Bringing the legacy of Olof Palme to build a greener future
Olof Palme, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, underlined the importance of a firm global response to the growing environmental crisis in his address to the first UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) held in Stockholm in June 1972. He prophetically observed: “it is absolutely necessary that concerted, international action is undertaken…solutions will require far-reaching changes in attitudes and social structures”. Almost 50 years later, it is painfully clear that the necessary changes have not taken place and that time is now even more limited to make the necessary, far-reaching changes. Bringing the legacy of Olof Palme to build a greener future there are two concepts that could serve as a point of departure. Through a just transition making sure the transition is both green and just and common security as the necessary blueprint for survival
– “I am certain that solutions can be found. But it is absolutely necessary that concerted, international action is undertaken. It is indeed very, very urgent. At the same time, the feeling of urgency should not overshadow the fact that solutions will require far-reaching changes in attitudes and social structures.”
With these words from his speech at the first 1972 UN conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Olof Palme underlined the importance of a firm global response to address the growing environmental crisis.
Almost 50 years later, it is painfully clear that the necessary changes have not taken place. Time is now even more limited. Building on the legacy of Olof Palme, two concepts could serve as points of departure to build a greener future.
Just Transition through Social Dialogue
To gain acceptance for the necessary transition to fossil-free energy and a more sustainable world, we are dependent upon an integrated approach that addresses inequality at the same time as climate change. If we fail to do this, it will be impossible to undertake the necessary changes to transform our societies. This is core in the international trade union’s call for a just transition towards a fossil-free, socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable world. The agenda encompasses a range of social interventions needed to secure workers’ jobs and livelihoods as economies shift to sustainable production. A just transition will not happen by itself. It requires plans and policies. Workers and communities dependent on fossil fuels will not find an alternative source of income and revenue overnight. Therefore, transformation is not only about phasing out polluting sectors. It is also about new jobs, industries, skills, investments, and the opportunity to create a more equal and resilient economy.
Social dialogue is key for this to happen. With social dialogue, government, businesses, trade unions, and civil society groups can collaborate, in the national industry and community planning, in elaborating the necessary policies for a just transition to zero emissions.
A social dialogue will bring the policy coherence needed to ensure that climate action also means job creation and community renewal. It allows us to bring together industrial strategy and innovation, to deploy clean technologies and investment in green infrastructure along with the measures we need to smooth out the transition: social protection, skills training, redeployment, labor market policies, and community development and renewal. At its heart, Just Transition requires us to leave no one behind.
By aligning with and supporting the concept of a just transition that puts increased equality at the center of the necessary reform projects, the necessary transition can also help tackle the problems our societies face due to increased inequality. Equality ensures sustainable change, and more equal societies are better equipped to tackle the radical shift and structural changes needed in our societies, economies, and production to address the climate threat.
Common Security: A Blueprint for Survival
More and more countries are ruled by authoritarian, undemocratic, and intolerant leaders. All the different indices used to measure the democratic development in the world show that democracy has been declining for more than a decade. More people today live in countries with authoritarian tendencies than in countries heading towards a democratic direction.
These authoritarian, often right-wing nationalist leaders advocate withdrawing from international cooperation, closing borders, and putting the interests of their nation first. Short-term solutions such as trade tariffs, reduced aid, and new walls against the outside world become ways to show political action. They seek division and set groups of people against each other. As a result, polarization increases. In the long run, it risks leading to more war and conflict.
Conflict and social tension grow as the predicted impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly visible. Environment and climate-related risks, including extreme weather events, water scarcity, and the failure to adapt and mitigate climate change, are among the top risks the world faces. In 30 years, the UN estimates the number of climate refugees at 250 million.
Because of increased uncertainty, the total defense spending is rising, nuclear arsenals are being modernized, and armaments are under threat. We have not seen such an increase in world military spending since World War II as in 2019. Nuclear weapons pose a gigantic threat to all of humanity. Together with climate change, they are usually called the twin threat. A changing climate threatens the survival of mankind, and nuclear weapons can wipe out all life in an instant.
“The arms race is accelerating. The development of new nuclear weapons seems to suggest that the nuclear powers may actually consider fighting a nuclear war. The threat of war seems closer than for many years…the process of negotiating arms limitation was moribund.”
At a time when the world is engaged in a new arms race, spending almost two trillion dollars on its military, including 73 billion dollars by the nuclear powers on the estimated 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world, coupled with the abandonment and neglect of arms control treaties, you would be forgiven for thinking that the quote was a description of where our world stands today.
Wrong. The quote is almost forty years old. They are the words written by Olof Palme to introduce the report of the Independent Commission, which he chaired, on Disarmament and Security Issues. The report entitled “Common Security: A Blueprint for Survival” was published in 1982. The Commission had begun its work in 1980 and held its deliberations at the height of cold war tensions and the frightening prospect of nuclear war in Europe.
The Palme Commission introduced a new term into the international debate on security. The basic idea of “Common Security” is not complex. It means that any country can obtain security in the long run, simply by taking unilateral decisions about its military deployment. Security depends also on the actions and reactions of potential adversaries. Hence, security must be found in common with those adversaries. The belief that your country’s security can be secured through – be it military power, nuclear weapons, or any other deterrence – the feeling of insecurity of the other is a delusion.
The concept of ‘Common Security’ was presented as a way of moving beyond a world dominated by the arms race, and towards an alternative world that would be marked by states, and peoples, recognizing their common interests in survival and peaceful development. “States can no longer seek security at each other’s expense; it can be obtained only through cooperative undertakings”, stated the Palme Commission.
2020 is the starting point for the United Nations system to discuss the reform of the multilateral system, built 75 years ago in a very different context. The escalating global health, climate, and economic crises have led to a further deterioration of the world order as we knew it. Recovery requires urgent and reinforced cooperation at the international level. Our shared problems demand new shared solutions and to do so we need a new, fair, and inclusive multilateralism able to cope with new shared challenges.
Migration, climate change, pandemics cannot be met with bullets. It requires completely different initiatives, investments in peace, and poverty reduction. In green technology and social security. And not least more global cooperation.
There are enough parallels with the disjointed world of today to ask ourselves once again what our global blueprint for survival is. And “Common Security” might hold that key. In these troubling times, the observation by the Palme Commission that “We face common dangers and thus must also promote our security in common” is a solid foundation to build common global solutions.
Our Future is Common
Coming back to the words of Olof Palme about the need for international action and solutions that require far-reaching changes in attitudes and social structures, taking a holistic approach to sustainable development becomes evident.
To achieve change in attitudes, we need support from people. A transition must be infused with hope for the future, not with fear of losing your job to a fossil-free economy. To achieve change in social structures, we need to ensure that the transition is not only green but also fair.
We also need to realize that solidarity is self-interest in an interconnected world, to borrow the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. If we do not understand this simple fact, everyone will lose.
Together, we face humanity’s greatest challenge. Together we must solve it. The need for international action remains even more acute. Multilateral cooperation holds the key, not putting your own country first and turning away from international cooperation. The worldwide mobilization required to reduce global warming becomes impossible when UN cooperation is undermined, when international laws and regulations are questioned, and agreements are terminated. The rise of authoritarianism and nationalism is not only a democratic problem, but it also threatens our ability to respond to climate change and thereby, the future of our planet.
As social tension grows and the risk of conflicts increases, we need not arms race and traditional military defense but a new paradigm for security – common security – a more solid foundation to build common global solutions. With a clear vision of inclusive and sustainable societies will we be able to meet the challenges we face. We can do it – if there is political will and courageous political leaders are willing to put our common future first.
Almost forty years after Olof Palme hosted the world’s first international environmental conference his words remain truer than ever: “in relation to the human habitat, there is no individual future, neither for people nor for nations. Our future is common. We must share it together. We should shape it together.”
A longer version of the text has been published in the book Our Earth Matters – Pathways to a Better Common Environmental Future, IOS Press 2021