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How the US Undermined the Copenhagen Climate Summit

Today the IPCC revealed its latest information on how human emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting planet Earth, and will continue to do so way into the future.

The diagnosis, and the prognosis, both make terrifying reading. We can expect declining crop yields, increasing climate instability, more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, ocean acidification – and all the rest of it.

But what really matters is what, if anything, we do about it. And despite the increasing certainty that the world is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, there is precious little chance that the world’s governments will suddenly do anything effective.

Last time it seriously tried, at Copenhagen in 2009, that attempt was spectacularly blown out of the water. Today we ask – how, why, and who did it?

What really happened at Copenhagen?

The 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen was promoted as being the world’s ‘great hope’ to secure an international agreement to tackle climate change.

Most countries entered into the negotiations with immense goodwill – even though there were always going to be thorny, complex issues to tackle, such as: how emissions cuts were to be divided up among countries; and how much money rich countries would pay over to poor countries suffering the impacts of climate change to help them adapt and move to low carbon development pathways.

But the hope did not last long. As The Guardian‘s Environment Editor John Vidal commented on Democracy Now:

“Copenhagen was just a complete nightmare, a diplomatic meltdown, I think is the fairest way to say it, where you had countries accusing each other of genocide.

“You had a total failure of the diplomatic process, that text which was meant to enhance everybody and bring them together in fact did the absolute opposite, and it shattered the confidence and the trust between different countries.”

So what caused the meltdown?

The event that caused the initial breakdown in trust at Copenhagen was the leak of the so-called ‘Danish text‘ by The Guardian on 8th December – an outline agreed by several EU states. The US was deliberately kept out of the formulation of the text due to suspicions by Denmark and other countries that it would abuse the information.

As the newspaper reported in its lead news story of the day:

“The UN Copenhagen climate talks are in disarray today after developing countries reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN’s role in all future climate change negotiations.”

Among other measures, it proposed ending the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms, getting developing countries to agree to emissions cuts, and to weaken the role of the UNFCCC in taking negotiations forward and running climate financing arrangements.

The problem was how it happened

This is all controversial stuff – but then again, it was only a negotiating position that would be subject to change as the talks progressed.

Moreover the Danish text did not in truth contain much that developing countries might not reasonably have expected to be raised during the talks.

Indeed most developing countries would have been happy to negotiate over the proposals, giving and taking ground, reaching in the end a compromise agreement that would also include considerable funding for them to move to low carbon development paths and undertake adaptation.

The problem was rather the manner of its release – highly inflammatory given the extreme sensitivities of the issues it raised. It was surely intended for one purpose only: to scupper the talks before they had truly begun.

This is not to blame The Guardian – they are after all a newspaper and they pulled off an enviable journalistic ‘scoop’. In any case, even had they not published it, their source would have simply taken the story elsewhere.

A subsequent discovery: the NSA was spying

Thanks to the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, we now know that the US National Security Agency (NSA) gathered intelligence from key countries involved in the Copenhagen talks.

Snowden’s documents were published online on 30th January by Danish newspaper Information, which worked together with American journalist Laura Poitras.

The NSA documents show that the US monitored communications between countries before the summit, and planned to spy on the negotiations during the conference:

“While the outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference remains uncertain, signals intelligence will undoubtedly play a significant role in keeping our negotiators as well informed as possible throughout the 2-week event.”

The document was originally posted on an internal NSA website on 7th December 2009, the opening day of the summit. Some of the paragraphs of the document are classified as ‘TS’ (Top Secret), the highest level of classification in the United States.

Some of the top secret sections are marked ‘SI’ (Special Intelligence), which means data yielded by monitoring of electronic communications.

Did the deliberately NSA scupper progress?

There are very good reasons to believe that the failure of the Copenhagen talks was in part due to the Americans’ information war against other negotiators.

Sources from the Danish COP15 delegation said that during the negotiations, the Americans were often surprisingly well informed about confidential discussions. “I was often completely taken aback by what they knew”, an official from the Danish COP15 office told Information.

The NSA also knew of China’s efforts to line up its negotiating position with India. A report, already gathered before the summit,

“detailed China’s efforts to coordinate its position with India and ensure that the two leaders of the developing world are working towards the same outcome.”

The leaked document also suggests the NSA were spying on Denmark, the host country of the summit, and knew of the Danish text well in advance of its release to US negotiators, and of a Danish plan to “rescue” the talks if needs be:

“Another report provided advanced details of the Danish proposal and their efforts to launch a ‘rescue plan’ to save COP-15.”

Making China ‘lose face’

The undermining of China’s role in the negotiations was one of the main reasons for the failure of the talks. It is now appreciated that Chinese negotiators entered into the talks willing to undertake mandatory emissions cuts, as the de facto leader of the developing world.

This was even signalled shortly before the conference by China’s announcement that it would reduce the carbon intensity of its economy.

But to publicly adopt this new position was always going to require subtle and complex political engineering. It would need to do this as leader as group of other high emitting developing nations, especially high-emitting countries like India and Brazil.

And it would have to propose these cuts itself as a grand political and humanitarian gesture, so garnering worldwide political credit.

What would be totally unacceptable was to agree to take on emissions cuts at anyone else’s demand – and especially at the insistence of the US and the EU.

And of course: in return for voluntarily taking on mandatory emissions cuts, the developing countries would demand comparable gestures from the industrialised nations – both in cutting their own emissions and in committing substantial new funding for developing country adaptation and mitigation.

A price too high?

But was the price that China, India, Brazil and other countries would demand too high for the US and its enormous fossil fuel industry, which had already prevented the US from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol?

In the event the US worked assiduously at the conference to engineer a split in the developing country bloc of countries – a highly effective means to counter a Chinese proposal before it was even made.

This appears to have been part of a deliberate strategy to make China ‘lose face’ as its negotiating tactics were pre-emptively undermined.

And it worked. China emerged from the talks universally condemned as the ‘climate baddie’ – as eloquently expressed by the journalist Mark Lynas – again in The Guardian:

“What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal … “

But why did this adopt this curious stance? Was it out of fury and a desire for revenge after the US has succeeded, aided by its formidable intelligence effort, to undermine China, and leave it appearing weak, exposed and belligerent?

In the end the USA emerged the clear political victor. As Lynas noted, “I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying ‘no’, over and over again.” So Obama came out smelling of roses, while China was universally vilified.

Whodunnit?

Looking at the evidence as a whole there can be little doubt that the Copenhagen climate talks were deliberately and highly effectively scuppered by a ‘dirty tricks’ operation carried out by the NSA and other US security agencies – including the pivotal leak to The Guardian of the Danish text.

Following Snowden’s revelations, we know that they had the ability to do that in spades. They also had motives. The US wanted:

* to protect their politically powerful fossil fuel industries, and their right as a nation to carry on polluting;

* to avoid having to pay out billions of dollars in climate funding to developing countries;

* to deny China the global leadership role it sought to secure for itself, and instead leave it humiliated;

* to present the USA and its President Barack Obama as trying against the odds to secure a climate agreement, in the face of obdurate resistance by other countries.

The operation was, in other words, spectacularly successful. The rest of the world were played for suckers. China emerged with a bloody nose. And the US was free to carry on letting rip with its emissions.

Now, faced with the brutal reality of how the US scuppered Copenhagen, we must ask ourselves – how can dark powers such as these be overcome in the future, so that the world can secure the global climate agreement that we so desperately need?

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist, where this article originally appeared.

Additional reporting by Sophie Morlin-Yron.

More articles by:

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist, where this article originally appeared.

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