John Podesta, key player in administration’s regulation drive, also helped UN develop radical new global agenda

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John Podesta

John Podes­ta

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.

John Podes­ta