Last week, heads of state and other world leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, gathered in Stockholm to commemorate the anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held 50 years earlier. Many historians consider this moment to have been the dawn of the modern global environmental movement.
We understand today that the fundamental benefits of a healthy planet are not foreordained. As I sat listening to the Stockholm+50 delegates discuss the significance of the 1972 conference, the question I could not escape was, “What if that meeting had never taken place?” What if those leaders had never gathered and declared the environment to be a major international political issue? What would our world look like today if leaders in 1972 had NOT created the United Nations Environment Program? What if they had not galvanized a global movement to save the planet?
What happened in Stockholm 50 years ago was revolutionary. Unprecedented. Visionary. It was hard. It broke through all the pressure to develop, extract, and exploit the natural world. It changed the course of history and led us to today — a moment in which environmental protection is understood to be essential to our collective prosperity, safety, and security.
Indeed, people all over the world recognize the importance of having clean air, clean water, a healthy ocean, and land that is not tainted by pollution and toxic chemicals. The leaders of this year’s meeting recognized in its official summary that “a healthy planet is a prerequisite for peaceful, cohesive and prosperous societies.”
And yet, we are again at a crossroads. One road leads to a planet further crippled by today’s existential environmental challenges — more plastic pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions, rising temperatures and seas, and ever greater loss of biodiversity.
The other road leads to a better future where we live sustainably with nature. A world where, by working with countries and companies all over the globe, we find a way to balance our need for natural resources with the importance of ensuring their existence for future generations.
So again, I ask, what if? What will happen if we DON’T act today? What will we leave to future generations? Are we willing to consign them to a planet whose natural systems are in crisis, despite all the progress made over the last 50 years?
We cannot leave them a world drowning in plastic pollution. We can choose a different path if together we develop a global agreement that takes an ambitious, innovative, and country-driven approach to address the full life cycle of plastic. In March, countries from across the globe unanimously resolved to work with stakeholders worldwide — businesses and non-profits, national governments and local communities — to devise a global agreement to end the scourge of plastic pollution that is fouling every inch of this planet.
We cannot leave future generations a world with a barren ocean. We can choose a different path if together we commit to protect new areas of the ocean, address illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and end harmful fishing subsidies. In August, we hope to reach a global agreement to conserve the resources of the high seas. And, in the next few weeks there is a chance to reach an agreement at the World Trade Organization to end fishing subsidies that are currently fueling fishing capacity at 250% of the level that corresponds to maximum sustainable catch levels.
We cannot leave behind a world devoid of nature and biodiversity. We can choose a different path if the countries that are parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopt a global goal of conserving 30 percent of land and water and 30 percent of the global ocean by 2030 at the next CBD Conference of the Parties. The United States will do its part. President Biden has pledged to conserve at least 30 percent of domestic land and waters by 2030 and has encouraged other countries to do the same.
We cannot leave future generations a world that is too warm to sustain life as we know it. We are not yet moving fast enough to hold the rise in global temperature within the 1.5-degree limit. But thanks to the Paris Agreement and global innovations, we have the solutions within our grasp — clean energy, more biodiversity to hold carbon, and more financial support for the women, youth, and marginalized communities that have been hit hardest by climate change.
So, what if the world had failed to act collectively in 1972? What will happen if we fail to act now? Thanks to the 1972 conference, our planet is much healthier than it would have been absent all the progress that has been made over the last 50 years. We know what it is to have clean air and clean water — even as we understand that the benefits of a healthy planet are not universally experienced and that a new generation of environmental harms threaten everyone’s future.
We cannot fail to act, either. Looking back at Stockholm+50, let’s be inspired by those who came before us and those who came together again this past week— by the voices who called for bolder action then, and by the ones who do so now. Our children and grandchildren are counting on us. We cannot let them down.