I suffered an attack of bulging eye/throbbing vein syndrome when reading presumptive presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s blithe account of a clever piece of business she pulled at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.
Courtesy of India’s First Post, an excerpt from Hard Choices:
At the international conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December 2009, US President Barack Obama forced himself into a room where the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was holding a secret meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other leaders. Giving a blow by blow account of the incident, of which she was part as the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton in her memoirs ‘Hard Choices’ writes that the purpose of China was to isolate the United States by bringing together countries like India, Brazil and South Africa on its side. But Obama’s determination and presence of mind thwarted such a move, she writes.
“President Obama and I were looking for Premier Wen Jiabao in the middle of a large international conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark,” she recalls. “We knew that the only way to achieve a meaningful agreement on climate change was for leaders of the nations emitting the most greenhouse gases to sit down together and hammer out a compromise, especially the US and China,” she said.
“But the Chinese were avoiding us.” “Worse, we learned that Wen had called a ‘secret’ meeting with the Indians, Brazilians, and South Africans to stop, or at least dilute, the kind of agreement the United States was seeking. When we couldn’t find any of the leaders of those countries, we knew something was amiss and sent out members of our team to canvass the conference center,” she writes. “Eventually they discovered the meeting’s location. After exchanging looks of ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ the President and I set off through the long hallways of the sprawling Nordic convention center, with a train of experts and advisors scrambling to keep up,” she writes in her book. “Later we’d joke about this impromptu ‘footcade’, a motorcade without the motors, but at the time I was focused on the diplomatic challenge waiting at the end of our march.
So off we went, charging up a flight of stairs and encountering surprised Chinese officials, who tried to divert us by sending us in the opposite direction. We were undeterred,” she says. When they arrived outside the meeting room, there was a jumble of arguing aides and nervous security agents, she says. Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary, got tangled up with a Chinese guard, she adds. In the commotion the President slipped through the door and yelled, ‘Mr. Premier!’ really loudly, which got everyone’s attention. “The Chinese guards put their arms up against the door again, but I ducked under and made it through,” Clinton writes recounting the incident. “In a makeshift conference room whose glass walls had been covered by drapes for privacy against prying eyes, we found Wen wedged around a long table with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and South African President Jacob Zuma. Jaws dropped when they saw us. ‘Are you ready?’ said President Obama, flashing a big grin,” Clinton claims.
“Now the real negotiations could begin. It was a moment that was at least a year in the making,” she adds.
Horsepucky as far as the “we broke up China’s cabal and got the real negotiations going” thing.
I wrote a detailed backgrounder on Copenhagen soon after the debacle. Here are some choice excerpts concerning the United States’ failure to “thwart”, indeed its inadvertent success in creating, the “BASIC” bloc (Brazil, South Africa with initials inverted for maximum acronym effect, India, and China) of affronted developing regional powers:
[T]he United States assiduously ignored the embarrassing fact of ostensible ally India’s move into the BASIC camp—and skated over the issue of how Washington’s conference planning found it lined up against both New Delhi and Beijing instead of playing one off against the other.
When one considers that the essence of U.S. diplomacy in Asia involves pushing China and India into opposition, forcing these two rivals into an alliance is a remarkable if dubious achievement.
India, for its part, was frank about its identity of interests with China, at least on the issue of climate change India has come out quite well in Copenhagen: Ramesh (Lead):
[Environment Minister] Ramesh said: “A notable feature of this conference is the manner in which the BASIC group of countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) coordinated their position.
“BASIC ministers met virtually on an hourly basis right through the conference; India and China worked very very closely together.”
“India, South Africa, Brazil, China and other developing countries were entirely successful in ensuring there was no violation of the BAP [Bali Action Plan] (of 2007),” Ramesh said.
“Despite relentless attempts made by developed countries, the conference succeeded in continuing negotiations under the Kyoto Protocol for the post-2012 period”, when the current period of the protocol runs out.
The original piece, long and filled with circumstantial detail, is still up at Japan Focus.
In Hard Choices, Clinton also misrepresents the key US gambit at Copenhagen: the $100 billion per year mitigation initiative:
The United States was prepared to lead a collective effort by developed countries to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 from a combination of public and private sources to help the poorest and most vulnerable nations mitigate the damage from climate change if we could also reach broad agreement on limiting emissions.
Actually, the quid pro quo was not “broad agreement on limiting emissions”; the promise of aid was linked to the PRC’s acceptance of emission caps and “transparency”. It was, as Admiral Akbar would say, “A trap!” As John Lee approvingly put it in Foreign Policy at the time, it was “a clever trap”.
Having just announced that the United States would establish and contribute to a $100 billion international fund by 2020 to help poor countries cope with the challenge of climate change, Clinton added a nonnegotiable proviso: All other major nations would first be required to commit their emissions reduction to a binding agreement and submit these reductions to “transparent verification.” … The onus was now on Beijing to agree to standards of “transparent verification.” If it did not, poorer countries standing to benefit from the fund would blame China for breaking the deal. Clinton’s proposal had cunningly undermined Beijing’s leadership over the developing bloc of countries.
It was a trap that worked—for a while. The solidarity of the G-77+China bloc–which had historically maintained a united front insisting that the developed nations shoulder most of the greenhouse gas burden in the spirit of the Kyoto Treaty–was shattered.
Actually, it had been shattered pre-Copenhagen as the United States had cultivated the emergence of a pro-Western faction within the G77, led by Tuvalu, to confront the PRC at the conference on the issue of obstructing US-sponsored mitigation aid. But the benefits were short-lived as the big powers alienated the G77 in toto by excluding it from the closed door negotiations over the final accord, it became obvious that the US lacked the political will to commit to binding agreement on emissions despite the desperate efforts and importunities of the at-risk nations, and that a “collective effort by developed countries to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 from a combination of public and private sources” i.e. after President Obama had left office, looked like a piece of public relations vaporware.
Another piece of dubious reportage from Hard Choices is Clinton’s rather counterintuitive explanation that outrage within the Chinese delegation was triggered by fear of the mad US negotiation skillz, rather than anger that the US team had forced its way into a private meeting between Wen and three other world leaders as if it was schooling misbehaving adolescents at a sleepover:
In one surprising display, one of the other members of the Chinese delegation …started loudly scolding the far more senior Premier. He was quite agitated by the prospect that a deal might be at hand.
WaPo provided the context at the time:
China’s top climate change negotiator exploded in rage at U.S. pressure after Obama walked in on the Chinese while they were holding talks with the Indians, South Africans and Brazilians. After Obama asked whether the Chinese could commit to listing their climate targets in an international registry, Xie Zhenhua launched into a tirade, pointing his finger at the U.S. president… Wen instructed his Chinese interpreter not to translate Xie’s fiery remarks. When Xie erupted again, Wen, who was chairing the meeting, ignored him. After Wen handed Obama a draft text of an agreement that included verification language Obama couldn’t abide by, the two men led a lengthy debate that ended in a working compromise, sources said.
The “working compromise” was an agreement text that kicked the transparency can down the road to a future “conference of the parties”. I imagine Xie was continuing to vent his spleen at the US delegation for its disrespect for the PRC, and felt little need to disrupt a “deal” that was little more than face-saving nonsense.
Apparently the fact that the US stunt—which, I note, Clinton is careful not to take responsibility for–caused Xie Zhenhua to berate President Obama, not Wen Jiabao, is one of those awkward items of narrative that demanded some creative bending and stretching.
Beyond placing the lumpy gristle of Copenhagen failure into the political memoir Cuisinart in order to output creamy Clintonian achievement, the book says very little about the objective that has been driving international climate change policy under President Obama: the desire to “kill Kyoto” i.e. collapse the current treaty and its messy framework of unbalanced obligations, big-and-small consensus, and rhetoric of moral claims on the developed world, with something more U.S.-friendly.
What really happened at Copenhagen was that President Obama had been unable to get national cap-and-trade legislation passed in the US. Having never ratified Kyoto (with its binding emissions caps) and with no meaningful prospect of national legislation, the United States was unable to put any pressure on the People’s Republic of China to implement national caps and assist the world in moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol (which bound only the Annex 1 “advanced economies”) to a new regime in which all of the largest emitters (including China, India, Brazil, & South Africa) accepted binding caps.
In 2010, Al Gore told a conference in Montreal that the PRC passed a message to President Obama before Copenhagen that it was ready to work with the United States to come up with a binding successor to Kyoto… if the US Congress could pass similar legislation.
Not to be.
Instead, President Obama and Secretary Clinton apparently came to Copenhagen with the idea that, absent meaningful US advances either on ratifying Kyoto or creating a new regime, the US would settle for half a loaf: incrementally weakening the Kyoto Protocol at Copenhagen so that it could be allowed to expire and the new regime, nonbinding and with the US and other major powers calling the shots (embodied in the “Denmark draft”) would emerge from its ashes.
In tactical terms, this meant attacking the PRC instead of working with it, by dangling the promise of mitigation money linked to transparency concessions to break the united front of China and the G-77 bloc of small countries.
The PRC—apparently because this would make tapping the international carbon offset market subject to the adversarial attention of the United States and its allies, thereby putting at risk a major economic prop for greenhouse gas reduction—declined to yield to the public US demands for “transparency”. (I might add that the PRC is a clever and not entirely scrupulous player in the offset game; however, its resistance to US demands seemed to have more to do with the apparent inability of the US to deliver a binding emissions commitment in return for transparency concessions.)
In PR terms it meant that the virtually foreordained failure of the conference would be laid at China’s feet, something that the PRC was not quite prepared for, and which probably accounted for Xie’s furious but untranslated set-to with President Obama.
Unfortunately for the United States, the $100 billion gambit and shouldering its way into the PRC/Brazil/India/South Africa confab did not isolate China; instead, the BASIC alliance stepped forward to share the political heat and finesse the creation of a pro forma accord that put the West and Japan on the hook for the $30 billion in immediate aid but accomplished nothing else on the key issues of binding emissions targets or transparency.
India’s Jairam Ramesh described the fallout from the U.S. tactics as follows:
“During the last day of the summit (18 December) when the talks had reached an impasse, it was the intention of European Nations and the US to announce the breakdown and hold the four Basic nations (India, China, Brazil and South Africa) accountable for its failure,” Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said addressing the Aspen Institute of India recently.
Speaking about the talks on the concluding day of the Summit, he said the US President (Barack Obama) kept on saying to the head of state of Bangladesh and Maldives that “you are not going to get money (for climate steps) unless these four guys (BASIC nations) sign the Accord.”
He (Obama) made it categorically clear that any money flow to the developing countries will be linked to the Accord provided the four countries of BASIC group come on board, Ramesh said.
“Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did ask me whether India will deny her country this money. This was the line taken by UK and Australia as well.
“Against this background, none of the heads of the four states wanted to be responsible for the breakdown of the talks. China was particularly wary being world’s largest green house gas emitter,” Ramesh recalled.
This “was the moral line taken at the summit and against this background the Accord was noted,” he added.
The Accord that resulted from Secretary Clinton’s fancy footwork and “clevertrapping” was, by design, a nonbinding collection of loopholes negotiated behind closed doors by the big developed and developing powers in order to save their face as climate change heroes.
The BASIC countries insisted that it be stripped of anything that would allow it to be construed as a (nonbinding) successor to the (binding) Kyoto Protocol. The Accord was not adopted by the conference attendees, who in general detested it; and it was only “noted” by means of some procedural legerdemain as it was jammed through the general session of the Conference, to the intense resentment of the G77. By the end, even Tuvalu, the leader of the pro-West bloc, had turned on the United States and condemned the Accord and the $30 billion in promised “Fast Start” mitigation aid as “thirty pieces of silver” that betrayed the interests of the small developing nations.
The lack of any real achievement at Copenhagen was the signal for a general pile-on intended to put the onus on the PRC and not the US for the failure at Copenhagen, led by the Anglo-American bloc abetted by prestige media, especially in Great Britain. Kevin Rudd memorably accused the PRC of administering a “ratf*cking” at Copenhagen.
Nevertheless, the BASIC countries, led by the PRC and India, have maintained a united front on climate change—and the preservation of Kyoto—to this day.
Subsequent to Copenhagen, in its campaign to supersede the Kyoto treaty with the “Copenhagen Accord”, the Obama administration appeared to be channeling the unsavory spirit of the Bush neo-cons. For the United States, negotiator Todd Stern (apparently a favorite of Clinton’s; in Hard Choices she singles him out as a “passionate and dogged diplomat” whom she put in charge of climate diplomacy) assumed the role of climate-change goon-in-chief, charged with the task of killing Kyoto—and belittling both the Kyoto Treaty and the smaller at-risk nations that presumed to invoke the treaty to assert moral and financial claims on the developed world.
Post-Copenhagen the U.S. engaged in an intensive global armtwisting campaign to compel smaller at-risk nations to endorse the Copenhagen process as a successor to Kyoto (in 2010, as a part of the kill-Kyoto PR campaign, Todd Stern displayed a “little chart” that pointed out surviving Kyoto binding signatories only accounted for 28% of global emissions, as opposed to the more inclusive [but unbinding] Copenhagen Accord’s 80%)—and keep the pressure on China for “transparency”, instead of hassling the United States to commit to an emissions cap.
Wikileaks also revealed a sleazy campaign to browbeat dozens of smaller at-risk countries into “signing on” to the Copenhagen accord and and discuss tangible financial inducements, in return for their support.
Todd Stern went distinctly undiplomatic in his effort to neutralize the unfavorable effect of the Wikileak.
In an article entitled US envoy rejects suggestion that America bribed countries to sign up to the Copenhagen Accord, the Guardian reported:
Stern added: “We can eliminate any cause or accusation of bribery by eliminating any money.”
This case of affairs is bitterly ironic, since the “Copenhagen” model would require the at-risk developing countries to sacrifice their independent voices (through abandonment of the unanimous consensus system) and the moral and legal claims on developed countries that they enjoyed under Kyoto. The concrete business of climate change policy would shift to the “Major Economies Forum” and climate change financial assistance would be doled out by the donor countries according to their own priorities instead of collected and distributed by the UN in a spirit of equity.
As the Kyoto regime hollowed out, the United States also gave every appearance of slow-walking the negotiations with the PRC on “transparency”, the issue that the U.S. claimed was the vital precondition to the successful reform of the Kyoto regime—and the release of billions of aid.
Post-Copenhagen, the US and China have held continual meetings on MRV and it appears that there isn’t too much practical difference between the two sides.
The Guardian reported a WikiLeaks cable with this exchange between the EU’s top climate change official and the lead US negotiator:
[Connie] Hedegaard asks why the US did not agree with China and India on what she saw as acceptable measures to police future emissions cuts. “The question is whether they will honour that language,” the cable quotes [Jonathan] Pershing as saying.
Given the lack of US domestic progress on climate change legislation, at the 2010 Cancun conference the “blame China” dog showed signs of not hunting anymore, as the New York Times reported:
Yet while the United States is casting China as the linchpin of the negotiations, there is anger aplenty at America inside the Moon Palace resort where talks are being held. Many say the United States is demanding compromise from others while bringing nothing to the negotiating table itself.
“I’m actually more concerned about the US’s transparency,” said Jennifer Morgan, who heads the World Resources Institute’s climate and energy program.
One leading US analyst said every time countries make progress on an issue, the United States reminds countries that it might all mean nothing unless China agrees to transparency rules.
“The US is the problem here,” the analyst said. “Everybody is so pissed off. Here we are with nothing back home, and acting like bullies.”
On December 8, 2012, at yet another conference in Doha, in another exercise in “kicking the can down the road as far as we can before the asphalt melts in the heat”, the Kyoto regime was extended to 2020 and everybody agreed to negotiate a replacement regime in 2015–at the cost of the withdrawal of staunch US allies Japan and Canada, and (because of its dislike of tougher offset standards) Russia.
Signatories still accepting binding targets are basically the EU plus Australia. Now advocates of the Copenhagen Accord can claim that Kyoto, governing only 15% of world greenhouse gases post-Doha, is not significantly better than Copenhagen (zero % binding). At the same time, the US and EU refused to make inconvenient commitments for climate change aid to at risk nations beyond the $30 billion in immediate aid they promised at Copenhagen.
And, in another indications of the problems inherent in the US strategy, America, not China, was putting in time in the climate change doghouse, at least with Friends of the Earth:
“Doha was a disaster zone where poor developing countries were forced to capitulate to the interests of wealthy countries, effectively condemning their own citizens to the climate crisis. The blame for the disaster in Doha can be laid squarely at the foot of countries like the USA who have blocked and bullied those who are serious about tackling climate change.
A few observations on Hard Choices:
Clinton’s strategy of advancing US policies (or obscuring their failures) by sticking it to the unpopular and autocratic Chinese regime—through a surprise attack with careful advance planning in an advantageous multilateral forum–was fully formed in December 2009 at Copenhagen, long before the “freedom of navigation” contretemps at ASEAN’s Hanoi meeting in mid-2010.
By laying down her rather skewed version of what went down at Copenhagen, Clinton is signaling that she wants her readout of the Copenhagen outcome—Kyoto superseded, all caps to be renegotiated on a nonbinding basis with transparency on offsets a prerequisite– to be regarded as the anchor for further negotiations. As a practical matter, that means that major, costly joint global action on climate change looks pretty unlikely.
Message to Xie Zhenhua: Suck. On. This.
Deciding to treat China as an enemy is a clever tactic and good politics, but I think it’s a strategic blunder whose cost Americans will pay in matters great and small for decades.
And on the subject of climate change, going adversarial with China and Kyoto might turn out to be an existential blunder that will help decide the fate of the whole planet.
So that’s where we are, Ms. Clinton.
Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the exposure of sailors on board the USS Reagan to radioactive fallout from Fukushima in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.