few months, but he still followed the preparations for the meeting with keen interest, meeting only last weekend with Klaus Töpfer, one of his successors as Executive Director of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Maurice was born into a poor family in rural Manitoba during the depression. Although one of the smartest and most widely read men I have ever met, his economic circumstances prevented him from attending university. He was a great supporter of the international governance system throughout his life, starting with the United Nations in the late 1940s. He later became a successful businessman in Canada, first as an oil trader and then as Chair of what became Power Corporation, one of Canada’s premier companies. Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson lured him into government and Maurice became the first President of CIDA, Canada’s development assistance agency. When it looked as if the first global environment conference was foundering, Maurice was asked by U Thant to become the Secretary General of the initiative. His major challenge was to bring developing countries to the table. They had been suspicious that this was a conference about pollution and therefore the concern of richer countries. The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Sweden was a huge success — the first in a long succession of UN specialized conferences that followed over the years. Maurice discovered in Stockholm that he could appeal directly to citizens of the world through the media and through the numerous non-governmental organizations that attended. His devotion to a more open international system continued throughout his career.
Maurice moved to Nairobi to become the first Executive Director of the new UNEP, still the only major UN agency located in a developing country. He next appeared on the international scene as a member of the World Commission on Environment and Development. The Brundtland Commission, as it was usually called, set the stage for the new concept of sustainable development, which is still embedded in our language today. The Commission called for the integration of the environment into all economic decision making and for a major effort to help developing countries develop more sustainable economies.
Maurice was then asked to become the Secretary General of the second world environment conference, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. He pushed, prodded and led more than 100 heads of state and governments into a Declaration on Environment and Development and set two of the most important environmental agreements, on climate change and on biodiversity, on their way. It was to be perhaps his greatest success.
Returning to Canada, Maurice became CEO of the electric utility of Ontario, Canada’s largest and most economically dominant province at the time. Having reorganized and slimmed down Ontario Hydro, he returned to private life. As always, Maurice could see where the world was heading over the next 20 years — I remember him telling me in the late 1980s that the future belonged to Asia and that China and India would be the engines of growth in the twenty-first century — and moved to Beijing, where he became a senior advisor to the Chinese leadership and a successful businessman once again.
In recent years, his health deteriorated to the point where his mobility was challenged. Maurice Strong, world traveler, had finally come to rest in Ottawa.
He believed in the multilateral system but felt that it had failed to adapt to the new economic and political realities of the world. He worked tirelessly for UN reform, both publicly and privately. He believed strongly in the importance of NGOs in international decision making, and he was instrumental in the establishment of several of them. He was one of a contingent of Canadians — including Jim MacNeill, Jim Bruce, David Munro, Jeff Bruce — who guaranteed that Canada would “punch above its weight” in international discussions about environment and development.
Maurice was a true giant — one of the great Canadians of the twentieth century.
CIGI Distinguished Fellow David Runnalls is a guest blogger, providing analysis from on the ground at COP21, for Global Rule of Law.