Recent research shows that the backfire strategies of the economic elites has had an impact over the past 50 years, leaving our environment in a perilous state

The reduction of the weight of fossil fuels and their harmful effects on the climate has been on the international political agenda since 1972, underlines historian Christophe Bonneuil, in an op-ed in ‘Le Monde.’


‘What has happened in the last 50 years that, despite hundreds of summits, conferences, treaties and conventions, global disruption continues to worsen?’

Fifty years ago, on June 16, 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the first UN Earth Summit, before the Rio Summit in 1992, came to an end. Whereas environmental issues were hardly mentioned in the 1945 UN Charter, the “environment” and the possibility that human development patterns could alter the habitability of the planet were being elevated to a global issue.

What was happening in the run up to the Stockholm conference so that “global environment” was on everyone’s lips and millions of people took to the streets for environmentalism (20 million in April 1970 on the first “Earth Day”)? With a world GDP multiplied by 2.5 and world trade quadrupling between 1950 and 1970, the massive transformation of armaments and modes of production, trade and consumption was already damaging the earth’s habitat. The cold war had already generated tens of thousands of cubic meters of nuclear waste. The switch to a predominantly oil-based energy system multiplied energy consumption by 16 in the 20th century and favored urbanization, the reign of the automobile and motorized and chemically perfused agriculture. Pollutants threatened the balance of forests, oceans and wetlands and altered the living environment and health of urban dwellers. Above all, in a context of East-West détente, anti-imperialism (Vietnam War, post-colonial struggles, civil rights movement) and radicalization of youth, the aspirations of societies and the horizons of diplomats changed.

Four major reports contributed to the growing visibility of environmental issues: the book Silent Spring (1962), by American biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964); the report “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” submitted in 1965 to the White House; the Meadows report on the “Limits to Growth” from 1972 and the book Only One Earth, commissioned by the UN from Barbara Ward and René Dubos, which laid the groundwork for the Stockholm summit.

‘Global Environment’

Two of the 109 final recommendations from the Stockholm Summit called for vigilance on “activities for which there is an appreciable risk of effects on the climate.” Although global warming is still only one of the many problems, along with pollution, oil spills, uncontrolled urbanization, waste, resource limits and the damage caused by pesticides, which combine to form the concept of “global environment,” it is no less present. The role of combustion products in the greenhouse effect has been known since the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not until the mid-1950s that the atmosphere’s increasing CO2 content began to be monitored. The US Geological Survey announced in the late 1950s that the oceans were already rising. In 1967, the first 3D climate models clearly predicted global warming: +0.5°C between 1970 and 2000, then between +2 and +4°C during the 21st century.

Global cooling scenarios also exist, but they were minor in the scientific consensus of the 1970s. As early as the 1950s and again around 1972, atomic scientists took advantage of this to present nuclear power as a solution to the greenhouse effect. Following two reports in 1970 and 1971, coordinated by MIT and bringing together scientists from many countries, in France, the journal Délégation interministérielle à l’aménagement du territoire et à l’attractivité régionale (Datar) stated, in 1972, that “Today we know enough about climate theory and the construction of climate models to see that man can very well cause climate change!”


What has happened over the last 50 years that, despite hundreds of summits, conferences of the parties, treaties and environmental conventions, global disruption continues to worsen (apart from a few successes, such as the restoration of the ozone layer following the Montreal Protocol of 1987)? Why has a global decrease in greenhouse gas emissions not yet been achieved, since we break emission and temperature records every year (except for Covid-19)? There are many explanatory factors, but let us limit ourselves here to the one that is perhaps the most unpleasant and is shown in the most recent research: the backfire strategies of the economic elites.

Unearthing their internal memos and documents has revealed how closely multinational, high-emitting companies were tracking the issue of global warming as early as the 1960s. Senior executives at the oil company Exxon were warned as early as July 1977 that “humanity is influencing the global climate,” and those at Elf (now Total) as early as 1986. Yet between 1984 and 1992, these same companies, faced with the danger of seeing their profitability reduced by international policies to control greenhouse gas emissions, orchestrated vast climate denial and lobbying operations, for example so that no quantified commitment to reduce emissions was included in the framework convention on climate adopted in Rio in 1992, or so that the European eco-tax project was torpedoed the same year. If there is a lesson from environmental history to be learned here, it is that knowledge is not a sufficient condition for political action.

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