Copenhagen Climate Cables: The US and China Joined Forces Against Europe

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Last year's climate summit in Copenhagen was a political disaster. Leaked US diplomatic cables now show why the summit failed so spectacularly. The dispatches reveal that the US and China, the world's top two polluters, joined forces to stymie every attempt by European nations to reach agreement.

US President Barack Obama with European leaders at the Copenhagen talks. Zoom
AFP/ Bundesregierung

US President Barack Obama with European leaders at the Copenhagen talks.

In May 2009 the Chinese leaders received a very welcome guest. John Kerry, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, met with Deputy Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Beijing. Kerry told his hosts that Washington could understand "China's resistance to accepting mandatory targets at the United Nations Climate Conference, which will take place in Copenhagen."

According to a cable from the US embassy in the Chinese capital, Kerry outlined "a new basis for 'major cooperation' between the United States and China on climate change."

At that time, many Europeans were hoping the delegates at the Copenhagen summit would agree climate-change measures that could save the planet from the cumulative effects of global warming. But that dream died pitifully in mid-December 2009, and the world leaders went their separate ways again without any concrete achievements. Confidential US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks now show just how closely the world's biggest polluters -- the United States and China -- colluded in the months leading up to the conference. And they give weight to those who have long suspected that the two countries secretly formed an alliance.

The cooperation began under the last US president, George W. Bush. In 2007 Bush's senior climate negotiator, Harlan Watson, organized a 10-year framework agreement with China on cooperation on energy and the environment. The two countries also agreed to hold a "Strategic and Economic Dialogue" -- backroom talks that neither the Americans nor the Chinese were willing to admit to at first.

China and the US Continue Polluting

Bush's successor, President Barack Obama, and the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, continued this dialogue. During Clinton's inaugural visit to China, Beijing agreed to the formation of a "new partnership on energy and climate change," according to a US embassy dispatch dated May 15, 2009. Here too the aim was to ensure the outcome of the climate talks in Copenhagen would be favorable to Washington and Beijing.

But was it really favorable for the two countries? Both had previously managed to avoid committing to serious reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, signed at the climate summit that preceded Copenhagen in 1997, distinguished between industrialized nations, which were to reduce their emissions, and developing countries -- including economic powerhouse China -- which could basically continue releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without restrictions. "Joint, but differentiated responsibility," was the principle upon which the Kyoto Protocol was based.

Although the US signed the protocol, it never ratified it. As such, the Chinese and the Americans can continue polluting at will. Meanwhile European nations will have to cut their energy consumption. They, therefore, fought for a new agreement in Copenhagen, one that would tie the United States, China and newly-industrialized nations India and Brazil to specific emission-reduction targets.

'Working Hard at Cutting Emissions'

During his visit to China, Senator Kerry, a former presidential candidate for the Democrats, told the Beijing leadership that the Europeans were determined to push through their goal for agreement on concrete cuts in emissions for the US and other industrialized countries. However, nothing would change for China. Together with the other "developing countries" the Chinese would merely have to say they would "work hard to reduce emissions."

A "scenesetter" drawn up for Kerry by American embassy officials estimated China would invest "$175 billion in environmental protection in the next five years" and that US companies were well positioned to benefit handsomely from this investment. "Westinghouse, for example, estimates that several thousand US-based jobs are retained every time China orders another nuclear reactor from them," the paper claimed.

A note from the US ambassador in Canberra, Australia, showed that the Europeans were well aware of the close relationship between China and the United States.

The memo summarizes a conversation between an embassy employee and an Australian climate negotiator, who reported on a preparatory meeting for the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy. He said the other delegations "including the EU" had noticed the "visibly more comfortable" interaction between the US and China. The Australian said the Europeans' observations led them to doubt whether they could get their climate-change measures approved.

The Germans Complained

In September 2009 the US State Department ordered its European embassies to launch a kind of PR campaign. This was to be targeted primarily at governments, but also to "the press, NGOs … and other opinion leaders." The diplomats were to explain that "Obama is taking the United States in a new direction in the fight against climate change" and that he wanted a decisive 17-percent cut in greenhouse gases.

However, the Europeans suspected that Washington was playing with numbers by using the year 2005 as their baseline rather than 1990, which European figures were based on. Nevertheless embassy staff tried to convince the skeptical Europeans that the US government's targets "are consistent with keeping the increase in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius."

When the leaders and representatives of 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen last December, everyone was talking about an agreement. However, at the decisive moment Europe's politicians were forced to stand by helplessly while China, India, South Africa and Brazil met in a hotel room and took matters into their own hands. They took the draft Copenhagen agreement and struck off all binding obligations. Later on the plotters were joined by Barack Obama. The outcome of this paring-down is now known as the "Copenhagen Accord." In international negotiations, this vague draft resolution now stands alongside the specific plan demanded by the Europeans.

A month after the Copenhagen debacle, German negotiators complained bitterly to the Americans. They said the "Europeans were unhappy that they had not been included in important negotiations between the US and China."

US Dangled Carrot in Front of Developing Nations

In contrast to the apathy that befell the Europeans after the summit, US climate negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, went to great lengths to shore up his country's advantage. He and his emissaries offered carrots in the form of development aid to poorer nations in particular to get them to agree to the "Copenhagen Accord."

For example, Pershing more-or-less forced an ambassador from the Maldives to take millions of dollars in assistance. He said the ambassador should simply state exactly how much his Indian Ocean archipelago needed. This, Pershing claimed, would increase "the likelihood" that Congress would quickly approve the funds. "Other nations would then come to realize that there are advantages to be gained by compliance," a US memo noted.

To help convey the message to developing nations, the Maldivian ambassador suggested President Obama come to the islands to give a speech on the issue. After all, the ambassador reasoned, the Maldives would form "a dramatic backdrop" against which to talk about environmental challenges.

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Reaction from the US Government
In a statement, the White House has condemned the publication of "private diplomatic discussions" with foreign governments by SPIEGEL and four other international media on Sunday. Click on the link below to read the statement in full.
White House Statement
We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.

By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.

To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.

By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.


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