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EXCLUSIVE: Godfather of Global Green Thinking Steps Out of Shadows at Rio+20

Maurice Strong, the godfather of global environmentalism and organizer of the United Nations' 1992 Rio environmental Earth Summit, is making a quiet comeback to the limelight on the eve of that meeting’s successor, the Rio + 20 summit on "sustainable development," which starts June 20 in Brazil.

Strong, 82, has been taking part in a variety of conference side-events prior to the three-day meeting of some 130 top-level international leaders, part of a growing wave of hoopla and promotion that will climax at the summit leadership sessions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading the U.S. delegation there.

His appearance at Rio + 20  is also the latest stage in a Long March through controversy that has kept Strong, a native Canadian who is widely deemed to be one of the key instigators of the global environmental movement, living a low-profile life in China for the past half-decade.

Now Strong is back on one of the stages where he feels most comfortable--a global U.N. conference on the environment--though the role he may play in the leaders' sessions is not known. Questions sent by Fox News to the Rio + 20 conference organizers on Monday about his role had not been answered before this article was published.

Nonetheless, on Monday evening, Strong was introduced as a "very special guest of honor" at a "Corporate Sustainability Forum" organized by the U.N. Global Compact, a corporate group that has signed onto a variety of U.N. social and development goals. In a brief address, Strong lauded the assembled executives as "the most important meeting of Rio + 20," and noted the number of corporate representatives attending from "the country where I live, which is called China."

"If we are going to achieve the world we want, and not just the world we are going to get if we stay on the same course, it's got to be led by the business community," he said. "The real actors, the people who are going to make the change are the people in this room."  

While Strong's presence is low-key, there is no doubt the U.N. has brought him to Rio in an official capacity, if nothing else as a living relic of the successful 1992 Earth Summit, where Strong served as conference secretary general. Strong has recently described himself as a "senior advisor to the secretary general" of the Rio + 20 conference, a high-level Chinese bureaucrat named Sha Zukang, who is also a top member of the U.N. Secretariat.

Documents examined by Fox News show that the Beijing office of the United Nations Development Program has paid Strong's way, with a $13,000 round-trip air ticket from Beijing to New York to Rio and back. His hotels and living expenses are also being picked up, in what amounts to a three-week Rio + 20 junket.

Along the way, Strong has stirred up controversy, after he stopped off in Canada late last month to slam the incumbent Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, as a man whose "ideology seems to over-ride his understanding" on issues of climate change. Many Canadians were dismayed by the comments.

Conservative Party leader Harper, withdrew Canada late last year from the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, citing its crippling costs. Betwixt and between his many U.N. postings, Strong has been associated with the opposition Liberal Party.  

Controversy, along with radical environmental and economic views, is what Strong has long been known for. He took up residence in Beijing in 2005, after serving as the U.N.'s special envoy to North Korea, when investigators of the Oil for Food scandal uncovered the fact that he had cashed a check for nearly $1 million from Tongsun Park, a South Korean political fixer later convicted of conspiring to bribe U.N. officials on behalf of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Strong was never accused of any wrongdoing, and said his move to China at that time was no more than a coincidence.

Since then Strong, an avowed life-long socialist, has been engaged, in low-key fashion, in a number of business deals involving the Chinese government. He also served as a director of the Chicago Climate Exchange, one of the first attempts to create a commercial cap-and-trade market in the U.S. Recently, he has also taken part in preliminary walk-up meetings for Rio + 20 in China, though without official title.

Giving Strong one last star turn on a U.N. environmental stage, despite his past brushes with scandal, is an interesting gambit for the U.N, though it has apparently approached the matter cautiously.

The fact is that Strong is the closest thing to global environmentalism’s patron saint--or, to conservative critics, the foremost grey eminence of the movement to expand "global environmental governance"--which is once more on the international agenda at Rio + 20. His presence adds another dimension of historical luster among fervent environmentalists, something that has been lacking as the gathering bogged down in negotiating acrimony in its preliminary stages.

Rio + 20 conference: Negotiators producing a mammoth, messy and expensive grab bag of regulations and demands

Three of the continuing, controversial themes of Strong's long U.N. career, are uppermost at Rio + 20: strong support for China as a world power, a greater role for global regulation of the environment, and a radical overhaul of the world’s economic system.

All three will be on prominent display in Rio, where Sha Zukang serves as conference secretary general, "global environmental governance" is a conference theme, and developed and developing countries are battling over wealth transfers worth trillions in the context of "sustainable development" and measures to establish a new, "global green economy,"

For his part, Strong has been publicly arguing the need for urgent action on the Rio + 20 conference agenda, extolling the need for a  revitalized greenhouse gas suppression agenda and a "revolution" in the world economy in, a June 4 article in Latin America that used his senior advisor title.

"Rio+20 must reinforce international efforts to reach agreement and renewal of the Climate Change Convention and its implementation," he declared.

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The article was published by a news service, Tierramerica, which says it is a joint project of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the World Bank. Strong has been writing similar pieces for Tierramerica for a number of years.

Using a UNEP-created news agency as the vehicle for an article by a former UNEP executive director to further the cause of greater global sway for UNEP is the kind of inventive but also self-aggrandizing public relations thinking that Strong has long brought to the U.N., and that played no small part in his long ascent to prominence.

Strong has spent nearly half of his life promoting a U.N.-centered vision on environmental issues. In 1972, he served as secretary-general of the U.N.'s Conference on the Human Environment--which, in turn, helped to spawn the United Nations Environmental Program later that year--whereupon Strong became its first executive director.

After filling a number of business roles back in his native Canada, Strong returned to run the Earth Summit, which gave global environmentalism another huge boost. He became a close advisor to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, helping him to generate a still unfulfilled blueprint for U.N. reform.