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The shape of things to follow: How the first global climate talks revealed the shape of the future
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The shape of things to follow: How the first global climate talks revealed the shape of the future

Tang Ke, Chairman of the delegation of the Peoples Republic of China, addressing the Conference on 10 June 1972

In June 1972, people all over the world gathered at Stockholm, Sweden for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. This was the first international conference on environmental issues.

It was a highly influenced event by the geopolitics that the time was and would continue to shape the geopolitics over the years.

The rifts between east-west were growing as a result of clashes between the Soviet Union (now the United States) on a variety of politically contentious issues. Sweden and other supporters of this conference hoped to use preparations to help build bridges within a fractured UN. Sweden was neutral in its view of the Cold War. It considered transboundary issues related to environmental pollution a potential area for cooperation, and believed that the environment would be a good topic for a conference that could boost the UN’s global standing.

The Soviet Union and the United States supported the proposal in discussions at the UN General Assembly. However, the Geneva-based secretariat that prepared the meeting had to balance east and west. The Stockholm Conference was canceled by the Soviet Union, most Eastern Bloc countries, and West Germany. There was disagreement over East Germany’s participation.

In the long term, the talks only served to deepen the divide between the developed and the developing world. The conference was part a significant shift in north-south relations within UN and other multilateral forums. Many developing countries expressed concerns about the UN General Assembly’s 1968 debates. They feared that it would be dominated today by arguments from industrialized countries.

The global south’s developing countries argued that the majority of the world’s environmental problems are caused by industrialised nations in the north and that these countries should pay for the abatement costs. They said that environmental concerns shouldn’t be used as an excuse for imposing development restrictions upon countries already at the periphery in the global economic system. Instead they suggested that the UN should address poverty in their respective countries.

Developing countries were concerned about plans to hold an environmental conference. They feared it would be dominated primarily by industrialised countries.

In 1968, the UN General Assembly resolution called for a global environment conference. It specifically stressed that the problems of the environment were crucial for sustainable economic and social development in industrialised and developing countries. India and Nigeria welcomed the cooperation on environmental issues during the conference preparations in June 1970 but stressed that they must not be hindered in their economic development.

Brazil went one step further, arguing that some environmental degradation should not be accepted by developing nations as they look to grow their economies.


The nation, as an aspirant leader among the developing world’s countries, took a confrontational approach to UN General Assembly debates, November 1970. Brazilian delegates stressed the responsibility of the western industrialised countries to lead in solving environmental problems both domestically, and internationally. Brazil also argued that industrialised countries should not impose trade restrictions in the name of environment. For example, environmental requirements that would increase the cost of goods. Brazil would not accept any proposal that violated its national sovereignty, when discussing the need for other countries to be informed about environmental disasters. Its delegates also said that the UN gave priority to new topics such as the environment and oceans, distracting attention from the core mission of the UN, which is to support economic development and maintain peace.

Brazil showed a willingness to lead among the developing countries as the preparatory work progressed. This was, for example, reflected during the negotiations over the draft declaration for the Stockholm Conference when Brazil at that time under a military dictatorship  successfully suggested the addition of two Mao Zedong quotes to a text proposed by the United States (which in turn built on an earlier Swedish proposal). The Stockholm Declaration’s second paragraph includes a line from The Little Red Book: The man must constantly sum up his experience and continue to discover, invent, create, and advance. In the fifth paragraph, you will find a line from Mao’s 1936 work, Problems of Strategy in Chinas Revolutionary War. It states that what is required is an enthusiastic, calm, and orderly mind, as well as intense, but orderly work.

After the 1971 PRC takeover of the UN seat, the Stockholm Conference was the first global conference attended by representatives from China. At the Stockholm Conference, a Chinese delegates gave a highly politicalized speech. He condemned capitalism and harshly condemned the United States. China was not the only country that criticised the US. Olof Pale, the Swedish prime Minister, also delivered a politically charged speech, which was strongly critical of Vietnam War. This caused tensions between US and Swedish officials.

Tang Ke, Chairman of the delegation of the Peoples Republic of China, addressing the Conference on 10 June 1972

Chairman of the Chinese delegation Tang Ke gave a highly politicised speech in which he strongly condemned the United States (Image from UN Photo)

Some developing countries, including India, attempted to find common ground with industrialised and developing nations on issues such as environment and development. In an important speech at the conference Indira Gandhi, Indian prime Minister, made clear distinctions between the pollution caused by affluence in global north and the pollution caused by poverty in the south. This was in response to ongoing debates about how much global environmental degradation is due to population growth in developing country (as stressed by industrialised nations) and high consumption rates of wealthier countries (as emphasized by developing countries).

Beyond Stockholm

Tim Campbell, an economist at the World Bank, was elected to the post one year after the conference. WriteStockholm should be remembered more so for its catalytic impact on political alliances than its environmental and scientific contributions to the world. Half a century on, Campbell’s early assessment is still valid. We believe that the preparations and holding of the conference helped promote eastwest collaboration around transboundary pollutants issues. It also enabled developing countries to create a common political agenda for environment and development issues.


However, it is evident that many important characteristics such as national sovereignty, territorial competition, and the international economic system remained in place after all the delegates left Stockholm. This has led to international politics and cooperation largely unchanged.

In the wake of the conference, the US and Soviet Union continued to use international environment issues as a platform for political cooperation and dtente. This cooperation, for instance, led to the adoption of 1979 Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution under the auspices UN Economic Commission for Europe. This convention has been a key instrument in the resolution of acid rain and other transboundary pollutants in Eastern and Western Europe.

The UN system provided a platform for strengthening cooperation between these countries due to the concerns of developing country being on the periphery. Despite conflicting opinions and political tensions among major developing countries, the Stockholm Conference was an important meeting for strengthening south-south collaboration through the G77 and UN Conference on Trade and Development.

United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) Meets at Stockholm 1972

Despite the differences between developed and developing nations, the Stockholm Conference helped to strengthen international environmental cooperation (Image: UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata).

Many north-south divisions on development and environment issues have been very durable since the Stockholm Conference. They also continued at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro, and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg. The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was again held in Rio.

These divisions can also be seen in many other areas of environmental treaty-making, including climate change. The Stockholm Conference motto, Only One Earth, suggested that all people could be joint passengers on Spaceship Earth. However, sovereignty principles and country-based delineations remain strong. During preparations for the conference many countries stressed that national sovereignty should not be compromised by monitoring or other data-gathering system on the amount carbon dioxide and other pollutants, as well toxic substances in oceans.


The Stockholm Conference’s 50th anniversary marks half a century worth of international cooperation in the areas of environment and development. The conference was instrumental in putting interrelated environment and development issues on a global political agenda. This has led to important related developments in international legal and discourse.

However, many of these political divisions between developing and industrialized countries that were revealed at the conference have hampered global environmental cooperation. Additionally, both richer and poorer countries around the world continue to place a strong emphasis on their territorial sovereignty in relation to natural resource-use and economic/environmental policymaking. This, along with political and economic competition between countries over access to natural resource, continues to shape geopolitics in 21st century.

China Dialogues: Read MoreEnvironmental History Series

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