What Explains the Cataclysmic Failure To Get Traction For Several Principles That The US and 185 Countries Agreed Should Guide National Climate Responses that Completely Invalidated the Scientific Uncertainty and Excessive Cost Arguments That Have Been the Dominant Focus of the US Climate Debate for 30 Years


This post will raise issues that are very controversial to some. As I tell students and audiences I have talked to around the world, I am not asking you to accept the claims I make, nor will I necessarily hold it against you if you disagree. I do this to provoke critical thinking amongst us all about why climate change remains an existential threat to life on earth and why these issues are also relevant to making democracies work for the common good on other issues.  I have very frequently benefited from discussions with others who disagreed with me but who engaged with me in critical interchange.  This post will be very critical of some corporations’ and affiliated entities’ tactics to undermine democracy’s efforts to achieve the common good. While acknowledging the contributions of free-markets, and the private sector for what they can contribute to economic growth, technical innovation, and private sector employment, this analysis demonstrates the indispensable need for appropriate government constraints on the corrosive power of money in politics to prevent corporate and financial interests from using their enormous wealth to undermine what citizens in a democracy decide in deliberations about how to achieve the common good.  This  post will be critical of the United States for its failure to control the power of the fossil fuel industry to spread misinformation about climate change.  This ruthless scheming of some elements of the private sector was actually predicted by Adam Smith who also convinced civil society of the benefits of the free market. This strong criticism in this paper is believed to be in response to the duty of citizens to fix the flaws of democracies as long as there is the possibility to do so, particularly when the flaws are seriously harming others. As the second verse of Kathrine Lee Bates song America the Beautiful says: ” America, America, God Mend Thine Every Flaw, Confirm Thine Soul in Self-control, Thy Liberty in Law.  But as this post points out, research concludes that this is also a problem in other countries which have economies with strong fossil fuel sectors. As a result this, getting traction for ethical principles that nations have already agreed to or have negotiated is a challenge for democracies with strong economic interests which are threatened by legislation or treaty making that seeks to achieve the common good. This paper was originally initiated in response to UNESCO’s interest in getting traction for ethics in international cooperative efforts to protect the international community from several growing threats that cant be solved at the national level. Because the author had concluded most Americans would have no idea of why global cooperative efforts to solve growing global threats must grapple with ethical issues,  section 1. of this paper explains the indispensable need of countries seeking to work cooperatively to solve global threats to grapple with ethical issues in treaty making and other global responses to growing global threats.

Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.

I. Introduction 

This paper takes the unusual step of listing the conclusions of this entry first to help readers judge how much of this paper they want to read although readers should read and critically consider the relevant analysis below before accepting any conclusions uncritically.

This paper deals with the failure to get traction for ethical principles in all claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good, given all such claims implicitly have the form:

A. Because of facts A. B, and C (Factual Premise)

B. Governments should do D ( Normative/Ethical Conclusion).  Here normative means right or wrong, ethical duty, or prescriptive conclusion in light of facts. We will in this article refer to the conclusion of arguments about what governments should do as the normative or ethical conclusion. Notice the normative/ethical conclusion is already part of any claim about what a government should do given certain facts.

This paper will examine why normative rules that all countries including the US had already agreed to under international environmental law failed to get traction in national climate responses. This analysis will be particularly focused on the failure to get traction for the ‘no harm’, ‘precautionary’. and ‘equity’ principles natiions had agreed to be bound by in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreementt.  The United States also agreed to human rights protections for its citizens which have also been ignored in public debates about climate change. These principles are focused on in this paper because they completely undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive cost arguments that the publically visisble climate debate has focused on for thirty years due to the successul framing of the debate by fossil fuel intersts,  Because there is shockingly little public discussion about “normative” or “ethical” conclusions of claims made by opponents of  climate change policies in the US public climate  debate, this paper examines why the ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their responses to  climate change were rarely discussed in US debates about climate change policies by examining what actually happened.

A. Conclusions

a. The primary cause of the failure to get traction for key ethical principles that the US government had already agreed would guide its climate policy formation is that a well-funded, sophisticated spread of misinformation that began in a focused way in the US  in 1971 with the Powell memo, discussed below, created a widely accepted unquestionable cultural narrative that included the claim that the government is the problem not the solution to many of society’s most troubling problems. Cultural narratives often become so accepted that many citizens become afraid to challenge them.The tactics of the Powell memo were expanded in the climate change disinformation campaign, discussed below, which were designed from the beginning to undermine citizens faith in mainstream climate science not to get the science right. This  website has previously argued that the disinformation campaign is a new kind of crime against humanity despite the indispensable role of skeptictism in science and the right of free speech. Therefore a major challenge for getting traction for ethics in climate policy formation, is to get traction for truth in climate change policy making disputes to undermine lies and misinformation sophisticatedly spread throughout the government’s population by increasingly powerful computer tools and other techniques. Poltical Scientist Hannah Arendt described in her paper Truth and Power, that politicians whose power is threatned have throughout human history responded with lies, and so getting traction for truth in the climate debate is not a new political challange but is nevertheless much more challanging now given the effectiveness of the computer tools to spread the disinformation that targets people who will be most receptive.

An  example of this which hasn’t been widely reported, while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited  in 1997 to participate in war games being conducted by the Army War College that considered risks from parts of the world that would that may be destabilized by climate change. During this session the Army identified Syria, parts of the Sahil area of Africa, and as I rember three countries in Central America which were drought prone and potential places where refugees would create social disruption. In 2001, a multi-year drought began in Syria which eventually caused 1000000 refugees who destabilized large parts of the world and continue to be a source of social unrest. 

The US army also predicted  over 20 years ago that three countries in Central  America  were vulnerable to drought and  therefore  likely  to  produce  refugees. Yet this aspect of  the refugee problems that are causing social disruption and unspeakable suffering is rarely commented on in the the US media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America. While at the same time prominent US politicans are spreading misinformation about climate change such as climate science is a hoax, climate law is unfair to the United States, climate change cant be real because it snowed in parts of the United States, and numberous false claims that havent been subjected to peer review and other techniques described in the climate change disinformation campaign entries referenced below.

The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict.  Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/6

While the Army College’s 2008 threat assessment became increasing confirmed by droughts, floods, diseases, increasingly damaging tropical storms, and refugees, many American politicians continued to claim that human-induced climate change was a ‘hoax’. I particularly paid attention to these claims because while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations I was asked by the State Department in June 1997 to cochair with a colleague from the Energy Department a negotiation that would ask governments to agree as governments to the IPCC conclusion that the balance of the evidence demonstrates a discernable human influence on the climate system.

2. The United States has failed to achieve the common good because it ignored the warning of Adam Smith who although convinced civil society of the value of the free market through its invisible hand but also lesser known he predicted that merchants would sometimes ruthlessly scheme against the common good .  (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com) Thus governments need to establish rules to make democracies work for the common good that anticipate the very likely behavior of some economically powerful interests to undermine what democratic processes want to determine the common good while acknowledging the benefit of free markets and private sector institutions for some purposes in a democracy. .

3. Some US founding fathers claimed that the goal of democracy was to achieve the common good which according to Thomas Paine and others was essentially justice. They anticipated this would create disagreements among contending parties about factual claims and normative conclusions which are implicitly present in any claim about what a government should do to achieve the common good. Thus some founding fathers recommended that citizens be educated in skills to help them evaluate factual disputes namely science,  history, among others,  and ethics and other subjects to help citizens critically evaluate disagreements about justice.

4. The goals of higher education have increasingly shifted its major empasis from teaching skills needed by citizens to participate in a democratic processes to achieve the common good to teaching skills to make students attractive to potential employers such as science, engineering, and technology.  (The support for this claim wil be the subject of the next entry on this website). Although claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good have both factual premises and normative  conclusions, this shift in higher education’s major focus has increased the power of opponents of environmental policies to frame the public debate on disputes about facts which usually ignore very relevant ethical considerations including ethical principles that governments have previously agreed should guide their policy formation. For instance, all governments in the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change agreed to be bound by the “precautionary,” “no harm” and adopt GHG emmission reductin targets to levels required of itin accordance with ‘equity ” which principles expressly undermine the excessive costs and scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of climate change.  Yet proponents of climate policies usually ignore critically evaluating the normative conclusions of the arguments made by opponents of policies while focusing on counter factual claims about uncertainty and cost.

5. Why a global solution to climate change requires a national response consistent with its ethical and legal obligations to not harm others is not apparent to most US citizens in my experience until one understands certain features of climate change which are  different than other environmental problems that don’t raise these urgent ethical problems. These features include all CO2e emissions mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric CO2e concentrations globally and thus increasing harms globally, because although 80% of CO2e emissions are removed feom the atmosphere  by carbon sinks in 100 years, some remain for tens of thousands of years thus contributing to future harms everywhere including atmospheric concentrations that trigger abrupt climate change, the most vulenerable countries are usually least responsible for the harms, delays by a nation in reducing its emissions makes it more difficult and expensive for the whole world to achieve any warming limit goal, the setting of any national GHG emissions target implicitly takes a position on four ethical questions. (the warming limit goal the nation is seeking to achieve, the carbon budget it is basing its reduction amount on given different budgets with different probabilities are options, the equitablle basis it has used to calculate the nation’s fair share, and date by which the reduction will be achieved which effects the amount of carbon budget available for the whole world.  For a discussion of these issues see:

Seven Featuresu of Climate Change That Citizens and the Media Need to Understand To Critically Evaluate a Government’s Response to This Existential Threat and the Arguments of Opponents of Climate Policies.

6. This article will examine what can be learned from the failure to get traction in national responses to climate change for several ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their obligations under the 1992 climate treaty. 

7. As we have explained in many entries, for 30 years the fossil fuel industry has been successful in framing the major focus of the public debate in United States so that it has focused largely on issues related to scientific uncertainty and excessive costs. This is so despite the fact that the international community including the United States under G.H. Bush had agreed in 1992 to be guided in their response to climate change by the “precautionary  principle” which make’s scientific uncertainty an illegitimate excuse for a nation’s failing to achieve their legal obligations, and the ‘no harm’ principle which makes governments responsible for harms to others caused by activities within their borders without regard to scientific uncertainty or cost to them once they are on notice that activities within their jurisdiction are threatening others.  

8. The article explains why the need in international cooperative efforts to solve serious growing threats that cant be solved at the local level frequently raise questions of fairness and justice between nations that are usually worked out through negotiations among nations about what is fair.

The goals of this post are ambitious as it examines several different crucial topics necessary to understand the enormous importance of getting traction for ethics in global cooperatiive efforts to respond to emerging threats that cant be adequately dealt with at the national level. This is a concept that I have discovered NGOs passionately involved in finding a solution to climate change have little understanding of why this is important, nor how one resolves disputes about ethical principles, and as several sociologists have predicted technical experts will sometimes be traumatized by the mere suggestion that their work be supplemented by ethical considerations.

Because the article is long, the reader may want to skip topics without reading the entire paper. The paper gets into detail about several ethical principles that all nations have agreed upon in the 1992 UNFCCC should guide their responses to climate change but which have been largely ignored in the public debate about national responses to climate change. Some detail is included on these issues because getting traction on these principles is still crucial to getting nations to comply with their obligations under the climate change regime while opponents of climate policies have spread false claims about these issues which are still frequently repeated in media coverage without comment.

The sections of this paper are:

1 Why governments must practically grapple with justice issues when developing rules about threats that cant be solved at the national level.

2. Why opposition to international rules developed for the common interest are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the international common good.

3. The failure of higher education to educate students in skills necessary to evaluate the normative conclusions made in claims about  what government should do to achieve the common good given certain facts

4. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs at the international level seeking to achieve the global common good.

I .  Why governments at the national and internation level have to grapple with justice issues in developing and applying law or rules seeking to achive the global common good.

Several enlightenment philosophers and US founding fathers, believed that achieving the common good was the essential role of government and the essence of the common good is justice. Although international negotiations often focus on other issues in  international environmental negotiations, the most time consuming issues are usually over differences between developed and developing nations about what fairness requires.  Also in the last 20 years corporate interests which are economically threatened by issues under consideration have been successful in generating political opposition at the national level often by the dissemination of sophisticated  disinformation  on  issues  most  consequential  to  the global community including  poor  developing  nations.

Thomas Paine among other US founding fathers believed that the purpose of democracy was to achieve the common good which usually cant be achieved without grappling with justice questions among others.

Getting traction for justice in government affairs has become more urgent since the 1970s  when well organized, aggressive, sophisticated efforts have undermined governments central role in ordering society for the common good, Sociologists attribute the organized beginning of this phenomenon in  the US to a 1972 memo from Lewis Powell who was then vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce which began with a claim that the free market is under attack citing the successful social and environmental movements in the 1960s. This is deeply ironic because the very reason why many in the world saw hope for the world in the US system was because the US democracy in the 1960s successfully found remedies for the racial, voting, woman’s rights and many more justice issues. Yet the Powel memo construed these very victories on rights and  injustice as a threat to  the corporate power. The Powell memo also criticized corporations for their lack of vigor in responding to the challenges to free enterprise that were growing in the beginning of the 1970s. Powell thus called for a much more aggressive response from the business community that the memo claims is needed to protect free enterprise from criticism from college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. Two months after the Powell memo was released, President Nixon nominated him to the US Supreme Court where he served for 15 years.

He recommended 10 things that businesses should do, all of which have  been well funded and aggressively pursued. See, The Seeds of the Corporate Funded Climate Disinformation Campaign, the 1971 Lewis Powell Memo, 

The success of the propaganda to get American citizens to support less government regulation for the common good was already evident when US President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural speech proclaimed that government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem.  Amazingly, although I believe most people would acknowledge benefits of free markets while agreeing that government is sometimes the problem, it is absurd to conclude that the private sector alone will provide pubic goods that most people want, such as affordable health care,  protection from environmental threats, towns designed to promote social interaction, affordable high quality education for all, affordable housing for all, and among other things protection from the scheming of some merchants and despots throughout history who have sometimes ruthlessly schemed against the public good as Adam Smith warned. This scheming is inevitable when the solution to growing global threats requires the regulation of new technologies that have admitted value but dangerous potential for harm. Curent potentially beneficial technologies of concern include, for example, artificial intelligence and bioengineering.

While I worked for EPA on UN international environmental issues, I saw corporate interests lobby EPA to oppose provisions of the biodiversity treaty and climate law that other countries were pushing for.  Most Americans including NGOs seem to be unaware that the United States is, in my experience having worked at the UN and taught or lectured in 38 countries, is increasingly internationally widely viewed as an obstructionist on many global environmental issues although many non-nationals believe there is still hope that US can make democracy work for the common good. The 2008  Army War College Threat Assessment in fact concludes that the failure of the US to adequately respond to climate change may result in more violence against the US.

I have been shocked how much our democracy in the last decade has made it easier for money to dominate politics by removing limits on corporate donations, voter suppression, gerrymandering, allowing donors to hide who make donations to entities who are involved in political issues, while other countries have often made it easier to vote in ways that initially shocked me. By law, for instance, Australian citizens have a duty to vote which my Australian colleagues say is enforced with a routine fine. While teaching in Japan  I was told  political money is not allowed to be used on television, which explains why one hears political messages on loud speakers in trucks all the time. I offer these examples  to encourage research on their truth and to suggest that others do research on these kinds of issues. Of course these issues will create disagreements among citizens, a matter that democracies should resolve according to the supporters of the role of democracies by making arguments about what is fair

The  process of international environmental treaty making usually requires governments to grapple with important and sometimes thorny justice issues that are indispensable to accomplish the goals of the treaty.  For instance those drafting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) had to grapple with what rules would govern each countries GHG emissions reduction target in light of the fact that some nations more than others are responsible for the current problem. Although the treaty negotiations that ended in the 1992 UNFCCC  established very general rules about national responsibilities to adopt policies to  prevent dangerous climate change, the international negotiations were unable to agree on how to allocate responsibility among nations for emissions except in the most general and abstract terms. This is so despite the fact that climate change is a problem that necessarily required some guidance on how to allocate responsibility among nations for reducing national GHG emissions. Some nations have been pushing for more clarity on these issues for decades. The best the initial round of negotiations could agree on is that the developed countries should take the lead on reductions and each country should reduce GHG emissions to levels required to achieve any warming limit goal in accordance with “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.”  Most international environmental governance processes have gotten bogged down in strong differences between developed and developing states with differences not fully resolved in the initial negotiations. Thus many treaties initial text coming out of the first international negotiations resolves the conflict often between rich and poor countries with “weasel words” or words which give no clear guidance, in the hope that further negotiations in yearly Conference of Parties (COPs) will resolve important but ambiguous language on crucial issues. The UNFCCC is still full of such weasel words despite 25 COPs since 1992 on the meaning of central terms such as “equity.” Despite almost thirty years of negotiations which often sought to resolve these ambiguities, the UNFCCC implementation has been plagued by the lack of clarity about several key concepts. 

During the international negotiations each year, energy industry lobbyists have been well represented along with US congressmen usually mostly from US fossil fuel states closely monitoring the US position on issues important to them and often arguing that the US should make no commitment on issues the energy industry believes will hurt their interests.

An additional challenge to getting traction for ethics is since the 1980s neoliberal ideas have gotten traction around the world. Since the central idea of neoliberal ideology is not obvious but is usually understood as market processes should order society for the common good through the operation of the market’s invisible hand, early proponents of neoliberal ideology claimed there was no or at least a greatly reduced need for the government to develop rules and regulations to achieve the common good based on justice.  As a result justifications for government regulation on environmental issues that existed in the first 20 years of the modern environmental movement, such as that regulation was needed to adequately protect human health and the environment, or protect the environment for future generations were gradually replaced over several decades by cost-benefit analyses or other economic criteria.

An example, while I was working as the US  Program Manager to UN Organizations during the Clinton administration while the US was considering ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, much of the policy talk in the agency centered on which of two different cost-benefit analysis that had been prepared by different government agencies should guide the US decision about whether to join the Protocol.  During this time, the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying group of businesses who opposed action to reduce GHG emissions were waging an intense national campaign in opposition to the US ratification of the Kyoto Deal which observers attributed to President Clinton’s decision after negotiating a deal in Kyoto acceptable to the United States, he never submitted it to Congress for ratification. I have learned that the way power often works is to spread a narrative through a culture that becomes so accepted that citizens are afraid to challenge it. That is  power often works by scaring people to not discuss certain things. But we have Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the lesser known Hannah Arendt who have implied we citizens have a duty to call out injustice when we see it, although violence is never justifiable morally and will also undermine the credibility of the moral claim.

During my career I watched the United States fall precipitously from the position of undisputed international environmental leader at the beginning of the 1980s and be replaced by the European Union (EU) after that.  For over a decade the US environmental law and policy was an inspiration for the rest of the world after being given birth by Rachel Carson’s vision and other successes on justice issues in the late 1960s. A recent book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power by investigative reporter Mark Shapiro documents how developing nations no longer go to Washington for advice on environmental policy; they now go to Brussels.[i]  The European Union is now widely viewed to be the global leader on environmental programs.  Shapiro explains how this shift in power has not only been bad for human health and the environment in the United States but also for American business in a world increasingly moving toward a greener global economy. The 2008 Army War College Threat Assessment Report on Climate Change not only draws the same conclusion about diminishing respect around the world for a country which was once more widely thought of as the shining city on the hill but may generate more violence against US interests from parts of the world increasingly stressed by water shortages.

In addition getting nations to appropriately comply with their ackowleged obligations to base their GHG target on equity, one of the ethical principles nations have agreed to would guide their policy, it  is still practically crucial to preventing gross harms to the world as the following chart demonstrates,

Notice this chart shows the GHG emissions reduction needed for the whole world to have any hope of achieving the Paris Agreement warming limit goal of 2C is depicted by the top line. You can see if the high emitting nations don’t reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them by equity, the lesser emitting developing nations must go to zero immediately if there is any hope of achieving any warming limit goal.

2. Why opposition to rules developed for the common good are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the common good.

Although Adam Smith is widely praised around the world for convincing much of the global community of the benefits of free market. Lesser known, however, is he also warned that the merchant class would sometimes conspire against the public interest and in so doing predicted that the merchants would sometimes be ruthless and effective in manipulating policymakers and legislatures by influencing the public’s understanding of issues that must be addressed to achieve the common good. (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com) 

Some of the tactics used by the fossil fuel industry has been to spread disinformation . This has been accomplished by morally ruthless tactics that will be explored in the next section.

Another tactic which has been used with increasing effectiveness is the use of what I call false intimidating manipulative smears (FIMS), that are aimed at anyone who appears in the media who challanges the cullurally unchallengable narrative. Currrent frequently used FIMS hurled against anyone challenging the hegemonic cultural narrative  are the person is an “alarmist.” “socialst,” or recently believers in “entitlements.’ Because most people dont know how to respond to these FIMS, false intimidating smears, a future entry will critically evaluate the dominent FIMS.

3. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs under consideration at the international level to achieve global common good. 

I have learned from academics and climate change NGOS working on climate issues   who I have often sincerely publicly praised for their technical work on climate change that they have no idea about how to spot nor critically evaluate ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. This is one of the reasons why they frequently shun discussing supplementing their technical conclusions with ethical considerations.

I have have rarely met US climate activists or academics engaged in climate science or economics that are aware that philosophers believe that even on ethical issues that reasonable people disagree on what justice requires, most reasonable people will agree that certain proposals on interpreting and applying ethical principles flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. They explain this phenomenon by saying people don’t need to know what justice requires to get agreement that some claims about justice flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. For instance, any proposal which allows someone to hurt others because of economic benefit to them violates the most basic ethical principle, the golden rule that says I cant harm others because of benefits to myself. It also violates the ” no harm” principle which the US agreed to in the UNCCC which requires nations to prevent activities within their boundaries from harming others even if the harms are not fully proven. A crucial example from climate law, although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, most ethicists agree “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:

There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).

In the 1980s I was invited to join the Editorial Board of the Journal of Environmen Ethics whose authors rarely contributed to conflicts about what ethics required on issues that arose in actual environmental controversies while for several decades focused almost exclusively on how to put a non-anthropocentric based value of nature.  I had through my experience concluded that there were many important issues arise in other environmental policy conflct that need the help of ethical analysis which must be considered to protect people and animals including some for which the ethical rule appropriate to policy had already been agreed to. So just spotting the implicit ethical issue is often all that is needed because some ethical issues that arise in policy are often  surprising easy to resolve once spotted.

Academic environmental ethics focus on resolving theoretical conflicts is a tragic mistake because ethicists are needed to help civil society evaluate untruths about unfairness claims that have been circulated by US opponents of climate change policy continue to frequently circulate, for instance, a recent example is that unless China reduces GHG emissions  at levels required of the US, it is unfair to the US although the US has significantly higher historical and per capita emissions than China.  According to  IPCC’s  to description of reasonable considerations for determining equity,  the  US  percentage  reductions  should  be  greater  than  China although  like all claims about what distributive justice requires, for instance, which happens frequently in US environmental law cases where there are multiple defendants who must find away to apportion hundreds of millions of damages among, the court system works out how to apportion the damages. This is a common problem on allocating damage awards in hazardous waste cleanup litigation in the US . In cases I have been involved with there were as many as 200 defendants fighting about how damages would be distributed. US courts are face*d with kind of problem frequently.

Notice in the charts below, US historical emissions are much higher than China’s as well as US per capita emissions even though China’s current emissions lead the world. 


The enormous damage to the world that has already been caused by a large sector of US civil society’s acceptance of arguments made by the fossil fuel industry about excessive cost and scientific uncertainty despite all governments having agreed that these excuses do not justify the failure of governments to comply with their agreed to obligation’s under the UNFCCC.  See discussions of “precautionary principle” and “no harm” rule on this website. 

The United States is not the only country in the world that has let its powerful fossil fuel industries interfere with their legal climate change obligations. See   NationalClimateJustice.org, although there is some evidence that the climate disinformation campaign organized originally in the US has been used by fossil fuel interests in other countries. I have also recently discovered that neoliberal ideology has gotten traction around the world, a fact of concern to many national leaders. See also Ethics And Climate Change, A Study of National  Commitments, Brown D. Taylor, P, (IUCN, Press-

Since climate negotiations began in the 1990s which resulted in the 1992 Convention on Climate Change, I have witnessed from a front row seat while representing US EPA at the UN on environmental issues and for a few years as staff person lead for Pennsylvania DER on climate change how fossil fuel interests have successively fought proposed government climate action largely by framing the public debate so that it has narrowly focused on scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy and circulating false claims about unfairness. This is so, despite all nations had agreed to be guided by principles in their climate change policy formation that made scientific uncertainty and excessive national cost illegitimate excuses for a nation’s failing to comply with their climate obligations. Yet I have seen no press coverage of this phenomenon. I have also experienced that with a little ethical reasoning, people agree that these rules are ethically justified.

The article will argue this US failure to abide by principles they have agreed  has been caused by the economically powerful forces’ successful framing the arguments that have dominated the visible climate debates in the US so the debate has largely focused on facts about uncertainty and facts about high costs with the absence of critical reflection on the normative conclusions made by opponents about these facts.

3. The Failure of Higher Education

This problem has also been caused in part by the major failure of US higher education to educate citizens in skills needed to critically evaluate the normative conclusions of claims made in democracies about what should be done to achieve the common good. Despite all such claims have both factual premises and normative conclusions, citizens almost always only engage in critically evaluating the factual premises of arguments about what governments should do to achieve the common good. Citizens in a democracy need to be educated in subjects that facilitate crital evaluation factual premises and normative conclusions in claims about the common good, an assumption made by enlightenment philosophers and some US founding fathers. But as we will see, US higher education is increasingly part of the problem as many schools have shifted their primary goals to develop skills that will make students marketable for jobs, not competent citizens seeking to achieve the common good. (This claim will be the focus of the next entry on this website) Also, academics, as well as citizen activists often become preductively engaged in responses to climate change that they judge have some potential to make a difference given the political status quo. The focus of their energy thus is often responses to climate change that they believe have a chance of working given the acceptance of cultural narratives about excessive cost is an enormous urgent need to reduce GHG emissions to net zero ASAP a topic I argue should be mentioned in every discussion of a response to climate change. It is also an understandable tactic to justify climate policies solely on the basis policy will create jobs because it implicitly confirms the unreasonableness of the claim if this policy causes some job loss the policy should not be adopted. A more enlightened use of the jobs argument would be we must reduce GHG emissions immediately because they are causing and threatening enormous harms around the world, a byproduct of this policy will be some job creation but job creation is not why we should do this.

After Paris Agreement in 2015, I convened meetings of the leaders of the 5 largest environmental groups in Pennsylvania to explain and document that that the 1.5 C and 2.0 C warming limit goals required the whole world to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 and 2070 yet all five leaders who I greatly respect said they would not publicly talk about it because they would be labelled as ‘alarmists.’ Thus confirming the power of developing an unquestionable cultural narrative coupled with the widespread use of false,intimidating, manipulative smears  FIMS discussed above.


Some climate activists have claimed they dont know how to spot the ethical issues that arguments against climate policies raise. This is remarkable because almost all claims about what governments should do given certain facts are already part of the claim in the normative conclusion. This criticism does not diminish, in my view that many academic climate change scientists should be publically honored for the courage they displayed in correcting the misinformation on climate science that was undermining the political will to reduce national GHG emission.

That US higher education has done such a horrible job in educating students in environmental sciences on how to critically evaluate the normative conclusions in claims about the common good  became clear in a three-year study at Penn States revealed that undergraduate students in environmental sciences could not identify which part of a claim about what governments should do was the normative claim without training. This is truly frightening because it explains how vulnerable citizens are to bogus claims made by economically powerful entities and why proponents of climate policy frequently focus on the factual issues in a claim and ignore critically reflecting on the normative conclusions of claims made about what governments should do to achieve the common good.

Almost  all claims about what a government should do in response to climate change implicitly have the above form but many climate scientists and environmental activists whose technical work I have sincerely publicly honored have admitted to me that they were not aware that if they cant draw conclusions about the magnitude of climate impacts because of the complexity of the climate system, the inability to describe physical elements of the climate system needed to quantify risk assessments or do not have enough time to develop a risk assessment, they are expected to engage in precautionary science. Most American climate scientists I have talked to have admitted they were unaware of the arguable duty of governments who have a responsibility to protect human health and the environment have a responsibility to engage in “precautionary science” when reaching certainty about harms can’t be accomplished for practical purposes.

On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.



Scientists failure to understand the ethical duty to develop a process to implement  precautionary science when normal scientific procedures are unable to do  so when engaged in research on the harms from some potentially dangerous problems is a  enormous practical problem because part of the tactics of the morally outrageous of climate change disinformation have been to call all scientific conclusions that have not been based upon the epistemic norms of science that have been established to prevent a false positive or a type 1, statistical error, “junk science”.

Most American scientists and students in environmental studies in my experience are aware that some EU countries have already created procedures to apply precautionary science when scientific norms designed to prevent false positives prevent timely descriptions of dangerous risks. Nor that this has been done in the in the United States for determining a few threats like the cancer risk of low doses of tox substances. Yet this failure in assessing the risk of  harms from GHG atmospheric concentrations through precautionary science may turn out to be the most catastrophic policy failure in environmental law history. It may explain why earlier conclusions of IPCC underestimated climate impacts it described in its few first assessments, an issue worthyy of further research.. In other words this may be a failure with profound implications for the human race.

Another troubling area of ignorance among most climate activists is that the failure of nations to timely adopt a policy to achieve a warming limit goal makes the global challenge for everyone more expensive and more difficult because the delay reduces the carbon budget that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal. Therefore their reassurance that ‘we have time’ is greatly misleading in a number of ways

An example of delays cost  was given in the 2019 UNEP report is as follow

In 1992, under the UNFCCC all nations agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle which  stipulated that that nations have a duty to adopt climate change policies that prevent activities from within their jurisdiction from harming others outside their jurisdiction.  A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished under the “no harm” rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or the harms haven’t been fully proven. The reasons there is widespread acceptance of the precautionary principle is that is not difficult to get people to agree that once there is credible evidence that an activity is potentially very harmful to others, the person in control of the activity can’t continue to put others at risk because the potentially harmed person has not proven they will be harmed.

Some European nations deal with this issue by shifting the burden off proof from government to the entity in control of the risky matter to determine risk and safety.

Yet most US climate activists and academics engaged in climate usually respond to opponents claims about scientific uncertainty or cost by making counter factual claims about certainty and cost. My advice to them is that they continue to do their good work but they should publicly acknowledge that some scientific uncertainty is not a legitimate excuse for a government to fail to comply with their obligations to reduce the threat of climate change as all countries agreed when the adopted the precautionary principle in the 1992 UNFCCC.

I also urge that activists who are pushing for an economically based solutions couple this to a legally enforceable government deadline for achieving zero GHG emissions because market-based solutions that admittedly could be a productive tool to reduce emissions will likely have to be supplemented by other legal tools to achieve zero GHG emissions needed  ASAP and market-based tools implementation will not likely  be quick enough by themselves. Around the world countries that adopted carbon taxes or cap an trade regimes had to supplement them with other legal tools to achieve net zero reduction goals in a timely matter. Therefore the laudable efforts of many climate activists to get carbon taxes and cap and trade regimes into law should be acknowledged for helping create a helpful tool to achieve a legally enforceable target. But this tool needs to be supplemented with other legal tools to get to zero emissions ASAP.

In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate strategies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation. Yet this is a missiing subject in the  American conversation about climate change

A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019). So US emissions are already contributing to human rights violations but rarely is this brought up in US public discussions of climate issues in the nation that instituted international human rights law although the US is now behind many parts of the world in adopting procedural rights to bring human rights claims that continue to be hurdles to enforcements of some human rights largely because of difficult standing hurdles in US LAW

Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world.  Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways including the increase in pandemics and vector borne diseases.It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.

As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points. or positive feedbacks that that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system. Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by energizing positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.,

To defend itself against charges that climate programs needed to implement the Kyoto Protocol were too costly, the Clinton Administration in July of 1998 prepared a CBA that showed that costs to the United States of complying with Kyoto would not be great.[i] 

The Clinton Administration’s analysis concluded that these costs were justified because damages from a doubling of pre-industrial concentrations of greenhouse gases would cost the United States economy about 1.1 percent of GDP per year, that is $8.9 billion per year.[iii] In so doing the Clinton Administration seemed to acknowledge the validity of climate change counter-movement’s basic argument that domestic action should be limited to actions justifiable by CBA.  That is, at no time did the Clinton Administration assert that the logic of CBA that supported the position of the opponents to Kyoto was ethically problematic; the Clinton Administration simply asserted that the CBA calculations of those that opposed Kyoto were overly pessimistic.

The Clinton administration did not acknowledge any of the specific ethical problems with CBAs applied to environmental problems discussed on this website. In fact, remarkably there was no discussion in EPA or in the US media’s coverage of the Kyoto Protocol about the use of CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change raised the following ethical problems.

  • If climate change is an ethical problem, nations may not determine the acceptability of national climate change policies on the basis of national interest alone; they must acknowledge the duty to not harm others who have not consented to be harmed. Yet the debate in the US about the Kyoto commitment remarkably only focused on harms and benefits to the United States alone. The fact that US ghgs were harming and threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world was not considered or even commented on in my experience when the Clinton administration CBA on the Kyoto Protocol was discussed inside the government.
  • The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge the duty of high-emitting nations to compensate those who are greatly harmed by climate change, despite the fact the US had agreed to the “polluter pays” principle in the Rio Declaration in the in 1992. [iv]
  • The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge that the duty of the United States to not cause human rights violations despite the fact that the least contentious human rights, including the right to life and security, will be violated by climate change.
  • The Clinton administration CBA treated all harms to human health and the environment form climate change as commodities whose value could be determined in markets or by asking people what they are willing to pay for the entity harmed.
  • The Clinton administration CBA failed to acknowledge that those who might be harmed or killed  by US ghg emissions had a right to consent to be harmed thus violating principles of procedural justice.

In response to the Clinton CBA, opponents of Kyoto argued that the Clinton Administration’s analysis understated the costs to the United States economy.  The fossil fuel industry and others continued to oppose ratification of the Kyoto Protocol mostly on the basis that costs to the United States compliance with the Protocol would exceed benefits.

The most morally repugnant tactics of merchant class schemes that I have seen that have undermined the public good, a behavior predicted by Adam Smith, is likely the climate change disinformation campaign, see numerous articles and videos on the climate change disinformation campaign on this website.

I have struggled to express my view of the depth of the moral depravity of the climate change disinformation campaign which sociologists have well documented who paid for it, how it was organized, and how it operated. See, Is climate  science disinformation a crime against humanity. While fully acknowledging the importance of skepticism to science, skeptics must play by the rules of science including subjecting their claims to peer review. Ethically this is mandatory particularly when the skepticism is circulated to the public with the express goal of undermining the peer-reviewed science for the sole purpose of undermining public support for regulatory action that the most prestigious scientific organizations and Academies of Sciences have claimed government action is necessary to prevent catastrophic harm.

Nor can this be excused on the ground of free speech, a defense that the opponents of climate policies often make when they are confronted by the damage they have done in supporting the climate change disinformation campaign.

Why Exxon’s and Other Fossil Fuel Companies’ Funding of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Cannot be Excused As an Exercise in Free Speech but Must be Understood as Morally Reprehensible Disinformation.

Its tactics have included the following which are  further described in several articles and videos on this website under  the  category  climate disinformation.

Climate change is an environmental problem about which a little reflection reveals cant be solved at the national level because CO2 emissions from all countries mix well in the atmosphere, and raise atmospheric concentrations globally and thus are partly responsible for the horrific harms around the world including droughts, floods, more intense storms. In other words US GHG emissions increase climate harms everywhere which is often ignored while the press limits coverage to time left to achieve a Paris warming limit goal.  Because, no other environmental problem known to me has this characteristic , I  have concluded that the failure of competent people in their discipline to give informed advice on several important policy issues is because there are scientific aspects of climate change that are different than other more common environmental problems that require different policy responses that need to consider input from different disciplines.

The fact that excessive GHG emissions from any country are contributing to environmental harms globally because they mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric concentrations everywhere is never discussed in the US media in my experience, which is even more startling when the media extensively covers the migrant problem on the Mexican Texas border.

Recently the US media covered the claim of some Republicans that the refugee crisis serge on the Mexican Border was caused by the Democrats while not connecting this to predictions made by the Army War College in 1997 during war games and that i attended and later described in more detail in the 2008 Army War College report referenced above that drought would create migrants in many parts of the world that would cause social disruption and conflict.

In I997, while serving as US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was  invited to participate in war games at the Army War College which were examining risks from climate change that could cause social conflict. One of the security risks the army examined that day was from refugees in Syria which had a large farming area that was vulnerable to drought. In 2001 a three year drought began in Syria which caused 1,000,000 refugees who are still destabilizing large parts of Europe.

The US army also predicted  over 20 years ago that three countries in Central  America  were  vulnerable  to  drought and  therefore  likely  to  produce  refugees. Yet this aspect of  the refugee problems that are causing social disruption is rarely commented on in the media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America.

The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict.  Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.

Yet,  I cant stress enough the moral unacceptability of using violence or property damage as a tactic to respond to injustice as Martin Luther King stressed He also claimed that it will undermine the credibility of the protestor’s moral claim.

 Having written a book in 2002 called “American Heat, Ethical Problems with the US response to Global Warming,”  I was greatly surprised in March 2009 when the George W. Bush State Department invited me to speak to the Scottish Parliament about ethical issues raised by climate-change policies as they were debating an aggressive climate-change law in Edinboro. 

Before I spoke, a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make nor American climate activist. He argued that Scotland should adopt the new aggressive legislation under consideration because the Scots had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so. This justification is remarkably enlightened compared to the Trump’s deeply morally bankrupt justifications for getting the US out of the Paris Agreement on the basis of putting America First. He also gave several other justifications for leaving the deal which were factually wrong such as the Paris Agreement was unfair to the US. The UNFCCC a allows nations to decide what equity  requires of them.

In the coverage of Trump’s decision to get out of the Paris deal all commentators that I have heard ever mentioned that US delay makes achieving the Paris warming limit goal more difficult because the available budget for the world that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal has gotten smaller have never mentioned in the press discussion of Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Deal.

Trump’s America First and claims that the Paris Deal is unfair to the US justification for leaving Paris are based upon obvious easily falsifiable crazy assumptions yet the US media has largely focused public attention on the fact that the US could rejoin which Biden has decided to do.

I noticed during my career as an environmental lawyer in government which started soon after the first Earth day in 1970 that the value of the environment became understood to be more  and more its commodity value, while Rachel Carson claimed that the environment should be preserved for the benefit of future generations. This phenomenon of making the value of everything its commodity value is consistent with the ideology of neoliberalism that continued to gain force beginning in the late 1970s. One  of the neoliberalism’s central ideas is that government’s regulatory decisions should be based on market valuation not ethical logic. This is inconsistent with so many universally accepted ethical principles such as the golden rule that are the basis for much of international law.

By the miid-1980s both Democrats and Republicans used with increasing frequency cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a law or regulation was appropriate. And so by 1997, while the Clinton administration was debating internally whether it should decide to join the Kyoto Protocol on the basis of two cost-benefit analyses both of which had commodified the costs and benefits by looking looking at US impacts of climate change alone, nor consulted with those who who were most vulnerable to climate impacts, nor considered that under the ‘no harm’ rule that the US had agreed to the US is morally if not legally enforceable responsible for harms they contributed to in other countries.

About a decade ago, John Broom, a respected English economist/philosopher was giving a lecture at the University of Delaware, when during a break in his presentation he casually asked the audience a question. “Do you know how to calculate the value of climate caused harms if climate change  kills all the people in the world?” I experienced this question as a Monty Python moment. This is the kind question that a comic would ask to show the obvious absurdity of a claim.

It is amazing to me that many ethical problems with cost benefit analysis are rarely discussed in the US media, despite obvious ethical problems with its use to determine justice. CBA can be productively useful as a tool to determine efficiency of policy options, but as IPCC said economic conclusions by themselves cant determine justice. .

This is another example of the dismal failure of higher educations to teach critical thinking skills needed to effectively evaluate normative conclusions already present in claims about what a government should do given certain facts. For identification of ethical issues raised by climate change policy making relying on cost-benefit analysis, see Brown, D. (2008) Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Program, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2008/06/01/ethical-issues-in-the-use-of-cost-benefit-analysis-of-climate-change-programs/,

In 1997, I was asked by the US State Department while serving as US EPA Program Manger to the UN to co-chair for the US in a UN negotiation  that was considering a document in which all governments, not IPCC scientists, would be asked to agree that the elevated warming the Earth was already experiencing was human caused.   By the end of the negotiation all approximately 155 nations agreed to a stipulate that the balance of the evidence supported human causation. Yet 30 years later, all Republican presidential candidates and some democratic politicians would not agree that climate change is human caused. Given the destruction to human health, property, and ecological systems on which life depends, this is a failure of monumental tragic significance. Many scientists and academics usually respond to issues about models. In addition to the models being able to usually predict future temperatures  and when run  backward usually describe  prior warming, other evidence that deepen the moral duty to take action is the for me,is  finger prints evidence  and attribution studies that test whether natural forces that have driven Earth’s natural heating an cooling cycles are extraordinary strong evidence that warming is very likely human caused more than enough to crate moral responsibility to act in most peoples views.

Enlightenment philosophers and several US founding fathers claimed that the purpose of a democracy was to achieve the common good. Because of this, and aware that some economically powerful entities or people might try and make the government work for their economic interests, they advised that citizens should be educated in science and other disciplines that would help them critically evaluate factual claims and ethics to enable them to critically evaluate disputes about justice.

In the next post we will describe the overall failure of higher education to educate civil society with critical thinking skills needed to evaluate contentious normative conclusions in claims that arise in government’s efforts to achieve the common good. We will see that some of these problems are also attributable to academic philosophy departments which have mostly focused on theoretical philosophical issues, not on helping training students to spot and resolve ethical issues that arise in policy controversies. Unfortunately and tragically, many universities also have changed their major focus to training students in skills needed in the market economy not to make government work for the common good. And why this has happened has also been the subject of social research that we will write about next

The next entry on this topic  will cover in more detail why higher education is partially responsible for US and other country failures to get traction for ethics in response to national responses to climate change despite the continuing need to praise some academics for their courage in helping civil society understand the validity of mainstream science. To say that higher education is part of the problem should not be interpreted to demean the academics who are making valient contributions but to explain why the US universities ever increasing focus on technical issues is lamentable.

There over 200 entries on these issues on ths website which can be found in the search bar.


Because global cooperation is needed to solve other emerging global threats that cant be solved at the national level, global cooperation will require getting traction for ethics  in international negotiations on these additional threats. Thus problems discussed here are relevant to other emerging needs for  nations to  cooperate on global governance


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Winner of the UNESCO prize for excellence in ethics in science



Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series.


jutice climate


This is the second in a three part series examining the ethical and justice issues discussed by the IPCC Working Group III in its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) . In the first entry in  this series we concluded that although the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable improvement over prior IPCC reports in regard to identifying ethical and equity issues that should be considered in developing climate change policy, some criticisms are also warranted of how IPCC has articulated the significance and implications of the ethical, justice, and equity principles that should guide nations in developing climate change policies.

In short, we will argue improvement is possible in how IPCC deals with ethics, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change policy-making despite very significant improvements on these matters in the AR5 report compared to prior IPCC reports.

In this entry we will examine several preliminary ethical and justice issues raised by the new IPCC Working Group III Chapter 3, on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts.  The last entry will continue the examination Chapter 3 and then turn to Chapter 4 on Sustainable Development and Equity.

As a preliminary matter, one of the challenges that IPCC faces in its mandate on of ethics and justice issues relevant to climate change policy-making is that it is not IPCC’s role to be prescriptive in deciding what governments should do. It’s mandate is to synthesize the extant social-economic and scientific literature for policy-makers. In this regard, the IPCC chapter on ethics said expressly:

This chapter does not attempt to answer ethical questions, but rather provides policymakers with the tools (concepts, principles, arguments, and methods) to make decisions. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 10)

And so it is not IPCC’s role to do ethical analyses of policy issues that raise ethical questions. IPCC can, however, distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive questions that arise in relevant socio-economic literature about climate policy-making, identify important ethical and justice issues that arise in this literature, where there is a consensus on ethics and justice issues in the relevant literature describe the consensus position, where there is no consensus on ethical and justice issues describe the range of reasonable views on these issues, and identify hard and soft law legal principles relevant to how governments should resolve ethical and justice issues that must be faced by policy-makers.

There are several subjects in climate change policy-making which raise important ethical and justice issues. They include policy judgements about:

  1. how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
  2. any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations and a matter taken up in chapter 4 of IPCC, Working Group III chapter on sustainability and equity,
  3. any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
  4. when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
  5. responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
  6. how to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including such technologies as geo-engineering or nuclear power, for instance,
  7. who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
  8. the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
  9. the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
  10. when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
  11. ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
  12. whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
  13. how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
  14. when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
  15. who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.

nw book advOn some of these issues, the recent IPCC report included a good summary of the extant ethical literature, on other issues important gaps in IPCC’s analysis can be identified, and lastly on a few of these issues, IPCC Working Group III is silent. IPCC reports cannot be expected to be exhaustive on these matters and therefore gaps and omissions in the IPCC reports in regard to ethics and justice issues relevant to policy-making is not necessarily a criticism of IPCC and is here pointed out only for future consideration. In fact, IPCC’s work on the ethical limits of economic arguments is a particularly important contribution to the global climate change debate. What is worthy of criticism, however, is if IPCC’s conclusions on guidance for policy-makers is misleading on ethics and justice issues.

II. Ethical Issues Raised by Economic Arguments About Climate Policy

Perhaps the most important practical ethical and justice issues raised by Working Group III’s work on ethics is its conclusions on the ethical and justice limitations of economic analyses of climate change policy options. This topic is enormously practically important because nations and others who argue against proposed climate change policies usually rely on various economic arguments which often completely ignore the ethical and justice limitations of these arguments (In the case of the United States, see Brown, 2012.) Because most citizens and policy-makers have not been trained in spotting ethically dubious claims that are often hidden in what appear at first glance to be “value-neutral” economic arguments, IPCC’s acknowledgement of the ethical limitations of economic arguments is vitally important.  It is also practically important because the first four IPCC reports, although not completely ignoring all ethical and justice problems with economic arguments about climate change policies, failed to examine the vast majority of ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change policies while making economic analyses of climate change policies the primary focus of Working Group III’s work thereby  leaving the strong impression that economic analyses, including but not limited to cost-benefit analyses, is the preferred way to evaluate the sufficiency of proposed climate change policies.  On this matter, the AR5 report has made important clarifications.

The AR5 III report included a section on this very issue entitled: Economics, Rights, and Duties which we reproduce here it  its entirety because of its importance to this discussion,  followed by comments in bold italics:

Economics can measure and aggregate human wellbeing, but Sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 explain that wellbeing may be only one of several criteria for choosing among alternative mitigation policies.

Other ethical considerations are not reflected in economic valuations, and those considerations may be extremely important for particular decisions that have to be made. For example, some have contended that countries that have emitted a great deal of GHG in the past owe restitution to countries that have been harmed by their emissions. If so, this is an important consideration in determining how much finance rich countries should provide to poorer countries to help with their mitigation efforts. It suggests that economics alone cannot be used to determine who should bear the burden of mitigation.

What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. However, distributive justice can be accommodated within economics, because it can be understood as a value: specifically the value of equality. The theory of fairness within economics (Fleurbaey, 2008) is an account of distributive justice. It assumes that the level of distributive justice within a society is a function of the wellbeings of individuals, which means it can be reflected in the aggregation of wellbeing. In particular, it may be measured by the degree of inequality in wellbeing, using one of the standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient (Gini, 1912), as discussed in the previous section. The Atkinson measure of inequality (Atkinson, 1970) is based on an additively separable social welfare function (SWF), and is therefore particularly appropriate for representing the prioritarian theory described in Section 3.4.6 . Furthermore, distributive justice can be reflected in weights incorporated into economic evaluations as Section 3.6 explains.

Simply identifying the level of inequality using the Gini Index does not assure that the harms and benefits of climate change policies will be distributed justly. For that a theory of just distribution is needed. The Gini index is also at such a level of abstraction that it is very difficult to use it as a way of thinking about the justice obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change. Even if there is strong economic equality in a nation measured by the Gini index, one cannot conclude that climate change policies are distributively just.

Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. For example, a CBA might not show the drowning of a Pacific island as a big loss, since the island has few inhabitants and relatively little economic activity. It might conclude that more good would be done in total by allowing the island to drown: the cost of the radical action that would be required to save the island by mitigating climate change globally would be much greater than the benefit of saving the island. This might be the correct conclusion in terms of overall aggregation of costs and benefits. But the island’s inhabitants might have a right not to have their homes and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the GHG emissions of richer nations far away. If that is so, their right may override the conclusions of CBA. It may give those nations who emit GHG a duty to protect the people who suffer from it, or at least to make restitution to them for any harms they suffer.

Even in areas where the methods of economics can be applied in principle, they cannot be accepted without question (Jamieson, 1992; Sagoff, 2008). Particular simplifying assumptions are always required, as shown throughout this chapter. These assumptions are not always accurate or appropriate, and decision‐makers need to keep in mind the resulting limitations of the economic analyses. For example, climate change will shorten many people’s lives. This harm may in principle be included within a CBA, but it remains highly contentious how that should be done. Another problem is that, because economics can provide concrete, quantitative estimates of some but not all values, less quantifiable considerations may receive less attention than they deserve.

This discussion does not adequately capture serious ethical problems with translating all values into monetary units measured by willingness to pay or its surrogates nor that such transformation may greatly distort ethical obligations to do no harm into changes in commodity value.

The extraordinary scope and scale of climate change raises particular difficulties for economic methods (Stern, forthcoming). First, many of the common methods of valuation in economics are best designed for marginal changes, whereas some of the impacts of climate change and efforts at mitigation are not marginal (Howarth and Norgaard, 1992). Second, the very long time scale of climate change makes the discount rate crucial at the same time as it makes it highly controversial (see Section 3.6.2 ). Third, the scope of the problem means it encompasses the world’s extremes of wealth and poverty, so questions of distribution become especially important and especially difficult. Fourth, measuring non‐market values—such as the existence of species, natural environments, or traditional ways of life of local societies—is fraught with difficulty. Fifth, the uncertainty that surrounds climate change is very great. It includes the likelihood of irreversible changes to societies and to nature, and even a small chance of catastrophe. This degree of uncertainty sets special problems for economics. (Nelson, 2013) (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 12-13)

Again this discussion does not adequately describe the ethical problems with economic determinations of all values. In fact it leaves the impression that if non-market values can be discovered the problems of transforming all values to commodity values are adequately dealt with.

Chapter 3, also includes additional statements about the ethical limits of economic reasoning sprinkled throughout the chapter. They include:

1. Most normative analyses of solutions to the climate problem implicitly involve contestable ethical assumptions.(IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg.10)

2. However, the methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They can be based on ethical principles, as Section 3.6 explains. But they cannot take account of every ethical principle. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not to taking account of justice and rights (with the exception of distributive justice − see below), or other values apart from human wellbeing. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)

And so Chapter 3 of the IPCC report contains a number or clear assertions  about the ethical limitations of economic arguments. However there are important gaps missing from this analysis. Also several sections of Chapter 3 that can be interpreted as claims that policy makers are free to choose economic reasoning as justification for climate policies. That is, some of the text reads as if a policy-maker is free to choose whether to base policy  on economic or ethical and justice considerations, choosing between these two ways of evaluation is simply an option. Some of these provisions follow with responses in italics

Chapter 3 page 6 says:

Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives  (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Although economic analyses can provide policy-makers with valuable information such as which technologies will achieve ethically determined goals at lowest cost, thereby providing criteria for making remedies cost-effective, there are serious ethical problems with cost-benefit analyses used prescriptively to set emissions reductions targets. Some of these are alluded to in IPCC Chapters 3 and 4, others are not acknowledged. Because of the prevalence of cost-benefit justifications for climate change policies, future IPCC reports could make a contribution by identifying all of the ethical issues raised by cost-benefit analyses.

 Any decision about climate change is likely to promote some values and damage others. These may  be values of very different sorts. In decision making, different values must therefore be put together or balanced against each other. (IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

This provision can be understood as condoning a consequentialist approach to climate policy that fails to acknowledge deontological limits. Since when any nation makes policy on climate change it affects poor people and vulnerable nations around the world, there are serious procedural justice issues which go unacknowledged in this section and,  for the most part, all throughout Chapter 3. Nowhere does the chapter acknowledge that when a climate policy is  under development at the national level,  nations have no right to compare costs to them of implementing policies  with the harms to others that have not consented to the method of valuation being used to determine quantitative value.

Ideally, emissions should be reduced in each place to just the extent that makes the marginal cost of further reductions the same everywhere. One way of achieving this result is to have a carbon price that is uniform across the world; or it might be approximated by a mix of policy instruments (see Section 3.8 ). (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

This statement fails to acknowledge that emissions reductions amounts should be different in different places according to well accepted principles of distributive justice. Although other sections of the chapter acknowledge that responsibility for climate change is a matter of distributive justice, this section and others leave the impression that climate policy can be based upon economic efficiency grounds alone. The way to cure this problem is to continue to reference other sections that recognize ethical limits in setting policy on the basis of efficiency.

(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Since, for efficiency, mitigation should take place where it is cheapest, emissions of GHG should be reduced in many developing countries, as well as in rich ones. However, it does not follow that mitigation must be paid for by those developing countries; rich countries may pay for mitigation that takes place in poor countries. Financial flows between countries make it possible to separate the question of where mitigation should take place from the question of who should pay for it. Because mitigating climate change demands very large‐scale action, if put in place these transfers might become a significant factor in the international distribution of wealth. Provided appropriate financial transfers are made, the question of where mitigation should take place is largely a matter for the  economic theory of efficiency, tempered by ethical considerations. But the distribution of wealth is amatter of justice among countries, and a major issue in the politics of climate change (Stanton, 2011). It is partly a matter of distributive justice, which economics can take into account, but compensatory justice may also be involved, which is an issue for ethics. (Section 3.3).(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

There are a host of  potential ethical problems with mitigation taking place in one part of the world to satisfy the ethical obligations of a nation in another part of the world which is emitting above its fair share of safe global emissions that are not mentioned in this article. Included in these problems are:

  • Environmental Sufficiency. There are many technical challenges in assuring that a project in one part of the world that seeks to reduce ghg by an amount that otherwise would be required of a polluter will actually succeed in achieving the reductions particularly when the method of reduction is reliant on biological removal of carbon.
  • Permanence. Many proposed projects for reducing carbon in one part of the world to offset reductions ethically required in another part of the world raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by the project will stay out of the atmosphere forever, a requirement that is required to achieve the environmental equivalence to ghg emissions reductions that would be achieved at the source.
  • Leakage. Many proposed projects used to offset emissions reductions of high-emitters raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the offset is resumed at another location.
  • Additionality. A project that is proposed in another part of the world to offset emissions reductions of a high-emitting entity may not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons.
  • Allowing Delay In Investing In New Technology. The ability to rely on a cheaper emissions reductions project in another part of the world as a substitute of reducing emissions creates an excuse for high-emitting entities to delay investment in technologies that will reduce the pollution load. This may create a practical problem when emissions reductions obligations are tightened in the future. 

Chapter 3 also treats other important ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. They include:

3.3 Justice, equity and responsibility,

3.3.1 Causal and moral responsibility

3.3.2 Intergenerational justice and rights of future people

3.3.3 Intergenerational justice: distributive justice

3.3.4 Historical responsibility and distributive justice

3.3.5 Intra‐generational justice: compensatory justice and historical responsibility

3.3.6 Legal concepts of historical responsibility

3.3.7 Geoengineering, ethics, and justice

3.4 Values and wellbeing

3.4.1 Non‐human values

3.4.2 Cultural and social values

3.4.3 Wellbeing

3.4.4 Aggregation of wellbeing

3.4.5 Lifetime wellbeing

3.4.6 Social welfare functions

3.4.7 Valuing population

III. Some Additional Gaps In Chapter 3

Some of the gaps in Chapter 3 on ethical issues raised by climate change policy-making include: (1) ethics of decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty, (2) whether action or non-action of other nations affects a nation’s responsibility for climate change, (3) how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation, (4) when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science, and (5) who is responsible to for climate refugees and what are their responsibilities.

The last entry in this series will continue the analyses of IPCC  Chapter 3 on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts and Chapter 4 on Sustainability and Equity.


Brown, 2012,  Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics In Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate, Routledge-Earthscan, 2012

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Reference and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law




Property Rights and Sustainability


property rights and sustainability


This article will examine potential conflicts between sustainable development and property rights in light of: (a)  the recent rise of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that has rapidly gained traction in the United States, (b)  a new book on the subject, and (c) a recent US Supreme Court decision of June 23, 2013.

As we have seen in several recent articles on this website, there is a new, surprisingly successful attack on sustainability in the United States that claims that local and regional planning that includes environmental, energy, transportation, traffic minimization, and land use provisions is the manifestation of a surreptitious United Nations plot to undermine United States sovereignty to impose a Marxist/socialist new world order. See the last in a three part series, Responding To the Anti-Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign: A Rigorous Look At The Campaign’s Untruthful Claims.

Although the claims that have been made by activists in the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so looney, absurd, and woefully ignorant of international law that some who have been aware of this recent development have chosen to ignore it on the basis that it could never achieve traction in a modern democracy in the 21rst Century,  this right wing attack on sustainability has emerged all across the United States. As we have explained in considerable detail in past articles in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been remarkably successful in the last two years in preventing local communities from implementing plans necessary to achieve their democratically derived community aspirations to implement local sustainability programs.

The anti-Agenda 21 Campaign has been successful, at least in part, by claiming that sustainable development and Agenda 21 undermines property rights.  They make this claim despite the fact that, as we have shown in previous papers in this series, Section 8.18 of Agenda 21 provides that governments and legislators should establish judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting environment and development that may affect rights. Agenda 21, section 10.5 also expressly says that property rights should be taken into account in land use decisions. And so, not only is there no support for the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the reduction of property rights, as we have seen, Agenda 21 says the exact opposite.

It would appear that activists in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign believe that property ownership conveys the right to use property without limit and with no or few responsibilities to protect the environment or ecological systems.

Although Agenda 21 does not undermine property rights are there potential conflicts between sustainability and property rights? A new book has been published that looks at potential conflicts between property rights and sustainability. The book is Property Rights and Sustainability: the Evolution of Property Rights to Meet Ecological Challenges which is edited by David Grinlinton and Prue Taylor. This book seeks to determine  how to reconcile the exercise of freedom to use one’s property as one pleases with the responsibility to protect ecological resources.  The book contains 15 chapters that examine potential conflicts between property rights and the responsibilities of property owners not to harm the environment. The book further identifies ways of reforming property law to establish clearer obligations to protect the environment.  Although all authors in this volume acknowledge the importance of retaining property rights they also examine the need of property law to more clearly establish responsibilities that owners have to protect the environment.

All of the chapters in this book acknowledge social benefits from secure property rights, however most of the chapters in the book assume that the property law must also be clearer about the obligations of property owners to avoid harming the natural resource base on which life depends.

In the opening chapter, Grinlinton and Taylor argue that property rights law prioritizes economic interests over ecological obligations.

In chapter two, Klause Bosselmann argues that current property laws inappropriately give priority to individual entitlements over collective responsibilities. Bosselmann further claims that the property law’s unfinished business is to reconcile private rights with public duties.

Eric Freyfogle argues that is not right to pay land owners to forgo actions that are harmful to others.

J. Ronald Engel argues that property law needs to reflect an understanding of moral obligations property owners have that are understood through reflection on covenants that ground the social contract.

Peter Horsley criticizes current property law by claiming that it is based upon assumptions that humans own nature rather than an understanding of the relationship between humans and nature, namely that humans are part of nature. Property law according to Horsely fails to prevent many small cumulative impacts on nature, ignores the carrying capacity of ecosystems, and fails  to protect ecosystem integrity. Thus, according to Horsely the current focus on “rights” is causing growing harm to the natural world on which we depend.

Samuel Alexander claims that the overriding objective of property laws is to facilitate economic growth as efficiently as possible.

Nicole Graham claims that the meaning of property rights has always evolved over time and that recent steps to solve environmental problems by use of economic markets has been built on six myths about markets. These myths are: (1) rights and profits are not accompanied by responsibilities and costs; (2) the fragmentation of property into multiple and concurrent interests is a good thing; (3) market players make rational choices with perfect information; (4) environmental products can be accurately valued; (5) the demand for environmental products is responsive to price signals; and (6) environmental markets can solve environmental problems.

Craig Anthony (Toni) Arnold agues that the dominant idea about property is that it is a “bundle of rights” that leads to property owners becoming abstracted from ecological systems. He thus argues that property should be understood as a web of interests rather than as a “bundle of rights.”

Successive chapters by Veronica Strong, Nin Thomas, and Lee Golden examine differing cultural approaches to property.

Concluding chapters by David Grinlinton, Ann Brower and John Page, Elmarie van der Schyff, and Amokura Kawharu look at changing conceptions of property and the challenge of accommodating principles of sustainability to the ownership of and use of natural resources.

This new book claims that there may be a need to modify property rights to protect ecological systems although none of the chapters call for private interests in property to be completely replaced by public interests.

This book is an excellent summary of issues that arise when property rights conflict with the protection of the environment.

Yet there are open questions about how frequently environmental protection objectives contained in land us plans, regulations that constrain land uses to achieve environmental protection goals, or permit conditions actually conflict with property rights.

As we have explained in considerable detail in prior entries on this subject, Agenda 21 does not call for changes in property rights. In fact, Agenda 21 urges that property rights be protected. We now, however, look at whether many of the issues that have arisen in some of the local and regional controversies violate the property rights protection under the US Constitution.

To determine the magnitude of any conflict between sustainability and property rights, it is first necessary to look at how courts have articulated when government regulation violates property rights. A comprehensive article on whether there is a conflict between sustainability policies has been published recently. This article is: Does Sustainability Require a New Theory of Property Rights? (Circo. 2009) In this article, Circo concludes that under US constitutional law:

When the contested government action merely regulates land use without physically interfering with possession, the adversely affected landowner will have no right to compensation (a takings claim) absent a showing that the restriction denies the owner “all economically viable use of the land” or that it imposes burdens that bear no relationship to the regulation’s public benefits. In other words, unless the regulation virtually prohibits any valuable use of the land, courts will use a deferential balancing test to determine how far government regulation may go.

 Circo’s summary of takings law goes on to conclude:

The leading land use cases reflect the traditional theory that government may impose significant, even highly intrusive, restrictions on property rights for police power purposes. The usual test is that a police power imposition on property rights is valid unless it is “clearly arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” Notice the two elements involved: the limitation on property rights must be for a valid police power function (health, safety, morals, or general welfare) and the limitation imposed must bear at least some relationship to that police power purpose (must not be arbitrary or unreasonable).

 Thus it is clear that it is not a violation of property rights for government to impose reasonable restrictions on land use necessary to protect the environment unless the restrictions completely eliminate the use of the property by the owner.


Yet the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has asserted that land-use restrictions such as those that require land owners to install stream buffers when necessary to protect water quality, zoning ordinances that attempt to assure that development does not exceed the carrying capacity limits of ecological systems such as the maximum sustainable yield of groundwater, or regulations that require the protection of wetlands are an infringement of property rights. But as Circo’s analysis makes clear, property rights are not unlimited, and the US courts have almost always upheld reasonable regulation of land needed to protect the environment.

However, if government restricts any reasonable use of land to achieve sustainability goals, this would likely be seen by US courts as a violation of property rights. Yet courts do not see property rights as giving land owners the right to use the land in such a way that it adversely affects the environment.

Does this mean that any proposed government restriction on land use  in the name of sustainable development would not conflict with property rights as currently understood under US constitutional law? Here Circo sees at least one kind of government regulation urged by the idea of sustainability that could create conflicts between property rights and sustainability. That is in cases where governments limit the use of natural resources for the sole benefit of future generations. In such a case, Circo sees a potential conflict between sustainability and land use. It is in such cases where the issues of concern in the book discussed above arise. Yet, most environmental restrictions on the use of land that don’t prevent the land owner from using his or her land are not prohibited by property rights in the United States. And so, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign’s claims that sustainability undermines property rights is also not true for two reasons. As we have seen Agenda 21 calls for the protection of property rights. Also most of the land-use provisions under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign do not violate property rights under. The general rule that environmental restrictions on land use do not entail an unlawful taking of property under the US constitutional law was set out in the Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U. S. 365 (1926).  This case held that insisting that landowners internalize the negative externalities of their conduct is a hallmark of responsible land-use policy and limitations on land use do not create and unconstitutional taking.

However a recent case by the US Supreme Court,  identifies a  potential  infringement on property rights when government imposes unreasonable conditions on land-use permits or approvals.  In Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, No. 11-1447, 570 U.S. __ (2013), the court   concluded that there could be an unconstitutional taking of property if governments condition the issuance of permit to mitigate adverse environmental protection goals when the condition lacks an essential nexus and rough proportionality to those impacts. Otherwise there is no taking.

For the limited number of issues raised by sustainability that actually conflict with property rights, the book Property Rights and Sustainability: the Evolution of Property Rights to meet Ecological Challenges is good introduction to the issues that should be considered on matters where there is a conflict between protecting the environment and property rights.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainbility Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law




The Anti-Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign, Part 2

 disinformationnew world order



I. Introduction to Part 2

This article continues the analysis of the anti-Agenda 21 disinformation campaign begun in our last article.  In that article we looked at the four claims about Agenda 21 that appeared in a resolution passed by West Cornwall Township in Pennsylvania which are also very frequently being made by activists in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign across the United States.  We now continue our examination of specific claims made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign by looking at claims made by John Anthony, a conservative businessman who frequently speaks on Agenda 21 issues around the United States and who has produced a You Tube in which he makes the specific claims considered here.  The claims that Mr. Anthony makes are also often being made by other anti-Agenda 21 activists.  We end with a claim made by the Republican National Platform.

After looking at eight additional claims in this article we examine the ethical issues raised by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.

The last entry in this series will examine the organizations who are most responsible for the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.

II. Continuing Analysis of Claims of the anti-Agenda 21 Campaign

Claim 5. Agenda 21 attempts to erode the local control found in our communities across the nation and turns home and regional rule over to a global agenda set by  organizations authorized by the United Nations. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)

The fact that this claim is a complete and utter canard can be determined by looking at the actual language of Agenda 21.  Paragraph 3.5 (a) of Agenda 21, for instance,  calls for the empowerment of local and community groups under the principal of delegating authority, accountability, and resources to the most appropriate level to ensure that the program will be geographically and ecologically specific.

In addition paragraph 10.6 (e) of Agenda21,  as we’ve seen above, calls for delegating policy making to the lowest level of public authority consistent with effective action and a locally driven approach.

Absolutely nothing in Agenda 21 calls for the  divestment of local power and the substitution of the United Nations authority expressly provides that

Agenda 21 does acknowledge that some environmental and economic development problems cannot be solved by one community alone because some problems do not fit the boundaries of a single local community’s  jurisdiction. In these cases, governments need to cooperate to have any hope of solving the problem. For instance, upstream communities and nations can degrade the water supply of downstream nations and communities.  Three or more communities may degrade a common water supply. In such cases a regional solution is required to solve the problem and Agenda 21 implicitly calls for regional government cooperation in such cases.  In solving these regional problems, the United Nations is not called upon to play any role in the regional decision making. In these situations, the governments are encouraged, but not required, by Agenda 21 to consider the environmental and economic impacts in an integrated in decision-making.

Some environmental problems are global in scope such as ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, and climate change. For these problems global cooperation is necessary and the United Nations has often played a convening role in bringing national governments together to solve these problems. However, even for global problems the United Nations has no power nor attempts to dictate the elements of global solutions. The United Nation’s role in global problems has been to call nations together in negotiations to arrive at treaties which have to be ratified by national governments.  In the United States treaty ratification requires a 2/3 vote of the US Senate. In global treaty negotiations, the United Nations plays no negotiating role except to facilitate negotiations among nations and sometimes to act in an administrative role in regard to the implementation of treaties. Yet even when it plays this role it reports to the nations who are parties to the treaties.

Thus Agenda 21 endorses a principle which is known legally as the “subsidarity” principle. The subsidiarity principle is an organizing principle of decentralization, stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively.

Not only is there no basis for the claim that Agenda 21 undermines regional control by replacing it with a global control, as we have seen, Agenda 21 by incorporating principle 2 of the Rio declaration acknowledges the sovereign right of nations to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies.

one world gov

Claim 6. Agenda 21 calls for decisions affecting local property to be made in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations rather than local property law. (John Anthony tape)

This claim is simply a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. As we have seen, Agenda 21 calls for decisions to be made at the lowest practical level in accordance with the laws and policies of that level.

Furthermore, the Charter of the United Nations expressly provides in Article 2, Paragraph seven that:

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.

Since the planning issues under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 are matters within the jurisdiction of local, regional, state or national governments, the Charter of the United Nations actually prohibits the United Nations from usurping local or regional authority.

Thus, the claim that Agenda 21 calls for local decisions to be determined under the authority of the United Nations Charter is so loony and inconsistent with international law that it has obviously been made by someone who does not understand international law, yet who has been convinced by conspiracy theories that the United Nations is rapidly usurping national sovereignty.

Claim 7. Agenda 21 means that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective. (John Anthony tape) 

Not only does Agenda 21 nowhere say that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective as we have seen above, Agenda 21 is clear that governments at the appropriate scale should make decisions according to their own laws and policies, expressly reaffirms property rights, calls for judicial processes to protect rights, and is comprised of a set of recommendations for consideration by the appropriate government, not rules that must be adopted.  This claim, along with many others discussed in this series, must be understood as a lie or reckless disregard for the truth.

end of wall srt paint

Claim 8. Agenda 21 calls for free enterprise to be replaced with public/ private partnership. (John Anthony tape)

Nothing in Agenda 21 remotely comes close to saying that free enterprise should be replaced. As we have seen several times there is an entire chapter of Agenda 21, chapter 30, that calls for the strengthening of free enterprise in decision-making and Agenda 21 actually recommends greater use of market mechanisms.

Many businesses and business organizations have enthusiastically supported the ideas of Agenda 21. For instance the World Council of Sustainable Buisinness is an organization comprised of over 200 international corporations that have actively participated in UN meetings on sustainability. Thousands of businesses around the world have made commitments to sustainable development. As we saw above the United State government consistently met with US business interests before taking positions on sustainability issues at the UN. The claim that Agenda 21 calls for replacement of the private sector is not only inaccurate it is preposterous.

Claim 9. In decision-making at the local level, the job of the facilitator is to guide the local stakeholder groups to accept predetermined objectives consistent with Agenda 21.(John Anthony tape)

This claim apparently is made about multi-stakeholder meetings that are encouraged by Agenda 21 at the appropriate government level.  Multi-stakeholder meetings are usually organized by the government unit that is considering action relating to planning. The local governments usually select which facilitators will run meetings. It is very, very unlikely that facilitators of these meeting know anything about Agenda 21 or looked to it to find rules to apply to local solutions. There is no evidence at all that all or the majority of facilitators that have participated in local declension-making relevant to sustainability issues have forced the stakeholders to come up with recommendations consistent with Agenda 21.

Claim 10. Agenda 21 implementation will mean that people will only be able to live in the black areas in the following maps, living in rural areas will no longer be possible in the United States. (John Anthony tape)

AGENDA-21-BMP-1 where people live


This claim is obviously ludicrous and utterly disingenuous. There have been no proposals that have come close to limiting future domestic dwellings to the black spaces on the map nor to prohibiting people from locating their homes in rural areas. In the United States, land use decisions are made by state and local governments in accordance with state and local law. The United Nations has zero authority over the decisions of State and local governments on these issues. Agenda 21 makes no recommendations to prohibit living in rural communities.

From time to time in the past state and local governments have made land use decisions that restrict land uses to protect wild life and natural resources but they have not done this in response to Agenda 21. Some governments may also choose to restrict certain land uses for ecological preservation reasons in the future. Property owners of lands that might be identified to  be preserved for ecological reasons have strong property rights in the United States that prevent the government from taking their property without just compensation and due process of law. Agenda 21 not only does not undermine the rights of property owners, it reaffirms them as we have seen.

Claim 11. Agenda 21 requires that the same solutions be applied the same everywhere in the world. (John Anthony tape)

Once again, this claim is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. Paragraph 8.2 of Agenda 21 says in relevant part:

National plans, goals and objectives, national rules, regulations and law, and the specific situations in which different countries are placed are the overall framework in which integration takes place. In this context, it must be borne in mind that environmental standards may pose severe economic and social costs if they are uniformly applied in developing countries.

As we have also explained above , Agenda 21 expressly recognizes the sovereignty and right of nations to exploit their own resources according to their own needs. Agenda 21 is simply a menu of options for consideration, not a set of rules to be applied.

Claim 12. Agenda 21 Erodes National Sovereignty. (Republican National Platform)

Agenda 21 not only does not erode American sovereignty in any way, as we have seen throughout this analysis it reaffirms national sovereignty.

First, we have seen from the quote above that Section 8.2 expressly provides that the law of nations is the basis for integrating environmental and economic issues in implementing Agenda 21.

Second, we have seen that Agenda 21 is simply a menu of options not a set of rules to be applied in nations.

Third, we have seen that the Charter of the United Nations says that the Charter does not give the United Nations the authority to interfere with matters rightly within the jurisdictions of nations.

Fourth, we saw that paragraph 10.6 (e) of Agenda 21 calls for delegating policy making to the lowest level of public authority consistent with effective action and a locally driven approach.

Fifth, we have seen that Agenda 21 expressly incorporates Principle two of the Rio Declaration which says that “Nations have in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies.” (Rio Declaration, Principle 2)

Sixth, it is a well establish principle of international law that nations are not bound by international agreements unless they are treaties that have been ratifies or adopted according to national law.  In the United States, the US Senate must ratify a treaty by 2/3 vote of the United States Senate. The United States never ratified Agenda 21 nor even considered so doing because it was universally understood to be a non-binding document from its conception.

In summary, the United States retains full, undiluted sovereignty over matters discussed in Agenda 21.  Nothing in Agenda 21 remotely undermines the sovereignty of the United States.


envirrnmental ethics


III. Ethical Analysis of Anti-Agenda 21

We now look at the anti-Agenda 21 campaign phenomenon through an ethical lens.  We  end this ethical analysis with a reflection on the ethics of sustainable development.

1. Tactics of anti-Agenda 21 Campaign

We have seen in this series of articles that the assumptions and claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are very frequently based upon either lies or reckless disregard for the truth. Over and over again, claims of this campaign are made about the meaning or effect of Agenda 21 which are directly contradicted by the text of this document or are based upon a completely delusional understanding of the potential power of the United Nations over local or regional governments in the United States as a legal matter.

As we noted at the beginning of this series, citizens have clear rights to protect their interests by participating in and attempting to influence local and regional planning efforts. There is no doubt, some land-use decisions have occasionally    infringed upon property rights. In these cases existing US law provides legal protection for redress. Nothing in Agenda 21 can be construed to change this.

However those seeking to influence government processes have no rights to tell utter untruths about issues in contention. For this reason, the tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are ethically problematic particularly in light of the magnitude and scope of the misinformation the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been inserting into discussions about local planning issues.

The tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign include not only include large doses of misinformation about Agenda 21, they also appear to be designed to scare uninformed citizens that their rights are being taken over by the United Nations which is in the process of undermining national sovereignty in pursuit of imposing a Marxist/socialist one world government.

And so, the tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign include the spreading a huge number of false claims that are being used to scare uninformed citizens. These tactics are clearly morally reprehensible.

2. The Ethics of Sustainability

As we explained, Agenda 21 is a document that encourages but does not require governments around the world to pursue integrated decision-making about environmental, economic, and social issues at the global, national, regional, and local scales. The idea is premised on the notion that if economic, environmental, or social policies are pursued by themselves they may prevent the achievement of legitimate environmental, economic, and social goals that may be achieved in integrated decision-making.

The idea of sustainable development does not give strong guidance on how to reconcile conflicts between environmental and economic goals.  As we noted in the first part of this series, the definition that is usually used to define the term is notoriously vague. Namely, sustainable development is development which meets the needs of present generations without  compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition could be understood to allow destruction of all natural resources if technology finds substitutes, makes human needs the measure of value for natural resources, fails to recognize duties to sentient animals, makes no distinctions on what human needs are, etc. As a result, many environmental ethicists have criticized the term the idea of sustainable development for its failure to be clearer about the value of nature and animals.

Similarly many environmental activists have criticized the concept of sustainable development on the basis that its implicit valorization of development will lead to environmental destruction.   

Yet it can be argued, that the idea of sustainable development is worthwhile pursuing practically and ethically despite its ethical vagueness because it calls for decisions relating to economic development to take into consideration potential adverse environmental impacts. It also encourages governments considering environmental protection policies to consider unwanted impacts on legitimate economic development objectives.  Because environmental and economic goals can have ethical significance, sustainable development is ethically supportable despite the lack of clarity about how to resolve conflicts between environmental and economic goals. For this reason, sustainable development is what philosophers call an “orienting” concept. It helps orient decision-making to consider the right thing to do, even if it is ethically incomplete in giving guidance on how to resolve environmental protection and economic development conflicts. Many other “orienting” concepts which contain no ethical rule but are helpful are frequently used in public life.  For instance, the very word “justice” is such an orienting concept.

The word “justice” in the abstract does not tell one what should be done when distributing societal benefits but it is useful in orienting thinking about what is a fair distribution of societal goods in human affairs 0r when procedures should be created to provide rights of participation in decisions for those who could be affected by government decisions.  For the same reason, a call for integrated decision-making is ethically positive even if it does not resolve all conflicts about environmental and economic issues.

This is so because many governments have pursued economic development objectives or environment protection goals without consideration of how policies in each of these areas might affect the legitimate aspirations of the other policy goals.  For instance, very frequently economic development projects that affected water quality have been approved before the project’s impacts on water quality were considered. Because people have a right to not have the water on which they depend degraded by others, it is ethically required that adverse impacts on water quality be considered in economic policy decisions that could affect water quality. There are also many examples particularly in developing countries where projects which proposed to restrict the use of natural resources have been approved without consideration of the adverse impacts that would follow by restricting natural resource on local indigenous people who depended on the resources for subsistence.  Ethics requires that environmental decisions consider how people’s subsistence needs may be affected by environmental policies.

And so the idea of sustainable development is ethically supportable despite its lack of clarity about how to resolve conflicts between environmental and economic goals. In cases of conflict between environmental and economic goals, governments need to look to other ethical principles contained in law or ethical theory to resolve conflicts. And so, sustainable development is an ethically supportable goal despite the fact that its it gives incomplete ethical guidance on how to resolve conflicts between environmental, economic, and other policy goals.

It would appear that the anti-Agenda 21 disinformation campaign is always  opposed to the idea of sustainable development that encourages integrated decision-making on environmental, economic, and social policies.

Such a position is itself ethically problematic precisely because people and governments have ethical duties to avoid certain kinds of adverse environmental, economic, and social impacts on others.

Therefore, we conclude that the anti-Agenda 21 campaign can be criticized on ethical grounds for many reasons including the fact that it appears to be opposed to integrated decision-making on projects that can have adverse environmental, economic, and social impacts.

IV. Conclusion

We have demonstrated that the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are built upon misleading and inaccurate claims about Agenda 21. We have also shown that the tactics of this campaign are ethically problematic.

The last entry in this series will look at the organizations that have been propagating the claims that we have examined in this series.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law



The Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign in the United States: An Ethical Critique of an Attack on Sustainability

sustain 2agenda 21may 8








I. Introduction

This the first in a series of five articles that will examine a disinformation campaign about the United Nations program on environment and development, Agenda 21. As we will see, this campaign has been surprisingly successful in the United States in undermining land use, transportation, and energy planning, and environmental regulation at the local and regional government levels.

Citizens may have many legitimate reasons to oppose elements of land use plans about which they have a right to contest. In fact, their involvement in local government decision-making may constitute an exercise of citizen virtue. Citizens may also need to participate in land use decision-making to protect rights of various types, including but not limited to, property rights. Yet, claims being made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so demonstratively false, misleading, and deceitful that they fail to pass ethical scrutiny.

As we shall see, many of the claims being made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are not only without confirming evidence, they are directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21 itself, woefully ignorant of the limited role of the United Nations in the world, and deeply misleading about what Agenda 21 is and its effect of on the United States.

The misleading claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign also have had consequences.  As we shall see, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been successful in preventing citizens at the local and regional level the United States from organizing their communities to protect open spaces, reduce traffic congestion, provide public transportation, protect water and air quality, construct bike lanes, and achieve other community benefits that can only be achieved by responsible land-use planning. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign has accomplished this by making preposterous claims including that local land-use planning is part of a plot to put United Nations in control of local and regional decision-making, rob individuals of their freedoms, and undermine property rights. As we shall see in the last entry in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that is making these claims has been funded, at least in part, by economic interests that profit from the absence of responsible land use planning and environmental regulation.

conspiracy2The assertions made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign or not only false, they are so deeply inconsistent with the explicit language of Agenda 21 that they can only be understood as the paranoid constructions of somebody that has subscribed to conspiracy theories about the United Nations.  Because the text of Agenda 21 so dramatically contradicts the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign, it would appear someone who believed that  the United Nations is an institution dedicated to undermining national sovereignty and the destruction of individual freedom around the world selectively looked for language in Agenda 21 that confirmed this conspiracy theory. They then quoted the confirming language and ignored the rest of the text of Agenda 21 that dramatically contradicts the conspiratorial conclusions, drew conclusions from the selected language without any confirming evidence, and made claims about the United Nations that are breathtakingly ignorant of the UN’s limited legal authority including its utter lack of power over national, regional, or local governments. (Only the UN Security Council has authority over governments but that authority is subject to the veto power of its permanent members, one of which is the United States, along with China, France, Great Britain, and Russia.)

As we shall see, one of the organizations connected to the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been the John Birch Society whose website proclaims:

The global power elites view the UN as their main vehicle for establishing, step by step, a socialistic global government controlled by themselves. Now, more than ever, we need to get out of the UN and remove the UN from the United States. (John Birch Society)

And so it appears that the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been fed by organizations who believe that the United Nations is taking over the world,  organizations that claimed in the past that the civil rights movement was a communist plot.

beck agenda 21


The conclusions of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so obviously inconsistent with the facts about Agenda 21 that many who are familiar with Agenda 21 have ignored this phenomenon on the basis that is so loony, delusional, or wacky that it could not gain traction in any 21st-century democracy. Yet as we will see, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has had growing success in thwarting the implementation of local communities preferred visions of the future that have been derived cooperatively in mufti-stakeholder and citizen discussions. agend 21 pin

In a recent article in EthicsandClimate.org Professor John Dernbach concluded that “a well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists” (See, Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed) In this article Professor Dernbach explains : (a) how this campaign is becoming affective in the United States and is threatening to undermine US sustainability programs, the real target of this campaign; (b) what Agenda 21 is and is not, and (c) why many of the claims made by the the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are demonstratively false.

This article will critically examine four of the claims of the campaign and deduce from the campaign the tactics employed by the campaign. The next article in this series will  critically examine five other claims of the campaign deduce from the claims the tactics campaign. In the last entry, this series will examine the tactics of the campaign through an ethical lens after looking at the organizations and funding behind the campaign. Claims examined in this series include:

Claim 1. Agenda 21 is a United Nations Program that implements extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control.

Claim 2 . The United Nations has covertly pushed Agenda 21 into local communities throughout United States of America through the international Council of Local Environmental Initiatives and through policies such as ” Smart Growth,”  “Wildlands Projects”, “Resilient Cities”,  “Regional Visioning Projects” and others with similar obscure names.

Claim 3. Agenda 21 and sustainable development views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private automobile ownership, individual travel choices, privately owned farms, and human existence as all being destructive of the environment.

Claim 4. Under Agenda 21, social justice is described as the right and opportunity of the people around the world to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment which would be accomplished by socialist/communist global redistribution of property and wealth. 

Claims examined in the second part of this series include:

Claim 5. Agenda 21 attempts to erode the local control found in our communities across the nation and turns home and regional rule over to a global agenda set by a body organization authorized by the United Nations.

Claim 6. Agenda 21 calls for decisions affecting local property to be made in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations rather than local property law.

Claim 7. Agenda 21 means that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective.

Claim 8. Agenda 21 calls for free enterprise to be replaced with public/ private partnership.

Claim 9. In decision-making at the local level, the job of the facilitator is to guide the local stakeholder groups to accept predetermined objectives consistent with Agenda 21.

Claim 10. Agenda 21 implementation will mean that people will only be able to live in the certain limited areas of the United States marked on a specific map, living in rural areas will no longer be possible in the United States.

Claim 11. Agenda 21 requires that the same solutions to be applied the same everywhere in the world.

Claim 12. Agenda 21 erodes American Sovereignty.

II. The Success of the Anti-21 Campaign

The anti-Agenda 21 campaign has rapidly grown in influence in local and regional government planning decision-making in the United States in the last few years.  Anti-Agenda 21 activists making arguments propagated by a few extreme right wing organizations have appeared in greater numbers at land use planning meetings of local and regional governments around the United States claiming that land use planning and sustainable development policies are manifestations of a covert United Nations plot to undermine national sovereignty, destroy property rights, implement a radical environmentalism, and destroy individual freedom.  Despite the obvious delusional character of many of the campaign’s claims, this  phenomenon has been remarkably successful in the last few years in defeating local land-use planning proposals around the United States, in passing anti-sustainability laws in several US states, and, as we shall see, convincing the Republican party to accept its paranoid assumptions.


According to the Tampa Bay Times, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign was successful in getting the Republican National Committee to approve a resolution calling for a formal stance against Agenda 21 in the 2012 GOP platform and denouncing the U.N. accord as “a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control” that is being “covertly pushed into local communities.” (Jamison, 2012)

The Republican Party platform in 2012 stated that “We strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.”

And so if there is any question about the power of this campaign, it is remarkable that one of the two major American political parties has uncritically adopted the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign despite the fact that, as we shall see, the edifice of this campaign has been constructed of delusional, inaccurate, and demonstratively falsifiable ideas about Agenda 21.

In addition, several state and local governments have considered or passed motions and legislation opposing Agenda 21. The New York Times recently reported:

Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.

They are showing up at planning meetings to denounce bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances — efforts they equate to a big-government blueprint against individual rights.

In Maine, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion along the Route 1 corridor after protesters complained it was part of the United Nations plot. Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida. And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions.

Alabama became the first state to prohibit government participation in Agenda 21. The Alabama law bars the state or any of its subdivisions from adopting or implementing policy actions that “deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to Agenda 21, adopted by the United Nations.”

 Although the Alabama law is pretty vague in that it bars action without “due process of law,” as one observer notes, no doubt every proposal for smart growth, high density housing, heritage preservation, wetlands or forest protection, shoreline preservation, or environmental protection will now be bogged down in Alabama. (Alter, 2012)

A bill passed both houses of the Missouri legislature recently and as of this writing was awaiting the Governor’s signature. The Missouri Bill provides:

Neither the state of Missouri nor any political subdivision shall adopt or implement policy recommendations that deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to Agenda 21, adopted by the United Nations in 1992 at its Conference on Environment and Development.

 A bill has been introduced in Kansas that provides:

No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development. (Huffington Post)

This bill has potential remarkable future consequences, since every kind of land use plan, environmental regulation, or transportation plan could be understood to be “sustainable development.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Agenda 21 has become:

“a touchstone of a larger theme that equates environmentalism with totalitarianism and the loss of individual freedom. For a growing cast of far-right hardliners, Agenda 21 is a sort of Trojan horse, a totalitarian scheme with a green environmental mask, lying in wait to destroy America as we know it.’

In many places throughout the United States, the anti-Agenda 21 has been successful in thwarting local and regional land use planning. For instance, in February, 2013 the West Cornwall Township, Pennsylvania  supervisors passed a resolution opposing Cornwall-Lebanon Regional Comprehensive Plan, a joint effort of the townships of North Lebanon, South Lebanon, North Cornwall and West Cornwall as well as Cornwall Borough. (Lebanon Daily News)

The West Cornwall Township resolution is attached a Appendix A.

In December of 2012, North Londonderry Township withdrew from its regional comprehensive plan that it had created with partners South Londonderry Township and Palmyra Borough.

And so, Agenda 21 is being used by activists in the United States as the basis for opposing land use and economic development planning, environmental regulation, and transportation planning. Tea Party activists have recently changed their political focus from the federal government to a new perhaps more insidious target: local planning and zoning commissions, which activists claim are carrying out a global conspiracy to trample American liberties and force citizens into Orwellian high-density living zones.  Anti-Agenda 21 activists see Agenda 21 behind everything from a septic tank inspection law in Florida, a plan in Maine to reduce traffic on Route 1, and the creation of the bike sharing programs in Colorado and as a covert attempt to create United Nations dominated communities.

The activists frequently make the absurd claim that any land use plan that includes some environmental protection elements is a step in a stealth UN Agenda 21 plot even though most engaged in planning at the local level have never heard of Agenda 21, environmental goals have been included in land use planning long before Agenda 21 was created, and most citizens desire to protect local air, water, and natural resources, reduce traffic congestion, provide public transportation, and protect wetlands and fisheries to maintain the quality of life without any regard to what Agenda 21 says. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign argues that all of these local planning derived outcomes should be opposed because they are the manifestation of a UN plot.

We now look at specific claims made by the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign, evaluate them to determine their veracity, and identify the tactics of the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign that can be deduced from these claims.

III. Specific Claims

Claim 1. Agenda 21 is a United Nations Program that Implements Extreme Environmentalism, Social Engineering, and Global Political Control. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)

Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily action plan agreed to by the international community in 1992 to implement the concept of sustainable development. Although the term sustainable development has no precise definition, those who attempt to define it often quote the definition from the 1987 Brundtland Commission which said that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Many observers have commented on the fact that this is a notoriously vague definition that gives no clear guidance on how to resolve conflicts between economic development and environmental protection goals.

Agenda 21 is comprised of 40 chapters that are divided into the following sections:

1. Program of Action for Sustainable Development

2. Social and Economic Dimensions

3. Conservation And Management of Resources For Development

4. Strengthening the Role of Major Groups, and.

5. Means of Implementation

Chapters relating to environmental protection are in section 3 and include separate chapters on the atmosphere, land use planning and land resources, deforestation, fragile ecosystems, sustainable agriculture and rural development, biological diversity, biotehnology, oceans and seas, freshwater, toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, solid wastes and sewage, and radioactive wastes.

The contents of these chapters were for the most part developed by examining best practices on these issues that existed around the world in the early1990s. In fact, many of the policies in these chapters were based on existing law and policies in the United States. The chapter on the atmosphere is an exception to this because it called for control of atmospheric greenhouse gases to prevent climate change and the United States did not have laws and regulations on greenhouse gas emission when Agenda 21 was agreed to in 1992. However, the call for control of greenhouse gas  emissions in Agenda 21 is much less precise than the obligations to adopt policies and practices to prevent the threat of climate change that the George H.W. Bush administration had agreed to when it negotiated and Congress ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. And so Agenda 21 added nothing to US obligations on climate change.

The environmental policies listed in the above chapters were understood to constitute simply a menu of options to be considered by nations, not binding directives. In this regard William Reilly, US EPA administrator during the George H. W. Bush administration, said during the 1992 Rio conference which adopted Agenda 21 that:

Agenda 21 is not a binding agreement, it is an action plan. It is  more a menu of options than a directive. No country could simultaneously undertake all the programs set out in the document. Each country must set its own priorities among the many issues addressed in Agenda 21. (Reilly, 1992)

Because the environmental provisions of Agenda 21 contained in the above chapters were for the most part based on existing US law as of 1992 or promises that the United States had agreed to under ratified international treaties, it is absurd to conclude that Agenda 21 calls for the implementation of extreme environmentalism. Moreover these chapters are mere recommendations for consideration by governments around the world, not rules that governments must accept. The provisions in these chapters are neither binding on governments, nor has there ever been a review by the United Nations of US law to see if it is consistent with Agenda 21. Even more tellingly Agenda 21 expressly incorporates the Rio Declaration which says in relevant part:

Nations have in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies. (Rio Declaration, Principle 2)

And so rather than undermining national sovereignty, Agenda 21 reaffirms it and acknowledges that nations should develop their own policies based upon their own interests to resolve potential conflicts between environmental protection and economic development goals.

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Agenda 21 is not binding on the United States in three ways. First, it is not a treaty, the only kind of legal document that can bind nations. Unlike a treaty, the United States has never attempted to ratify it because it was always understood to be a non-binding set of recommendations that nations should consider or reject according to their own visions of appropriate environmental protection and economic development needs.  Second, Agenda 21 was never intended to obligate nations to implement its recommendations comprehensively. Its contents were understood to be only a menu of options for consideration by governments, a fact that is clear from a reading of the entirety if the text. Third, Agenda 21 never created an enforcement mechanism or any process for the UN to review national laws and policies to compare what has been done at the national level in response to Agenda 21.

At yearly meetings on the Commission of Sustainable Development (CSD) at the United Nations, an organization created by Agenda 21, nations self-reported on what they were doing in regard to the general subject of specific Agenda 21 chapters, not on the specific provisions of Agenda 21. And so the United States usually reported on what already doing under US law on matters that were relevant to the subject matter of Agenda 21s chapters.  That is, the United States reported on programs and policies that the United States had independently without regard to Agenda 21 obligations.

From 1995 through 1998, I held the position of Program Manager for United Nations Organizations at the US EPA Office of International Environmental Policy. In this position I had the lead staff responsibility for the US EPA to compile reports on programs managed by EPA that were submitted to the UN CSD.  In my tenure,  no programs or policies were reported on that had been enacted by the United States to comply with Agenda 21. In fact, during my tenure at EPA there was no one in the US government that had any responsibility to review US law and policy in regard to the specific provisions of Agenda 21 to determine how US law or policy needed to be upgraded to conform to Agenda 21.

The US simply never took Agenda 21 seriously, a fact that was a disappointment to many environmental NGOs that attended meetings of the UN  CSD. After the adoption of Agenda 21 in 1992, the European Union frequently tried to strengthen Agenda 21’s vague language by amending several chapters to include numerical targets and timetables. The US always fought these proposals and succeeded in preventing Agenda 21 from including quantitative goals. (Even if quantitative goals had been injected into Agenda 21, they would still not be binding on the United States.)

The United States understood that it had no binding obligations under Agenda 21 to develop any new programs and that the body of US law was for the most part equal to or more demanding than recommendations in the Agenda 21’s environmental chapters. The Clinton administration, as the Bush administration before it, saw Agenda 21 as only a menu of best practices, not a list of obligations. The chief value of Agenda 21 for the Clinton administration was that it provided guidance for developing countries on how to upgrade clearly inadequate laws and policies relating to environmental protection and economic development controversies. In fact many mainstream US environmental NGOs were uninterested in Agenda 21 because they saw it as document mostly of importance to developing countries. As a result the large US environmental groups did not even participate in most discussions about Agenda 21 at the UN CSD, they believed that they had more important environmental issues to work on.  Of course, some US environmental NGOs were greatly disappointed that the Clinton administration took no interest in upgrading US law and policy on the subject matter of Agenda 21 chapters. To do this the US government would need to work with Congress, and the Clinton administration had no appetite for this. The Clinton administration was engaged attempting to upgrade US law and policy on climate change but they never saw Agenda 21 relevant to this effort. As we have seen, the first Bush administration had agreed to and had ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under which international negotiations on climate change would proceed.

Since most of the environmental provisions in Agenda 21 were based upon preexisting United States law and policy, the United States consistently reported to the United Nations on matters under existing US law that preceded Agenda 21.

Opponents  of land-use planning in the United States that are connected to the anti-Agenda 21 campaign frequently claim that because United States law and policy now contain provisions similar to provisions in Agenda 21,  this proves the claim that the United States has been implementing Agenda 21. Such an argument completely ignores the fact that the United States and other developed countries have been adopting environmental law and regulations since the late 1960s, decades before Agenda 21 existed and the fact that the US has adopted environmental law is absolutely no evidence of the influence of Agenda 21 .

There is absolutely no factual basis for the claim that United States environmental policy was created in response to provisions of Agenda 21 and such a claim is demonstratively false.

lack of evidence

The claim that nations have a duty to comply with the provisions of Agenda 21 is flatly contradicted by the language of  the 1992 Rio Declaration which is expressly incorporated into Agenda 21 and which says:

States shall enact effective environmental legislation. Environmental standards, management objectives, and priorities should reflect the environmental and development context to which they apply. Standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic cost to other countries, particularly in developing countries. (Rio Declaration, Principle 11)

And so, so all nations understood that they were not bound to change their laws in accordance with the provisions of Agenda 21.

What was arguably new about Agenda 21 for most governments was the call that environmental and economic development decision-making be integrated. Agenda 21 was premised on the notion that some economic development policies that fail to take into consideration impacts on the environment will harm legitimate environmental protection objectives and environmental policies that fail to consider legitimate economic development needs will frustrate the attainment of legitimate economic aspirations.  It is simply not true that Agenda 21 calls for environmental considerations to take precedence over economic development needs. In fact, a large motivating factor for the adoption of Agenda 21 was the fear of developing countries whose most important priority was getting their people out of grinding poverty that environmental laws of most interest to rich developed nations would limit their ability to proceed with economic development. Because Agenda 21 valued economic development on the same plane as environmental protection, many developing nations saw Agenda 21 as protecting their right to pursue economic development. Conversely in the United States, many environmental activists were suspicious of Agenda 21 for putting economic development on the same level as environmental protection.  They were afraid that Agenda 21 put too much value in economic development.

Yet Agenda 21 does encourage decision-makers at all governmental scales to consider at the same time environmental protection and economic development needs in decision-making. Because integrated decision-making allows nations to pursue both economic development aspirations and environmental protection goals, it is a way of preventing governments from unknowingly undermining these goals by focusing on only one of them.  Most policy makers agree this is a good thing. If, for instance, a project is proposed to limit the use of forest resources, governments should take into consideration the legitimate economic needs of those who rely upon the forest resources for subsistence.  Also, of course, economic development projects could adversely affect legitimate environmental protection goals. Therefore economic development projects should consider environmental protection impacts. And so, sustainable development is understood to be a call for the integration of environmental, economic, and social considerations into government decision making. It is simply untruthful to claim the Agenda 21 elevates environmental protection goals over economic development needs.

The following diagram captures the idea well:


sustain 2


Where the scope of proposed environmental, economic, or social policies conflict with legitimate environmental, economic, or social goals, the concept of sustainable development encourages decision-makers to identify these potential conflicts and work democratically with citizen groups to find solutions that achieve environmental, economic and social goals to the maximum extent possible. As this chart depicts, only when there is a potential conflict among environmental, economic, or social goals is integrated decision-making necessary. And so for the vast number of economic policies, integrated decision-making has no effect. As we shall see when we examine ethical issues raised by these matters, this idea of integrated decision-making provides no clear guidance about how to resolve conflicts among environmental, economic, and social goals. Under Agenda 21, this is left to governments to resolve working ideally with multi-stakeholder groups democratically.

The claim that Agenda 21 is a call for international control of local government decision-making is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21.  Section 10.6 (e) of Agenda 21 expressly calls for policy making to be accomplished at the lowest level of public authority consistent with the effective action and a locally driven approach. In addition, many other provisions of Agenda 21 specifically call for governments to make decisions at the appropriate level. (see, for example,  Agenda 21 section 10.6).  And so, rather than Agenda 21 establishing a “top-down”United Nations driven set of rules for imposition of radical environmental policies on nations and local governments, Agenda 21 is actually a call for a “bottom-up” stakeholder driven process that integrates environmental and  economic development concerns into decision-making which should take place at the lowest possible scale consistent with the scale of the problem.  Most environmental problems can be solved at the local level, others require cooperation at the regional or global level. For instance, wetlands protection can usually be dealt with at the local level, protection of water basins require cooperation among all communities sharing the basin, and problems like protection of the ozone layer, acidification of oceans, and climate change require cooperation at the global scale. Agenda 21 calls for solutions at the lowest level consistent with the scale of the problem.

Rather than being opposed to economic development, Agenda 21 actually calls for the strengthening the business sector’s participation in integrated environmental and economic development decisions. In fact there is an entire chapter in Agenda 21, chapter 30, which calls for the strengthening of the business sectors participation in decision-making.

In light of the above, assertions that Agenda 21 implements Marxist/socialist theories that would abolish private ownership of property is both absurd and flatly contradicted throughout the text of Agenda 21. In fact, Agenda 21 also expressly calls for greater use of “more effective and widespread use of economic and market-oriented tools.” (Agenda 21, Sec. 8.30)

Thus it is simply either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth to claim that Agenda 21 entails a “top-down” Marxist plan to abolish private sector involvement in the economy. In fact, in many places, as we have seen Agenda 21 recognizes the crucial importance  of the private sector in economic development. Furthermore business organizations were regularly consulted by the United States when it responded to Agenda 21 issues and the American business community consistently agreed with positions taken by the United States on Agenda 21 issues, at least in this writer’s experience. In fact the US government often agreed with positions of the US businesses on matters about which environmental NGOs disagreed.  One example was when US environmental NGOs and European countries proposed that  a code of conduct  for international corporations be adopted by the UN CSD. This idea was strongly opposed by American corporations and the US government on the Clinton Administration successfully prevented the UN from pursuing this idea.  his greatly disappointed US environment NGOs. Similarly in 1997 the US government supported the views of the US business community while refusing to support the positions of  environmental NGOs and European countries when  the European Union proposed that the UN CSD adopt targets to reduce unsustainable consumption by specific percentages. The United States strongly opposed this idea at the urging of the US business community and successfully prevented this idea from going forward in the UN despite strong pleas to the US government from the US NGO community to agree to consumption targets.

The anti-Agenda 21 campaign continues to make the false claim that because President Clinton established the Presidents Council On Sustainable Development (PCSD), an organization which met from June of 1993 to June of 1999, the United States has implemented Agenda 21 throughout the United States.  (For an in depth review of the purpose, accomplishments, and failures of the PCSD, see Dernbach, Learning from the President;s Council on Sustainable Development: The Need for Real National Strategy) The PCSD was created by Executive Order of President Clinton to give advice to the US government about how to move toward sustainability.

The membership of the PCSD was made up of roughly equal numbers of individuals from industry, government, and NGOs and was chaired by Ray Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Interface, Inc., a carpet manufacturer, and Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute. Included among the PCSD members of were Enron, BP Oil, Dow Chemical, and General Motors.

From 1993 to 1999, the PCSD delivered three reports to President Clinton. These reports included a broad array of policy recommendations intended to promote US domestic sustainability. Although the PCSD produced guidance on steps for achieving sustainable development at both domestic and international levels, the Clinton administration chose not to move to implement the PCSD’s recommendations. (McFarlane, Development Policy in the First Two Years of the Bush Administration)

Included in PCSD’s  recommendations was a visions statement which included the following goal:

To achieve our vision of sustainable development, some things
must grow—jobs, productivity, wages, capital and savings,
profits, information, knowledge, and education—and others—
pollution, waste, and poverty—must not.

This is hardly the vision of a radical socialist agenda. In addition, the PCSD’s  recommendations are replete with many express acknowledgements of respect for the power the market and private decision-making. It is simply not a reasonable interpretation of the work of the PCSD to conclude that it recommended the transformation of American society to a socialist future. Furthermore the PCSD was established as an advisory committee. It did not have any statutory authority of its own, nor was it located within an agency that had any statutory authority. If the US government choose to ignore its recommendations, nothing would come of them. In fact, that is what happened to the PCSD.

The last major event in the PCSD’s life was a national town meeting in Detroit in May of 1999. After the Detroit meeting, the PCSD shut down and as we have noted the Clinton administration took no steps to implement the PCSD’s recommendations. The George W. Bush administration completely ignored the recommendations of the PCSD.

And so nothing meaningful came out of the PCSD. Therefore, there is simply no basis for concluding that the PCSD led to the implementation of a radical environmental agenda in the United States. The claim that the PCSD’s work is evidence of the continuing UN’s covert implementation of Agenda 21 is not just misleading and false, it is a staggering example of reckless disregard for the truth given the unwillingness of both the Clinton and George W. Bush administration to take any steps to implement the PCSD recommendations.  The evidence proffered by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign in support of the fact that the PCSDs recommendations have been implemented is the existence of environmental law and regulation at the federal, state and local level throughout United States. However there is no evidence that existing US law and regulation on environmental matters  had anything to do either with Agenda 21 or the work of the PCSD.

Claim 2 . The United Nations has covertly pushed Agenda 21 into local communities throughout United States of America through the international Council of Local Environmental Initiatives and through policies such as ” Smart Growth,”  “Wildlands Projects”, “Resilient Cities”,  “Regional Visioning Projects” and others with similar obscure names. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)

The anti-Agenda 21 campaign frequently claims that Agenda 21 is being covertly implemented through organizations that have been created to implement Agenda 21 while disguising their intentions by changing their names to organizations with the names such as the  “International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI),” ” Smart Growth,” “Wildlands Projects,” “Resilient Cities,”  and “Regional Visioning Projects.”  In making these claims the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is explicitly arguing that those engaged in  these programs are doing so to implement Agenda 21.  That is  these organizations are pursuing their goals because of the Agenda 21,  not because they independently see benefits from sound growth, responsible land-use or transportation planning, or the creation of bike lanes for reasons other than Agenda 21.

The chapter in Agenda 21 on local authorities, Chapter 28, is only slightly longer than one page. It contains no prescriptions in regard to the content of local sustainability programs. This chapter simply says that each local authority should enter into a dialogue with its citizens, local organizations, and private enterprises and adopt a local Agenda 21. There are simply no minimum conditions for what constitutes a local Agenda 21. The clear objective of this chapter is that communities determine the content of local Agenda 21s through collaborative examination of their own needs for appropriate environmental, economic, and social policies.  Given this it is absurd to conclude that the contents of any local sustainability program were formed by Agenda 21.

Those engaged in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are unable to identify a  link between these organizations and Agenda 21 or the United Nations other than claiming that these organizations are working on subject matter which is also covered in Agenda 21. No one in the United Nations reviews local sustainability plans to determine if they are minimally consistent with Agenda 21. There is simply no formal institutional connection between the United Nations and local governments except for the fact that the UN keeps some track of local sustainability programs  and occasionally convenes meetings to allow local communities to learn from each other about how to construct local sustainability programs.  The United Nations does not review or pass on the acceptability of these programs. Moreover, much of the land use, transportation, and energy planning that is under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 program has not been conducted by these organizations, they simply are the product of local government planning processes led by staff that often never heard of Agenda 21 nor ever worked with organizations such as ICLEI. Yet, even in the cases where local land use plans have been produced by local planning organizations working with local stakeholder groups rather than the named organizations, the anti-Agenda 21 argues that these plans are part of a United Nations plot.

The only evidence that these named organizations are covertly pursuing the implementation of Agenda 21 proffered by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is that these organizations are doing work similar in content to the focus of several Agenda 21 chapters. Yet such an argument completely ignores the possibility that those working for these organizations are pursuing the organization’s goals because they believe that responsible planning is worthy of pursuit on its own terms because of the ability of communities to implement a vision of the future derived in planning processes. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign offers no proof that people working for these organizations have been motivated by the desire to implement Agenda 21. Given that, as we have seen, that most of the environmental provisions of Agenda 21 were based upon environmental laws and policies that existed before Agenda 21 came into existence it is preposterous to assume the people working for these organizations have been motivated primarily by the provisions of Agenda 21.

There is simply no evidence that people engaged in these organizations are taking orders from, report to, or are responding to wishes of United Nations. Even if they were, given that Agenda 21 is a menu of options, not a set of rules, local governments are completely free under Agenda 21 to determine which environmental and economic issues will be taken into consideration in their local planning.

However, this does not stop the anti-Agenda 21 campaign from attacking local planning on the basis that it is part of an UN Marxist plot to destroy private property.

Claim 3. Agenda 21 and sustainable development views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private automobile ownership, individual travel choices, privately owned farms, and human existence as all being destructive of the environment. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)

Embedded in this claim are two assertions about Agenda 21 that are directly contradicted  by the text of Agenda 21.  One is the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the destruction of property rights. The second is the claim that Agenda 21 elevates environment protection goals over the interests of people. These two claims are very frequently made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign yet directly contradicted by Agenda 21.

Section 8.18 of Agenda 21  provides that governments and legislators should  establish judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting environment and development that may affect rights. Agenda 21 section 10.5 expressly says that property rights should be taken into account in land use decisions. And so, not only is there no support for the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the elimination of property rights, as we have seen Agenda 21 says the exact opposite.

Rather than elevating environmental protection over human interests, Agenda 21 expressly incorporates principal one of the Rio Declaration that says that human beings are at the center concern for sustainable development. And so, the idea that Agenda 21 makes human interests subservient to environment protection goals is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. Although it is true that Agenda 21 encourages people to live in harmony with nature, Agenda 21 does not discourage the use of natural resources to meet human needs except to the extent that it encourages decision-makers to consider how the overuse of natural resources will undermine the quality of life for present and future generations. Even in this case, human interests are the basis for concern about the environment. Also, local governments are completely free to decide which issues it will consider in land use planning.

And as we have seen above, Agenda 21 also incorporates principle two of the Rio Declaration that expressly says that nations have the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies. This provisions make nations sovereign over natural resources, not the Unite Nations while reaffirming national sovereignty. Once again, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is making claims that are demonstratively false.

Claim 4. Under Agenda 21, social justice is described as the right and opportunity of the people around the world to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment which would be accomplished by socialist/communist global redistribution of property and wealth. (West Cornwall Township Resolution).

As we have seen, Agenda 21 expressly encourages property rights to be honored and for governments to establish civil procedures to redress the unlawful taking of property rights. The absurd notion that agenda 21 calls for the redistribution of wealth according to socialist/communist goals is nowhere be found in Agenda 21 and as we have seen Agenda 21 expressly calls for the strengthening of the private sector participation in decision-making in many places including an entire chapter of Agenda 21, Chapter 30.

Agenda 21 does call for more foreign aid from developed countries to assist poor developing countries with poverty alleviation. This however is simply a call for more foreign aid, not a request for redistribution of wealth pursuant to some socialist/communist theory. Chapter 33 of Agenda 21 calls for developed nations to provide 0.7% of GDP for foreign aid to poor developing countries. The United States, however, made it clear when it signed Agenda 21 in 1992 by making a special statement on the issue that it did not agree with this goal and was not in any way bound by it. This disclaimer was originally made by the George H.W Bush administration and was strongly and frequently repeated in the Clinton administration during meetings of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.  In fact, when I was on the US delegation in 1997, when several developing nations criticized the United States for being in last place among developed countries in percentage of GDP devoted to foreign aid, with only 0. 1 % of US GDP devoted to foreign aid compared to 10 times as much in some European countries, the Clinton not administration strongly repeated its position that the US rejected the 0.7% of GDP goal. It further said that the principle way to help developing nations economically was to help them  them to attract private sector investment.

And so, the claim that Agenda 21 will lead to a Marxist/communist redistribution of private resources is another staggering delusional claim made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.

III. Conclusion to this First in a Series on the anti-Agenda 21 Campaign.

So far we have seen that four claims repeatedly made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so demonstratively false, misleading, inaccurate about Agenda 21 that they can only be explained as the result of paranoid conspiracy theory about the United Nations or by a reckless disregard for the truth. Yet, we have seen that this delusional phenomenon has been successful in undermining local and regional planning and amazingly convincing the Republican party to accept and adopt in their party platform claims that are contradicted by the very document on which the claims are based.

Later entries in this series will continue the examination of specific claims made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign, deduce from all these claims the tactics that have been deployed by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign and subject these tactics  to an ethical analysis. In a later blog we will also examine who appears to be behind this disturbing development in US affairs.


Reilly, William, 1992, Questions and Answers on UNCED Issues, March 29, 1992 (Copy of this in possession of author)


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law



                Appendix A

cornwall 1


Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed: Disinformation Campaign About Sustainable Development Emerges In the United States

Editor’s note: The following guest entry by Professor John Dernbach of Widener University School of Law is being reproduced here because it is a response to an emerging disinformation campaign about sustainable development that appears to be  growing in the United States recently. This attack on sustainability and reasonable land use planning raises many of the same ethical issues discussed frequently on Ethicsandclimate under the topic of “climate change disinformation campaign.” Future posts on this web site will further develop the ethical issues entailed by this kind of attack on sustainable development because such attacks raise ethical issues for climate change policy formation as climate change policies should consider environmental, economic, and social goals of policies, the essential idea of sustainable development. In the following post, Professor Dernbach explains the emerging disinformation campaign which untruthfully characterizes Agenda 21, the international agreement on sustainable development which was finalized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The attacks attempt to convince citizens and local and regional governments that reasonable land use planning is the implementation of a United Nations scheme that will decrease individual liberty and diminish property rights.  This post was originally posted on the website of the American College of Environmental Lawyers at http://www.acoel.org/post/2013/03/27/AGENDA-21-A-GUIDE-FOR-THE-PERPLEXED-.aspx

Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed

At a local government meeting on a land use plan, officials hear opposition based on the claim that it is tainted by Agenda 21.  A state public utility commission considering smart meters hears similar claims.  They are confused: what is Agenda 21 and why does it matter?

A well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists well outside the realm of ordinary environmental law work.  But it is beginning to affect that work.  The real target of this campaign, moreover, is not Agenda 21 but sustainable development—a common sense approach to reconciling environment and development that provides the basis for our environmental and land use laws.  Environmental lawyers thus need a basic understanding of what Agenda 21 is and what it is not.

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive public strategy for achieving sustainable development. It was endorsed by the U.S. (under the presidency of George H.W. Bush) and other countries at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.  Agenda 21 stands for two broad propositions: 1) environmental goals and considerations need to be integrated into all development decisions, and 2) governments and their many stakeholders should work out the best way to integrate environment and development decisions in an open and democratic way.

Agenda 21 contains an almost encyclopedic description of the best ideas for achieving sustainable development that existed in 1992.  On land use, it specifically counsels respect for private property.    It contains a detailed description of the role that many nongovernmental entities, including business and industry, farmers, unions, and others, should play in achieving sustainability.

Agenda 21 endorses, and to a great degree is based upon, ideas that were already expressed in U.S. environmental and natural resources laws.  Its core premise is espoused in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.  Long before Agenda 21, NEPA set out “the continuing policy of the Federal government” to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans” (42 U.S.C. § 4331).

Ironically, Agenda 21 was never taken seriously as such in the United States; there has never been much enthusiasm here for following international agreements.  It is not a legally binding treaty; it contains no provisions for ratification, for example.  Agenda 21 also says nothing about new ideas like green building, smart growth, and smart meters.  But sustainable development as an idea—achieving economic development, job creation, human wellbeing, and environmental protection and restoration at the same time—is gaining traction.

In response, opponents are attacking sustainability by making false statements about Agenda 21.  They say that Agenda 21 is opposed to democracy, freedom, private property, and development, and would foster environmental extremism.  For many opponents, the absence of a textual basis in Agenda 21 for such claims (in fact, the text explicitly contradicts all of these claims) is not a problem.  First, they are attacking a document that is not well known, and so they count on not being contradicted.  Second, the false version of Agenda 21 fits a well known narrative that is based on fear of global governance and a perceived threat of totalitarianism, and on distrust of the United Nations.  Indeed, the absence of information to support such fears only deepens their perception of a conspiracy.  According to this view, moreover, people who talk about sustainable development without mentioning Agenda 21 are simply masking their true intentions.

Far-fetched, you say?  Well, consider this: in 2012, Alabama adopted legislation that prohibits the state or political subdivisions from adopting or implementing policies “that infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to ‘Agenda 21’” (Ala. Code § 35-1-6).  This, of course, could chill a variety of otherwise ordinary state and local decisions.  Similar bills are pending in state legislatures across the country.

In a variety of other places, elected officials and professional staff who have worked with stakeholders for years to produce specific land use and energy proposals find their work mischaracterized as the product of Agenda 21, even though they have never heard of it.   Agenda 21’s lack of direct relevance to the specific proposals should, but does not always, provide an answer to such claims.

The campaign against Agenda 21 has no serious empirical or textual foundation.  But it can work against sustainability and good decisions—and cost time and money—when clients and their lawyers don’t recognize it for what it is.


Professor John Dernbach

Distinguished Professor

Widener University School of Law.