Meeting the Challenge

Meeting the Challenge

In recent years, much of the progress on climate and sustainability has been made at the local level. The opposition to action on climate knows this, and the Tea Party, John Birch Society and others are seeding the idea that sustainability plans are part of an international conspiracy via Agenda 21 (the non-binding set of sustainable development principles passed at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro) to infiltrate government and take away private property and personal freedoms. Their primary target is ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability, and this Thursday, I will be moderating a roundtable to help ICLEI and its more than 550 U.S. local government members overcome the opposition to their critical work on sustainable development.

The Overcoming the Opposition roundtable, which is exclusive to Climate Access members, will feature a case challenge format. I’ve used this format in a number of live settings and have witnessed its effectiveness in helping individuals and organization meet stiff challenges. Our virtual case challenge will feature a presentation from Don Knapp, the communications director for the U.S. branch of ICLEI, about the attacks from the Agenda 21 opposition, which have resulted in the cancellation of sustainability projects (often transportation-related) from Maine to Florida, at least 15 local governments dropping membership in ICLEI, and a number of localities—as well as the state of Tennessee—passing resolutions condemning Agenda 21. In addition, a handful of other states are trying to outlaw the endorsement and implementation of the principles; the Arizona state senate passed a measure—which ultimately failed—that would have prohibited membership in ICLEI.

How ICLEI, founded in 1990 to support municipalities in sustainability planning efforts, can counter these attacks accusing it of being part of a vast United Nations conspiracy and set positive frames regarding the benefits of local sustainability and climate planning is at the heart of this week’s case challenge. This is no small task to take on, particularly for a small organization with a communications model that has been based on supporting local governments, versus advocacy. This is why we have assembled a stellar panel of experts—Robin Rather, Ben Long and Shayna Englin—who along with the audience will ask questions and make recommendations. 

Operating largely under the public radar (aside from February pieces in the New York Times, there has been little national news coverage), the Agenda 21 campaigns to roll back local sustainability, climate, transportation, and infrastructure plans are gaining traction, and with the Rio+ 20 Summit happening next month and the presidential election looming—in January, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning Agenda 21—most likely won’t be going away anytime soon. These campaigns are creating a chill and are helping to cement negative frames about environmental protection and planning at the local community level including big government versus ordinary people and jobs versus the environment, and should of concern to every organization or agency working to make progress at the local level.

Municipal governments do not enjoy being the target of fervent attacks, however unfounded the allegations. What we hope will come out of the Climate Access Overcoming the Opposition roundtable will be the identification of the best ways to amplify the success and benefits of local sustainability efforts and how ICLEI can contribute to or coordinate a response strategy to the negative framing in conjunction with organizations better set up to engage in advocacy communications efforts. This challenge requires a network approach so I really look forward to having this conversation with Climate Access Network members later this week.