John Podesta, the former Clinton Administration chief of staff who is spearheading President Barack Obama’s aggressive strategy of government-by-regulation, has also been helping United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with an even more ambitious job: setting the stage to radically transform the world’s economic, environmental and social agenda.
That effort—a colossal and sweeping form of global behavior modification--is supposed to get a new kick-start at a special U.N. summit of world leaders to be convened by Ban in New York City on September 25.
Its supporters hope that effort will end next year in a new international treaty that will bind all 193 U.N. members-- including the U.S-- to a still formless “universal sustainable development agenda” for the planet that will take effect in 2020.
“Developing a single, sustainable development agenda is critical,” says a report produced in May, 2013 by a 27-member “High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons” hand-picked by Ban to help focus the discussion and frame the effort required to make the huge and lengthy project a success.
The high-level panel report was chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron and the presidents of Indonesia and Liberia. The sole American among the international luminaries, who spent nearly a year at their efforts and endorsed them through a process of consensus, was Podesta.
The question is, critical to what? And the answer, according to that panel, is pretty much everything, in what it called a series of “big, transformative shifts.”
Their report opens with the challenge to end “extreme poverty, in all its forms;” and declares, “We can be the first generation in human history to end hunger and ensure that every person achieves a basic standard of wellbeing. But it then adds: “ending extreme poverty is just the beginning, not the end.”
The new agenda is also intended to bring “a new sense of global partnership into national and international politics”; must cause the world to “act now to halt the alarming pace of climate change and environmental degradation;” and bring about a “rapid shift to sustainable patterns of consumption and production,” to name just a few things itemized in the document.
Moreover, it apparently also must spark a planetary psychological sea-change: “The new global partnership should encourage everyone to alter their worldview, profoundly and dramatically,” the report declares.
At the time he joined the high-level panel and helped to shape its radical and ambitious exhortations, Podesta was head of the Center for American Progress , a think tank that he founded in 2003.
The Center is closely supportive of the objectives of the Obama Administration and says its aim is to “provide long-term leadership and support to the progressive movement” and “shape the national debate” in the U.S. on a wide variety of issues, from energy to economic growth, national security and climate change.
In 2010, Podesta became one of the most high-profile exponents of the idea that the Administration could advance its agenda in the face of Congressional opposition from Republicans through executive action, when his staff authored a 54-page Center for American Progress paper on the topic.
“The ability of President Obama to accomplish important change through [executive] powers should not be underestimated,” he wrote in a forward to the document.
Podesta left the Center last month to take up his latest White House assignment.
The high-level panel, meantime, dissolved last fall, after delivering its report to U.N. Secretary-General Ban.
A so-called Open Working Group of the U.N. General Assembly is now currently hammering out specifics of the proposals that will be presented at the summit this upcoming September as a series of Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, successors to the U.N.’s much-touted but unevenly successful Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, which expire in 2015.
Despite the fact that their headline feature is likely to be the pledge to end all forms of “extreme poverty” around the globe by 2030, the agenda that Podesta and the rest of the high-level panel have urged the U.N. and its member states to produce is far more than a conventional anti-poverty plan.
While even the broad outlines they sketched are still in the formative stages of being turned into more concrete negotiating proposals, the process surrounding the eventual fulfillment of the SDGs, would undoubtedly require trillions of dollars of public and private spending on poverty and the environment, a radical reorganization of economic production and consumption, especially in rich countries, and more drastic efforts in the expensive war on climate change.
And now, having helped to frame the SDGs, Podesta may have a key role in setting the stage to accomplish them. The main reason being that how nations meet the collective goals laid out in the SDGs, as the high-level panel underlines in its report, will be left up to each individual nation.
Meaning, among other things, that many of the objectives that make up the SDGs –or, at least, the conditions for their fulfillment--will be part of the regulatory agenda he is now helping to carry out.
Among other things, climate change—and especially the push to meet and even exceed ambitious targets on the suppression of carbon emissions –is said to be a cardinal focus of his job as a kind of super-coordinator of regulatory efforts to achieve Obama Administration goals—even though climate change got hardly a mention in the President’s State of the Union speech last month.
(A report last month by the Administration to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, indicated that the U.S. is a long way from meeting even its current target of a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels in U.S. carbon emissions, but fully intends to keep pushing to meet them.)
Nonetheless , as the U.N. high-level panel’s report points out, suppressing carbon emissions involves a cascading series of other activities, many of them already high on the agenda of Obama Administration agencies.
“The Panel is convinced that national and local governments, businesses and individuals must transform the way they generate and consume energy, travel and transport goods, use water and grow food,” it says among other things—pointing toward just one portion of an inter-related agenda covering a sprawling array of topics.
Another such area is attacking inequality, a theme that President Obama has increasingly struck as an objective for 2014. Among other things, the panel notes, “many countries are using public social protection programs and social and environmental regulations to bring down high levels of domestic inequality by improving the lives of the worst-off, while also transforming their economies.”
The report also strongly recommends that private businesses be harnessed to the new development effort, willingly if possible, but even if not so eager to do so. “We embrace the positive contribution to sustainable development that business must make,” the report says. “But this contribution must include a willingness, on the part of all large corporations as well as governments, to report on their social and environmental impact, in addition to releasing financial accounts.”
It then suggests a mandatory policy of “comply or explain” for all companies worth more than $100 million, along with “sustainability certification” that will make it “easier for civil society and shareholders to become watchdogs, holding firms accountable for adhering industry standards and worker safety issues, and being ready to disinvest if they do not.”
Moreover, the report says, the “post 2015 development agenda must signal a new era for multilateralism and international cooperation”—lead, of course, by the U.N.
Among other things, the report suggests that a variety of U.N. agencies monitor the entire transformational process, and “would also recommend ways of implementing programs more effectively.”
In the end, however, the high-level panel concluded that “only U.N. member states can define the post-2015 agenda.”
And in the U.S. perhaps no-one is better positioned to oversee that definition than John Podesta.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell