TORONTO (AP) — Maurice Strong, whose work helped lead to the landmark climate summit that begins in Paris on Monday, has died at age 86, the head of the U.N.'s environmental agency said Saturday.
The Canadian-born Strong, the first U.N. Environment Program chief, organized the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which led to the launch of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
"Strong will forever be remembered for placing the environment on the international agenda and at the heart of development," Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, said in a statement.
The statement did not provide details of Strong's passing.
Christiana Figueres, the current head of the U.N. climate agency, tweeted Saturday that "we thank Maurice Strong for his visionary impetus to our understanding of sustainability. We will miss you."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will be attending the climate summit in Paris, said in a statement that "Mr. Strong was an internationally recognized environmentalist and philanthropist who used his remarkable business acumen, organizational skills, and humanity to make the world a better place."
Steiner said Strong's work helped usher in a new era of international environmental diplomacy at the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which saw the birth of UNEP, the first U.N. agency to be headquartered in a developing country.
As head of UNEP, Strong convened the first international expert group meeting on climate change.
Steiner urged the international community to honor Strong's vision by adopting a climate deal in Paris.
"The sustainability roadmap which started in Stockholm, continued in Rio, Johannesburg and Rio+20, must now become a reality in Paris," Steiner said. "This would indeed be the most fitting tribute to the legacy of Maurice Strong; leader, mentor and friend."
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper in 2010, Strong said that "analytically," he was pessimistic that the world would be able to take on looming environmental challenges. "I believe the odds are against us for making the changes we need to make in time," he said. "But, operationally, I'm optimistic because I believe that it is still possible."
Strong, a former oil industry executive, also held several other positions at the U.N. Earlier in his career, he led the Canadian International Development Agency.
In 1976, Strong resigned from his position as the head of the U.N.'s environmental agency to return to Canada as Chairman and CEO of oil and gas company Petro-Canada, prompting an editorial from The New York Times describing him as "the first official custodian" of the planet.
He was also the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Order of Canada, the country's top honor and received honorary doctorates from several universities.
Author Felix Dodds issued a statement saying that he worked with Strong on his last book, "Only One Earth: The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development."
"It seems impossible to think that he is no longer with us," said Dodds. "That we will not have his good council when we lose our way."