In 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) gathered delegations from 113 states in Stockholm, Sweden, from 5 June to 16 June (United Nations, 1973). The Stockholm Conference signified a watershed in the global recognition of environmental degradation as a worldwide problem, giving new impetus and legitimacy to national and international environmental policy efforts. Fifty years later, the Stockholm Conference remains a foundational moment of global environmental politics.

For the policymakers and practitioners who prepared and participated in the UNCHE, humanity’s technological prowess had come to grant modern society previously unimaginable powers to improve, and also destroy, the very conditions of its existence. In the depths of the Cold War, the perceived promise of civilian nuclear power and potential risks of nuclear weapons exemplified this dilemma.

The Stockholm Conference understood the issues of worsening environmental degradation and global nuclear threats as parallel dangers confronting a planet in jeopardy. The UNCHE set both protecting the environment and preventing nuclear perils into the same frame of safeguarding human survival. Together with exhortations to preserve natural resources and halt hazardous levels of pollution, the Stockholm Declaration urged the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Yet among all the risks to the human environment that were raised in 1972, nuclear dangers now appear to have faded from the international environmental policy agenda.

This paper is part of a series that supports the Stockholm+50: Unlocking a better future report.