UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is greeted by Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), upon his arrival at Rio Centro for the first day of the Conference, on June 3, 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (UN Photo/Michos Tzovaras)
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is greeted by Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), upon his arrival at Rio Centro for the first day of the Conference, on June 3, 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (UN Photo/Michos Tzovaras)

It has occurred to me that the climate talks provide a fitting memorial to Maurice Strong, the extraordinary Canadian who died on the eve of the Paris Conference. Maurice was the Head of the first intergovernmental environment conference in Paris in 1972.

He and I sat down before the Rio Earth Summit, which he ran 20 years after Stockholm, and we reviewed what was new on the agenda. I immediately said "ozone depletion," and he agreed. The ozone hole was only discovered in the mid 1970s. I then said "climate change," and he reminded me of a remarkable book that he had commissioned for Stockholm. The Study of Man's Impact on Climate was the result of research by MIT scientists, led by Carroll Wilson. It set out the case for climate change action in some detail. It played a small role in the Stockholm discussions, but Maurice made sure that it was put on the agenda. Something in that study worried him.

Five years before the Rio Summit, the Brundtland Commission published its ground breaking report. Climate change was one of its chief concerns. Maurice and the report's author, Jim MacNeill, had quite rightly inserted it in the section of energy policy. Brundtland and Maurice both felt that climate change, while a serious environmental problem, was largely a function of dysfunctional energy policies.

When Strong became the Head of the Rio Summit, he knew that he had to change the channel. By then, the UN had organized a whole series of these two week conferences on subjects as diverse as population growth, water and sanitation, and urbanization. Maurice decided to jazz up Rio by calling for a summit of world leaders. In those days, summits were reserved for the Soviet Union and the United States. So this format might attract more attention, especially because so many independent countries had just emerged from the collapse of the former Soviet empire.

While the "grip and grin" part of the summit would serve PR purposes, Maurice was determined to go further and have something concrete for the leaders to do. At that time, two conventions were under negotiation. It was decided to accelerate their preparations in order to have them opened for signature in Rio.

So the negotiations proceeded with breakneck speed and both were signed by a large number of world leaders when they appeared in Rio. Thus started the UNFCCC. The only blot on that landscape was the refusal of the United States to sign the biodiversity convention because the Bush Administration had given into the biotech lobby in Washington.

Maurice spent the last few years of his life in China, living in downtown Beijing, despite a heart and lung condition that the city’s fetid air did nothing to improve. He went there because, for many years, he had believed that China would lead the world economically. While in Beijing, he established a number of business ventures. One of them was designed to create a carbon market in China. While the Chinese leadership always makes its own decisions, one can discern that Maurice's faith in markets and his close connections with the leadership played at least some role in the decision to move to a national cap and trade system in 2020. 

Above all, Maurice believed fervently in the UN as an institution and the necessity for global problems to be solved at a global level. Those who saw him at the end said that he was keenly interested in the possibilities for success in Paris.

He would have been pleased.

CIGI Distinguished Fellow David Runnalls is a guest blogger, providing analysis from on the ground at COP21, for Global Rule of Law.

 

 

 

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