From Stockholm to Kyoto: A Brief History of Climate Change

Article excerpt

In the midst of the current international debate on global warming, it is instructive to note that it has taken the United Nations and the international community some two generations to reach this point.

To fully understand the current debate, one must look at the rise in prominence of environmental issues on the global agenda and the evolution of climate change within that context. Environmental issues, much less climate change, were not a major concern of the United Nations in the period following the Organization's creation. During its first 23 years, action on these issues was limited to operational activities, mainly through the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and when attention was paid to them, it was within the context of one of the major preoccupations of that time: the adequacy of known natural resources to provide for the economic development of a large number of UN members or the "underdeveloped countries", as they were then termed.

In 1949, the UN Scientific Conference on the conservation and utilization of resources (Lake Success, New York, 17 August to 6 September) was the first UN body to address the depletion of those resources and their use. The focus, however, was mainly on how to manage them for economic and social development, and not from a conservation perspective. It was not until 1968 that environmental issues received serious attention by any major UN organs. The Economic and Social Council on 29 May was the first to include those issues in its agenda as a specific item and decided--later endorsed by the General Assembly--to hold the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.

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Held in Stockholm, Sweden from 5 to 16 June 1972, the UN Scientific Conference, also known as the First Earth Summit, adopted a declaration that set out principles for the preservation and enhancement of the human environment, and an action plan containing recommendations for international environmental action. In a section on the identification and control of pollutants of broad international significance, the Declaration raised the issue of climate change for the first time, warning Governments to be mindful of activities that could lead to climate change and evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of climatic effects.

The UN Scientific Conference also proposed the establishment of stations to monitor long-term trends in the atmospheric constituents and properties, which might cause meteorological properties, including climatic changes. Those programmes were to be coordinated by WMO to help the world community to better understand the atmosphere and the causes of climatic changes, whether natural or the result of man's activities. The Conference also called for the convening of a second meeting on the environment and established the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with its secretariat in Nairobi, Kenya, the Environment Fund and the Environment Coordination Board. But climate change did not become a central preoccupation of those bodies. Water resources, marine mammals, renewable energy resources, desertification, forests, environmental legal framework and the issue of environment and development took centre stage.

Over the next 20 years, as part of efforts to implement the 1972 decisions, concern for the atmosphere and global climate slowly gained international attention and action. In 1979, the UNEP Governing Council asked its Executive Director, under the Earth Watch programme, to monitor and evaluate the long-range transport of air pollutants, and the first international instrument on climate--the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution--was then adopted. UNEP took it to another level in 1980, when its Governing Council expressed concern at the damage to the ozone layer and recommended measures to limit the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons F-11 and F-12. This led to the negotiation and adoption in 1985 of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the conclusion of a Protocol to the 1979 Transboundary Air Pollution Convention, which aimed at reducing sulphur emissions by 30 per cent. …