Maurice Strong: Our Man in Rio (and San Francisco, too)

World Environment Day was celebrated June 5 in San Francisco, the first time it was held in the U.S. The event commemorates the anniversary of the first World Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972. The organizer of that meeting, Maurice Strong, has been an energy-sector CEO, an adviser to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the convener of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He sees his new project, the Earth Council Alliance, which coalesced out of more than 100 Earth Councils around the world, as a vehicle for international cooperation and political pressure for the environment. Strong was interviewed June 3, 2005.

Maurice Strong: We're not doing enough.© Sergeant Eric Jolin

E Magazine: How much progress have we made in addressing environmental challenges since the Earth Summit in 1992?

Maurice Strong: A lot of progress, but not enough. More and more doubters have at least moved to the point where they are having to take seriously the environmental concerns that were on the table at Rio. There have been quite a lot of innovative approaches to dealing with these issues, particularly at the local level, in the cities. There’s been a tremendous and encouraging explosion of interest at the local level. Right here where we speak today, in San Francisco, 70 or more of the mayors of leading cities around the world are gathered to celebrate World Environment Day. And those include the mayor of London and some of the other large cities in the world, including Shanghai. They are taking these issues seriously. But overall, that progress has not been sufficient to move us onto the pathway to a sustainable future.

What does the Kyoto process teach us about the future of global environmental cooperation?

Most countries now realize that issues like climate change can be dealt with only by international cooperation, not by any one country alone. They also taught us that international cooperation at a global scale is not easy, and that the immediate interests of each country sometimes run contrary to the long-term interests of the world community as a whole. Of course, the biggest example of that is the U.S., which actually signed onto Kyoto, but never ratified it, and then repudiated it. That is of course a source of immense concern to the rest of the world. After all, the U.S. is not only the world’s only superpower, it’s also a super-polluter in terms of emissions. The fact that the U.S. opted out of it is really a huge blow to international cooperation. Now the good news is that the rest of the world is not following U.S. leadership.

Do you think we’re reaching the peak of oil production? Do you foresee an abandonment of our oil-based energy economy, and if so, will we take that step because we’re "running out" of oil or because of global warming?

It’s quite clear that the world’s oil reserves are not going to last forever. It’s also clear that the fossil-fuel era is far from over. So there’s no question that we’re going to continue to rely on fossil fuels for some time. But it’s also true that we may see a new era in which fossil fuels play a diminishing role. It’s not going to happen suddenly. But there’s still a lot of oil around, especially in the Athabasca tar sands of Canada, which has almost as much oil as the whole of Saudi Arabia, and the oil sands of Venezuela. So it’s too early to write off the petroleum economy. It is not too early to start to make the transition to an energy economy that relies less and less on oil and gas. And indeed coal is the main source of energy in China. It’s a big source in the U.S. and India and other big energy-consuming countries. But we can’t wait until fossil fuels run out. Coal is going to last for centuries. Because of the environmental constraints we have to move quite quickly and rapidly now to try to develop alternatives, and also to reduce the environmental impacts of using fossil fuels.

Professor Martin Rees of Cambridge University puts forth the alarming thesis that the human race has no more than a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century. You’re quoted as saying, "If we don’t change, we won’t survive." Do you agree with Rees?

Well I can’t put a date on it, but I will agree in this sense, that if we do not really make a major transition to a sustainable development pathway in the next two or three decades—and that means starting now—the chances of doing so, and the costs of doing so, are going to be so horrendous, that the odds are going to favor his prediction. His prediction is a very valid one if we don’t change course. And that change of course was called for at Rio by no less than 60 of the chief executive officers of some of the leading companies in the world. It’s a question of will the conditions that make life possible and sustainable on the Earth exist? And it’s those conditions that are in danger, and that’s the danger and the risk to our survival.

Would you donate money to both U.S. political parties in 2008, as you did in 1998?

At that time I was living in the U.S., and although I was not a citizen, I did support the political process, which means both sides of it. I was, I guess, more of a Democrat than a Republican, but of course I don’t have a vote anyway, so I didn’t have to make a choice.

So do you plan to do that in the future?

I think there’s far more reticence to accept donations from foreigners, even friendly foreigners, than there used to be, so I haven’t really given it any thought.

As a supporter of the UN Business Council on Sustainable Development, do you think that businesses around the world are beginning to cope with environmental problems, especially the challenge of reducing carbon emissions?

Yes, a growing number of businesses are, but there are still many that are not. What we need to do, and what is happening, is that more and more of them are accepting the environmental responsibility and recognizing it not just as a burden on their business, but it’s also a new opportunity. Some of the top companies in the world—British Petroleum, for example—are setting the pace. Look at General Electric, which has committed itself to sustainable development as the main theme of its business.

What’s it going to take to convince the laggards, like ExxonMobil, if they haven’t already figured it out?

I think it’s going to take a reaction on the part of their consumers and shareholders. At a time when they’re all raking in huge profits from the high price of oil it’s a little harder to get to them. I used to be a fan of ExxonMobil. I used to be on the Rockefeller Foundation board when the Rockefellers were still important shareholders of ExxonMobil. But not now. I will actually go miles to avoid an ExxonMobil service station. There are lots of good people there. I don’t have much regard for their current leadership. They will change, because market conditions will force that change. Over time the company’s dismal environmental record will catch up to it.

How does World Environment Day complement and expand upon Earth Day?

Earth Day may be celebrated more in the U.S., but World Environment Day is much more universal. The reason is it marks the beginning of the first world conference on the environment held in St

ockholm, Sweden, in June 1972. I had the privilege of leading that particular conference. I celebrate both events. We actually don’t want just one or two days to celebrate the Earth and our responsibility to it. I’d like every day to be an Earth Day or a World Environment Day.

How did the Earth Council Alliance come into being, and what are your aspirations for it?

Right in the beginning of my activity in the environmental field, which actually preceded the Stockholm conference of 1972, I recognized that getting governments committed was extremely important, but that no government could really move to make commitments or to implement those commitments without a supportive constituency of people. Therefore, the real power of the movement was in people: citizens. Even at Stockholm, we didn’t call it the Earth Council at that stage, but we brought together a lot of the leading non-governmental organizations and citizen groups from around the world and they did have, even then, a big impact on decisions made by the political leaders in Stockholm. When I took on the responsibility for the Earth Summit, we realized that following Rio we would need to give the whole non-governmental sector a major impetus.

We formed the Earth Council not as a substitute for other organizations, but as a means of strengthening, and particularly for reaching into local communities. The Earth Council took the lead in creating more than 100 national councils for sustainable development all over the world. And then we took the initiative to create an Earth Charter, which governments weren’t ready to do in Rio. We made it a people’s Earth Charter. We’ve got literally millions of people now who’ve signed onto the Earth Charter. It’s a basic statement of ethical and moral principles to guide the conduct of people, nations and companies toward the Earth and toward each other.

What’s the relationship between the Earth Council Alliance and the UN? Here it seemed the non-governmental organizations were pretty well integrated into the process.

It’s a respectful relationship. We’re very supportive of the United Nations, particularly the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is like the global environmental agency. And that, of course, came into existence as a result of the Stockholm conference. And sometimes those governments are not as anxious to give strong mandates to these organizations as the citizen groups would like. So the citizen groups act as a pressure group to try to support the international organizations like the UNEP that want to do things that their governments are reluctant to let them do.

How do you prevent the Urban Environmental Accords from becoming just another piece of paper that governments ignore, that isn’t adopted, or that is adopted but is either not carried out by the people who signed them or abandoned by their successors? How do you move from inspiration to implementation?

There’s no absolute, because they’re not legally binding. But they are politically important, because once a mayor of a city, or a leader of a local government signs onto these accords, then they are committed, and they can be held accountable to their constituencies. But most of these leaders are sincere. The more the people are involved in holding them accountable, the more likely it is that they could be held to the commitments they make in the accords.

The Earth Council Alliance was created sometime in the last year?

Yes. It really builds upon the whole Earth Council movement, which has its antecedents even before the Rio conference, but was formally constituted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

One of the qualities of this conference that makes it different from others is the local nature. Do you sense in other countries the tension between the local and the national? Is that a theme you think will increase in prominence as the movement continues, or do you see that as a momentary problem, particular to the U.S.?

I think actually there’s always a healthy tension between the local and the central government. Sometimes it can degenerate into real conflict. And the U.S. is particularly acute at this time because the current administration has repudiated not only Kyoto but also much of the environmental commitments that it had signed onto in earlier times. So there’s been a retrogression in the environmental commitment at the central level, and yet there’s a huge constituency for these issues that is manifest now in initiatives by state and local governments. That is very encouraging.

So you think there is still a great hope in local organization and local governments?

I would say not only great hope, but the main hope at this stage. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m so encouraged by the number of leaders—in government, the sustainable development community, academia and business—who are present here.

I’ve got a variety of titles. The one I like best is honorary professor at the University of Beijing in China and at the Environmental Management College of China. I’m very active in China. I spend a lot of my time there, because what happens in China is going to matter to the whole world. There’s a whole new environmental renaissance in China. It’s a little late coming, but it’s absolutely necessary for the future of China, and absolutely necessary for the future of all of us who want a sustainable way of life to be maintained on our planet.

CONTACT: World Environment Day

Michael Stoll is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.