EXCLUSIVE: The Obama administration should dramatically reorganize the relationships between America’s federal departments and agencies, and overcome legal barriers to help install the nebulous principle of “sustainability” across government, the economy and society at large, according to a new National Research Council study sponsored by many of the federal departments that would be most affected.
The study also calls for installing sustainability in the “culture of government” and recommends that the U.S. look for inspiration to a number of “national sustainable development strategies” adopted under the United Nation’s controversial Agenda 21, a highly detailed blueprint for reworking the global economy and environment that was reaffirmed at last year’s Rio + 20 summit on sustainable development.
National sustainable development plans are mandated under Chapter 8 of Agenda 21, titled “Integrating Environment and Development in Decision-Making,” which declared that governments should “where necessary, modify and strengthen procedures so as to facilitate the integrated consideration of social, economic and environmental issues.” Currently, more than 100 nations have adopted such strategies. The U.S. is not among them.
The new document, titled “Sustainability for the Nation, Resource Connections and Government Linkages,” appeared almost two years after it was commissioned by a consortium of federal organizations with environmental portfolios at a cost of about $1 million.
The sponsoring agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Energy and Agriculture, and a handful of private donors, including BP, Lockheed Martin, and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.
The aim of the proposed radical overhaul: to overcome “impediments or barriers” that “frustrate federal government efforts to create linkages” between agencies and other non-federal partners to address important “sustainability issues” that affect the country and the planet.
One of the major impediments, the study says, is created by America’s “basic framework of government, established by law,” which is “one of separated and dispersed authority,” in which “government agencies at all levels -- federal, state, local, tribal and even international -- can only do what they have been authorized to do by their governing authorities -- namely, Congress, state legislatures, etc.” -- not to mention the U.S. Constitution.
The new system of government organization, the study says, would bring federal, state and local branches of government together with “stakeholders,” activists and other interested parties in ways that would not depend on the old legal restrictions and facilitate new methods of dealing with the problems of creating a “sustainable society.”
The main instrument for accomplishing that change would be a new National Sustainability Policy that could be created by presidential executive order, similar to a National Ocean Policy created by the Obama administration two years ago.
Among the overall priorities of the reorganized government focus on sustainability would be “connections among energy, food and water”; “diverse and healthy ecosystems”; “enhancing resilience of communities to extreme events” and “human health and well-being.”
Their focus would be on meeting “sustainability challenges” in a broad and overlapping number of areas ranging from “natural resource domains (air, fresh water, coastal oceans, land, forests, soil, etc.), built environments (urban infrastructure such as drinking water and waste water systems, transportation systems, energy systems), and the social aspects of complex human systems (such as public health, economic prosperity, and the like).”
In other words, matters that touch upon just about everything in the U.S. -- perhaps the ultimate in government mission creep.
All of them, the study says, are “extraordinarily difficult to address on their own terms,” while “the federal government is generally not organized or operated to deal with this complexity.”
Moreover, the study says, “absent a national sustainability policy or a legal entity charged with developing or implementing such a policy, there are limited mechanisms to fund projects and programs designed to address sustainability issues” -- an indication that with a reorganization of government could come a reorganization of state, local and federal financing.
“The maintenance and enhancement of sustainability,” the study insists, “cannot afford to be constrained by fragmentation of authority, inadequate sharing of information, the structure of government, or other complexities.”
It is also necessary, the study says, “to maintain long-term initiatives on sustainability despite periodic temporal change in leaders (and changes in the beliefs and priorities of the leadership).”
As the study puts it, “major efforts will be required because the required changes are so huge.”
Indeed, the study says, U. S. federal agencies should not even wait for a formal reorganization of their tasks to begin, but could begin now to prepare mapping out “cross-agency linkages” “for any sustainability-related program or project” in order to “incentivize” the new style of coordination.
In addition, the study suggests that agencies may be able to make use of unspecified aspects of the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA (the foundation stone of the EPA) and other current federal legislation to expand the sustainability agenda; the report says that the laws are “significantly under-utilized.” The study does not, however, suggest how the current laws might be differently used.
The suggested changes could also affect such things as the federal government’s procurement procedures, which the study criticizes as constrained by “competitive bidding for the acquisition of goods and services.”
The NRC call for a sustainability revolution in government was published on June 28, just three days after President Barack Obama announced his latest intentions to combat climate change, including deep cuts in carbon emissions from coal-fired energy plants, even more emphasis on renewable energy, and a leading U.S. role in international efforts at “climate cooperation.”
And it is only the latest of a series of blue-chip studies by NRC and the National Academy of Sciences aimed at retooling and reorienting important government agencies for managing and promoting the notion of “sustainability,” a term that remains largely formless -- though it almost always involves more expansive notions of environmental and social management.
In December 2011, for example, the National Academy of Sciences produced a related study, “Sustainability and the U.S. EPA,” which proposed changes in how the environmental agency analyzes problems and makes decisions, in a way that would give it greatly expanded power to regulate businesses, communities and ecosystems in the name of “sustainable development.”
The earlier study is noted approvingly in the current document, for discussing “the importance of incorporating sustainability into an agency’s culture and thinking ” and creating “a new culture among all EPA employees.” The latest document declares that adopting similar thinking in a variety of federal agencies is “essential.”
The recent study was prepared by a 13-member NRC study committee made up of scientists, former senior government bureaucrats and corporate executives, assisted by a handful of NAS staffers. The chair of the group is Thomas Graedel, a professor of chemical engineering, geology and geophysics, and currently head of the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale University.
Graedel takes a determined low-key approach to discussing the sweeping themes struck by “Sustainability Linkages,” emphasizing that the study’s aim is to set “over-arching guiding principles” rather than to “get prescriptive about things” in detail.
“It provides encouragement for parts of the government to get together on projects of concern,” he said. “There is no formula for how it all works out.”
The study, he observes, takes note of a variety of existing cases of federal, state, and local government cooperation with private interests to solve complicated environmental problems, ranging from green urban planning in Philadelphia to the bi-national management with Canada of the Great Lakes. (None of these evolutionary developments, however, required the force of a National Sustainability Policy to bring them into existence.)
A more sweeping example mentioned in the report is the administration’s ambitious and all-encompassing National Ocean Policy, first promulgated by executive order in July 2010 -- which also includes the Great Lakes under its stewardship.
For the two subsequent years, the administration solicited public comment before issuing a detailed implementation oceans policy plan and timetable for action last April 16. Among the government actions listed in an appendix on the planned timeline for the policy are to: “protect, restore, or enhance 100,000 acres of wetlands, wetland-associated uplands, and high-priority coastal, upland, urban, and island habitat” by next year (and another 2 million acres of “lands identified as high conservation priorities, with at least 35 percent being forestlands of highest value for maintaining water quality” by 2025); lay the groundwork for an oceanic carbon trading market by 2015; start to develop “new natural products and biotechnological processes from marine environments” by 2017; as well as developing a mammoth new system for surveillance of the oceans, coasts and contributing waterways.
All of the activities will take place under the supervision of a National Ocean Council, made up of 27 agencies, offices and other government bodies “to share information and streamline decision-making.” According to the policy document, it “does not create new regulations, supersede current regulations, or modify any agency’s established mission, jurisdiction, or authority.”
Another sustainability study committee member, Lynn Scarlett, says that the changes suggested in the new sustainability report are intended to be more incremental than radical, and says that they should not be construed as an executive “super-mandate.” “We were very careful to underscore there is no one-size-fits-all need for more coordination,” she told Fox News.
(Scarlett is currently co-director of the Center for Management of Ecological Wealth at Resources for the Future, an avowedly non-partisan organization in Washington that claims to improve “environmental and natural resource policymaking worldwide through objective social science research of the highest caliber.”)
What is sustainability in the first place? The specific definition seems to elude this study and previous ones, except for an insistence on its interlocking social-economic-environmental nature. The latest NRC document blandly notes that a “sustainable society” is “one that can persist over generations; one that is far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social system of support.”
The study sources that definition to the authors of the 1972 anti-growth Club of Rome volume, “Limits to Growth,” and it could fit all manner of societies -- though clearly not, in the new study’s view, the current American one.
The NRC project is a major event in the marriage of “sustainability science” with government policy that has become a common theme under the Obama administration -- although in ways that have often led to complaints at high-handedness by agencies like the EPA in encroaching on state regulatory regimes and overriding the concerns of industry and even private sector organized .
When it comes to the EPA, for example, says Congressman Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, himself a former state environmental regulator, “the agency has always been difficult from the point of view of the states, but this particular White House has unleashed zealous regulators to create the worst of all worlds.”
He notes in particular the use of “sue and settle” techniques by federal regulators in tandem with local environmental organizations to create costly settlements that bypass state regulators and legislators, including in North Dakota.
A new report by the free-market American Legislative Exchange Council claims that in the first term of the Obama administration there were ten times as many such “takeovers” of state authority as in the previous three presidential terms.
What the new call for a sustainability revolution will do to the country, however, depends on how the principles espoused in the study are applied -- or not applied. “The devil is in the details,” says a former senior government official who is highly familiar with the intricacies of federal regulation policy. “It could be so grandiose as a unified theory that nobody will implement it. Or it could be something more dictatorial.”
One of the important unanswered questions, the former official said, is “who gets to decide what sustainability is? Or what its outcome means?”
Those questions would only get their answers if -- or when -- the sweeping proposals advocated in the NRC study are actually taken up by the Obama administration.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell.