Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Agenda 21: Cons' New Con

I know that you, dear reader, have probably never heard of UN Agenda 21. That's because you are not imbued in rightwing talk radio. So let me enlighten you: Agenda 21 is the latest conspiracy theory on the right, partner of climate denial, sister to birtherism and directly descended from the black helicopter UN conspiracy theories of the 1990s.

In brief: at the UN environmental conference in Rio in 1992, 178 countries adopted Agenda 21, which “is a comprehensive blueprint of action to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations of the UN, governments, and major groups in every area in which humans directly affect the environment.” It sets as a goal sustainable development (defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”) and the assistance of the rich countries to the poor to help them meet their development needs sustainably. The first paragraph of the preamble reads
    1. Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfillment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can - in a global partnership for sustainable development.
which is true enough. But - and this is a key point - Agenda 21 is legally non-binding. It is up to each country to implement its goals in keeping with its own and values, and there is a preference for cooperative and international coordination efforts. It also call for liberalized trade policies, which should be a winner for the market-based among us.

But what it says doesn't really matter. Agenda 21 was mostly a forgotten corner of the UN universe until it became a cause celebre on the right. It appears that every time a bikepath or a water management issue is on the agenda at a planning committee, county commission, or regional council in a red state, right wing activists come to complain about Agenda 21, claiming that all sustainability planning is but the thin wedge of a UN effort toward world government, the elimination of private property, and surrender of the keys to our cars.

Recently this has risen (sic) to the level of legislative action. This article in Inside Climate News sums up all the action in the various (5) states in which legislation has been introduced. In Kansas a florid and alarmist resolution was recently passed by the House. The text is here, but the gist is captured by the title:

A RESOLUTION opposing and exposing the radical nature of United Nations Agenda 21 and its destructiveness to the principles of the founding documents of the United States of America.

They removed the words “socialist and communist” to pretend at compromise.

There was also an incident at the county commission in Sedgwick County, where Wichita is. An oped from the Wichita Eagle on the matter is here.

I went to a hearing at the House Energy and Utilities Committee to testify against the resolution, and I was struck by the alarmist tenor of the comments by its proponents. The upshot is that if you are trying to do any sustainability work in the state, you are either a part of the UN conspiracy or an unknowing dupe. The idea that planning officials could be doing their best to make responsible decisions that benefit their constituents and tread lightly on the earth is not one of the options.

Although the resolution was tabled in the E&U committee, the proponents got it through the more reliable Federal and State Affairs Committee, and then it was passed by the House by a comfortable margin.

I had to decide how serious an issue this was, whether it was deserving of the effort it took to write and go to deliver the testimony. On the one hand, it's rightwing crackpotism writ large, more appropriate to mock than to be taken seriously (and in fact mockery was a large part my approach, including the words “black helicopters” and "patent nonsense" into the official record). On the other hand, a lot of mischief can be done when no one's looking, and as it turned out in both committees I was the only one to testify against the bill. (In the Fed and State Committee my testimony was read into the record by Zack Pistora, the Sierra Club's lobbyist. I was not available that day and chose not to rearrange my life to chase this phantom.)

The reason I took it seriously at all is because I see it as the next beachhead for the climate denying, fossil-fuel serving, will-of-ALEC-doing crowd. With the wall of climate denial breaking down ever so slightly, the next tactic is to take perfectly reasonable public policies (bike paths) and tar them as but tactics of the evil UN.

Just to remind: sustainability is the effort to make sure that the development decisions we make do not do harm to the earth as we take what we need. There are numerous actions we can take, some simple and some more complex, to mitigate the impact we have on the environment, including transitioning to cleaner, renewable sources of energy, lowering our reliance on fossil-fuel powered transportation, being more conscious of our impact on creation with the development decisions we make, and in general being better and more responsible stewards of the earth which God has given us. It's a happy fact that these activities can also help providing vital jobs and economic activity throughout the state. 
In addition to the fevered-rightwing-imaginings aspect of this, there is a cui bono aspect. There's a reason that there's no one concerned about Agenda 21 who is not already a stone climate denier. It is not a real issue at all, but rather a strawman, a tactic to be used by those who have political, philosophical or economic opposition to any kind of sustainable development, clean energy, or Earth Care generally. 

We have not heard the end of this. Next year it will come back with a limitation on state spending, and that's when the joke will be over and it will get serious.  

Update: an article on Huffington Post on this whole thing.