Climate: The Shadow of Wikileaks at Cancún

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It happens at nearly every international climate summit. Usually about halfway through the two-week long summits, there will be an outcry about “secret” texts being negotiated in secret by the big countries of the world, dealing over the heads of poorer and smaller nations—which happen to be the ones that will be hit hardest by climate change. It happened last year in Copenhagen, bringing negotiations to a standstill, and it happened briefly again here in Cancún—though the fact that the proceedings are being run by Mexico, a country that straddles the developed and developing world, helped quash those rumors.

But the fear that big players are pulling backroom deals on climate change never goes away, and a recent batch of cables released by WikiLeaks has only deepened it. Over the past several days the Guardian reported on a number of confidential cables that touched on last year’s sensitive climate negotiations, and which show that behind the scenes the U.S. was working both the European Union and some smaller developing countries hard to support the Copenhagen Accord, the political agreement President Obama helped broker at the last minute in 2009. Among the nuggets covered—or uncovered—in the cables:

  • In a request originating with the CIA, the State Department in July 2009 sent a cable seeking human intelligence on U.N. diplomats, including ones involved in climate change. But the potential intelligence gathering wasn’t one way—in another cable, the State Department reported a “spear phishing” email attack on the office of U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern while he was in Beijing.
  • On February 23, 2010, the ambassador-designate of the Maldives—a tiny island country in the Indian Ocean that is severely threatened by rising seas—spoke to U.S. deputy climate change Jonathan Pershing that his nation wanted “tangible assistance” to help support the Copenhagen Accord and encourage other developing nations to support it as well. The ambassador-designate ended up referring to projects worth some $50 million.
  • On February 11 of that year, Pershing met with Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s climate commissioner. Hedegaard told Pershing that the small island states (such as the Maldives) could be an effective ally for pushing developing nations to accept the Copenhagen Accord because they were in such dire need for climate finance. Hedegaard also noted that she was concerned about the $30 billion in fast-track climate financing that had been promised at Copenhagen, and wondered whether the U.S. would try to use loan guarantees for part of the money, rather than outright grants. For his part, Pershing said that “donors have to balance the political need to provide real financing with the practical constraints of tight budgets.” (In response, Hedegaard has called the cables one-sided.)
  • Separate from the climate negotiations, another leaked cable from September 2008 showed that the U.S. was working actively to prevent the election of n  Iranian scientist to prominent position in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and contacted IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri to pressure him to oppose the appointment. After the Guardian published the cable, Pachauri denied the claim.

Some of the developing nations that have long harbored distrust of the U.S. both in the climate negotiations and beyond have seized on the cables—in particular Bolivia, which has emerged as a potential roadblock to an agreement (or a brave spokesperson for the victims of climate change, depending on your perspective). Bolivian U.N. ambassador Pablo Solon told reporters earlier this week:

We have always voiced throughout these years the pressures of the blackmail by the administration of the U.S… WikiLeaks just confirms that. [The U.S.] uses mechanisms to force others to accept its position [on warming].

The U.S. hasn’t had much response to the climate cables, although earlier in the summit Todd Stern noted that developing countries can’t really accuse the U.S. of bribery given the fact that requests for climate financing were a key part of the Copenhagen negotiations:

I mean, if you want to accuse us of bribery then you know, you don’t need to, we can eliminate any cause for accusations of bribery by eliminating any money.

It’s a glib response, but it’s one that cuts to the heart of the odd division at the heart of climate talks, which I wrote about earlier today. On one hand it’s not hyperbolic to suggest that the fate of the world is at stake in these talks, and in the entire global approach to climate change. This isn’t just a discussion over lowering tariff rates or securing a better trade deal for widgets—this is the future of humanity.

On the other hand, these are negotiations, and in negotiations parties work hard to get the best deal they can. “People pretend this is not a negotiation,” says Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Of course this is a negotiating.” The U.S. is negotiating hard in public here in Cancún, where Stern has held out for what he calls a “balanced set of decisions” that requires progress on all fronts, not just on the areas—like forests—that are closest to agreement. And you can bet the U.S.—and China, and the E.U., and other countries—are using what leverage they can behind the scenes. If that’s “manipulation,” as the Guardian put it, well, nearly all negotiations would seem to qualify for the term. If it seems particularly striking over the climate talks, that’s just because the gap between lofty rhetoric and grubby action is further apart when it comes to global warming then just about anything else. (And, as Michael Levi points out, if you can’t have at least some confidential talks, you can forget about ever forging a real climate deal.)

In any case, it doesn’t seem now that WikiLeaks has had much lasting impact on the Cancún talks, which are still touch and go on Thursday evening. The credit for that may go not to the U.S., but to the host country Mexico, which has gone out of its way to ensure that all nations at the summit feel represented fairly. “We know there were low expectations going into Cancún, but we feel there is a positive attitude for all the countries here,” Mexican Environment Minister Juan Rafael Elvira told me earlier today. “We need to go back to our countries with something valuable.” There’s no way of hiding that.