A high-profile bill in Arizona to abolish sustainability efforts died last week, yet its defeat isn't deterring lawmakers in three other states from still trying to pass related policies into law.
The legislation seeks to outlaw states and their cities from endorsing or implementing the United Nations Agenda 21 principles of sustainable development. The list of 27 nonbinding principles, adopted by countries at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, is meant to guide policies to eradicate poverty and combat climate change, among other environmental threats.
In late March, the Arizona state Senate approved anti-Agenda 21 bill SB 1507, but the measure died on May 3, after House lawmakers failed to bring the legislation to a vote before the legislative session concluded that night.
In total, five states have tried and failed to pass such rules this year, with Arizona's battle being the most well known. Efforts in Alabama, Kansas and Louisiana are still alive.
Tennessee passed a resolution condemning—though not abolishing—the principles last month.
Proponents of anti-Agenda 21 legislation say it would protect American citizens from a UN-led conspiracy to encroach on their private property rights. Arizona state Sen. Judy Burges, who sponsored SB 1507, has called Agenda 21 "a direct attack on the middle class and working poor" through "social engineering of our citizens."
The bills in Arizona and other states mirror language used in model legislation by the John Birch Society, a 50-year-old conservative group based in Wisconsin. The society is dedicated to fighting what it calls an international plot by global forces "to abolish U.S. independence, build a world government or otherwise undermine our personal liberties." It has long attacked both the UN and environmentalism.
The group told InsideClimate News it is largely funded by membership fees and donations but would not disclose names, numbers or financial details.
One of its founding members in 1958 was Fred Koch, founder of energy conglomerate Koch Industries and father to billionaire oil executives Charles and David Koch. In his 1960 anti-communist screed called A Businessman Looks at Communism, Fred Koch describes the UN as "a rotten core of subversion" and blames UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—for spewing "World Government propaganda into our schools for years."
Clean Economy in the Crosshairs
Opponents in Arizona said the bill would harm the state's clean energy economy by scaring off private investors in its burgeoning solar industry and other sectors. Arizona houses 980 solar parts manufacturers, installers and vendors and ranks no. 3 in the nation in solar energy jobs, says a recent study.
"Just even having this bill in the legislature basically sent a message that Arizona doesn't support sustainability, and that's not accurate," Sarah Muench, communications director for Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, said in an interview. Last month the mayor penned an op-ed in the Arizona Republic warning that the measure "has the power to possibly hurt our city's economic future."
Muench said the mayor was concerned about how the one-page bill's ambiguous language might be interpreted. "It was so sweeping that we didn't know what it could impact, because it didn't specifically say."
While light on specifics, most of the bills, including the John Birch Society's model bill, single out one organization for "covertly pushing" the Agenda 21 principles on cities and towns nationwide: ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.
The nonprofit organization, based in Bonn, Germany, with U.S. headquarters in Oakland, Calif., sells software and advises local officials looking to reduce their carbon footprints. Originally called the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, ICLEI participates in UN climate negotiations and development conferences on behalf of local governments worldwide, but it doesn't receive UN funding or staff support.
The group counts 550 counties, cities and towns across the United States as members.
The bills would block states and local governments from joining the organization, adopting any of its programs, contracting services from ICLEI and giving it money.
"We're being attacked, I think, because the organization is associated with what they see as a terrible conspiracy theory" to impose sustainable growth plans on communities, Don Knapp, the communications and marketing director for ICLEI USA, said in an interview.
Knapp said he's seen a rise in local activists pressuring public officials to withdraw from the organization. Within the last two years, he said, "close to 20 local governments have canceled their ICLEI memberships at least in part due to pressure from the conspiracy theorists."
Vague language in the bills has so far been the saving grace of Agenda 21 supporters, Knapp suggested.
"You're banning sustainability, so does that mean that it's going to impact the growing cleantech industry in Arizona? What does that mean for energy efficiency programs? What does that mean for job creation programs?"
Where Bills Stand in Other States
Currently, Alabama has an anti-Agenda 21 bill awaiting a vote in the state House of Representatives. Kansas lawmakers held hearings this week on a House resolution on Agenda 21 principles—though it is seen as more of a symbolic measure, because it would condemn sustainability programs, not prohibit them. Louisiana is floating a similar measure.
In Tennessee, both houses passed and adopted symbolic resolutions last month, which made it the first state to approve Agenda 21-related legislation. Lawmakers in both houses had introduced a bill to prohibit the principles altogether, but neither was taken up for a vote before the legislative session closed on May 1.
Knapp of ICLEI said that, like in Arizona, the bills' vague language concerned many Tennessee lawmakers. A fiscal note attached to the Agenda 21 bills warned that such a law could prevent the state from carrying out environmental regulations, which would spur a loss of federal funding and a drop in revenue that state and local governments collect from such programs. It also warned that state and local rules for air and water pollution and waste collection would be nullified.
"The net fiscal impact of this bill for state and local governments is dependent on multiple unknown factors; therefore, any such impacts cannot be quantified with reasonable certainty," the fiscal note said.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, lawmakers failed to pass an Agenda 21 resolution by the session's end on March 29. New Hampshire's bill to study the implementation of Agenda 21 was killed that same day. And a similar measure in Minnesota to assess the principles' impacts died this week.
Larry Greenley, the John Birch Society's director of missions, told InsideClimate News the group published its one-page model bill on its website in February and based it on text from resolutions in Tennessee, Georgia and New Hampshire. Greenley said he didn't know if other states used his group's language.
Whole sections in the Georgia and Tennessee resolutions, and in later measures in Kansas and Louisiana, are identical, word for word, to the society's model bill. For instance, they all say that the "United Nations Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control."
The Republican Party's Measure
The introduction of state bills coincided with a similar effort by the Republican National Committee (RNC). In January, following its annual winter meeting, the committee passed a resolution that rejects Agenda 21 and calls on governments across the country to be "well informed of the underlying harmful implications" of the principles' "destructive strategies for 'sustainable development.'"
The committee agreed to distribute the document, called the "Resolution Exposing United Nations Agenda 21" to all Republican lawmakers and candidates, and to Republican Party offices in each state.
Greenley said the John Birch Society did not work with the RNC to develop or disperse the document. "However, our members are actively exposing the downsides of Agenda 21 to members of both parties across the nation," he said.
The RNC's actions are part of a larger Republican- and fossil fuel industry-led campaign to question or deny the established science of human-caused climate change and to block greenhouse gas-reduction policies and other anti-pollution measures.
In a prepared statement this week, six-term Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who was defeated in Tuesday's Republican primary, said: "I don't remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change."