It’s the prickly environmental issue in Roanoke County that has long attracted conspiracy-minded skeptics like bees to honey.
For months, a small group of county residents has spoken out at the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors meetings against the county belonging to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. Supervisor Al Bedrosian campaigned against membership in the organization leading up to his November election.
Now, in a move to end involvement in the program altogether, Bedrosian has requested that ICLEI be the subject of a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and ultimately go before the board for a vote.
While it remains unclear how individual supervisors will come down on the issue, discussions with them suggest the board will likely be split. The question at hand: Do the benefits of ICLEI membership outweigh the concerns posed by the contingent of residents who reject the idea of human-influenced climate change?
“What is a concern for me is that the whole ICLEI thing does predicate itself that in order to be a part of it, you have to believe in global warming,” Bedrosian said. “A core philosophy takes you places, and there are a lot of places I don’t want to go.”
For nearly seven years, Roanoke County staffers have extolled the virtues of ICLEI membership, echoing the county’s own citizen-led panel, RCCLEAR, which promotes energy conservation. They claim the program has helped them save residents money, as well as measure the success of the county’s own green initiatives.
But persistent naysayers have continued to sound an alarm about ICLEI, showing up at board of supervisors meetings to express concern that it’s part of a United Nations conspiracy to perpetuate what they describe as the myth of global warming.
ICLEI is a network of more than 1,000 dues-paying municipalities across the globe who share information in an effort to find ways to approach issues of sustainability, climate protection and clean energy initiatives. According to ICLEI’s website and county staffers, ICLEI does not answer to or take marching orders from the United Nations — a claim dissenters continue to reject.
Roanoke County pays $1,200 a year in membership dues in exchange for access to — among other things — software that allows municipalities to compare local sustainability programs against carbon emission data. The idea is that localities can use that knowledge to measure the success of their own programs.
There are no mandates or reporting requirements set by ICLEI, and each community plots its own course, county officials say.
Consternation over the county’s involvement in the program played out publicly at the Jan. 14 board of supervisors meeting when Bedrosian voiced skepticism. In a half-hour briefing, General Services Director Anne Marie Green and RCCLEAR Chairman Jesse Freedman were questioned by Bedrosian, who highlighted his own disbelief in global warming as a primary reason for debating ICLEI membership.
“Do either one of you, or do both of you, believe in man-made global warming?” he asked.
Freedman, whose ties to the county are purely voluntary, shot back quickly.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And so do 97 percent of scientists —”
“OK, but you do. And Anne Marie?” Bedrosian continued.
A split second of silence engulfed the room before Green responded. Asking county personnel to explain their political opinion has long been seen as off-limits by staffers and supervisors alike.
“I’m a local government official, I don’t believe in one way or the other,” she said. “What I do believe is that carbon emissions make the air dirty. If it also leads to global warming then whatever, but I do believe they contribute to pollution in the Roanoke Valley.”
Also important to several supervisors: how getting rid of ICLEI might affect the county’s ability to attract new businesses to the valley in an era when corporations seek to take root in places that are mindful about conservation.
Jill Loope, the county’s economic development director, said it is common for businesses to ask about broader sustainability practices when looking to expand. It’s not at the top of their list of concerns, but they do care, Loope said. It was a major sticking point when Sierra Nevada brewery considered expanding into Roanoke.
“It was of critical importance that a community demonstrate environmental stewardship,” she said.
Indeed, on documents provided to new businesses for consideration, ICLEI is at the top of the list of examples of how the community approaches environmental care. In the case with Sierra Nevada, Roanoke was being compared to the Asheville, N.C., region, which eventually was chosen over the Roanoke Valley.
In citizen surveys, residents have reported to the county that clean air and clean water are top priorities, county officials said.
“Participation in programs and practices that support environmental conservation is a demonstration of community pride and concern for the future of the community,” Loope said.
Backing Bedrosian with rock-steady support is a cast of people who have denounced ICLEI at meetings for years.
At their tamest, they read from pre-written letters voicing skepticism about global warming. But language has escalated recently. In an interview this week, Windsor Hills resident RoxAnne Christley accused Green of lying to the board.
“She did lie. She lied straight out,” Christley said. “She said that ICLEI was not a part of the United Nations. She lied when she said that.”
While they stand together in their dislike for the environmental network, naysayer objections are nuanced. For Bedrosian, it’s about aligning a municipality with a perspective in which he does not believe. For meeting regular Noah Tickle, it’s the science he rejects. For Christley, it’s about American status — opposing ICLEI is a way to shake her fist at the United Nations.
Supervisor Butch Church, who said he originally voted to join ICLEI even though he did not understand what he was voting for, has flip-flopped in recent history and is expected to side with Bedrosian. Church did not return calls or emails seeking to learn more about how the program has impacted his district.
Supervisor Charlotte Moore, perhaps the most aggressive supporter of ICLEI membership on the board, characterized the anger toward the United Nations as a moot issue. She added that whether or not someone believes in global warming has little impact on the overall benefits reaped from the program.
“To me, that’s insignificant,” Moore said. “The most important thing to me is protecting our next generation.”