How the U.S. Derails Climate Negotiations: A WikiLeaks Primer

Those leaked diplomatic cables paint a brand new picture of last year’s Copenhagen climate summit. The Obama administration does not come off as a hero in the fight against global warming.



Another troubling subplot has emerged from the trove of diplomatic cables that journalists have been poring through. This time it’s the United States’ less-than-heroic role in last year’s Copenhagen climate change summit, which was widely viewed as a failure for the toothless Copenhagen Accord that resulted. Since this is the last day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, it seems a good time to walk through the way promising climate negotiations get deliberately derailed.

1. Collude with China.

In May of 2009, Senator John Kerry met with China’s Deputy Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Beijing, reports Der Spiegel. Kerry told Keqiang that Washington understood China’s “resistance to accepting mandatory targets at the United Nations Climate Conference” coming up in Copenhagen. A cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Beijing reported that Kerry outlined “a new basis for ‘major cooperation’ between the United States and China on climate change.” A secret alliance between the two countries had been suspected by many; the cables appear to verify it.

2. Make offers poor nations can’t refuse.

Small island states like the Maldives have the most to lose from climate change (it’s why they make poster children for the cause). They also tend to be rather poor. The cables reveal that the U.S. made an offer the Maldives couldn’t refuse: millions of dollars of aid, apparently in exchange for compliance with the U.S.’s wishes at Copenhagen. U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing told the Maldives’ ambassador to name a number. “Other nations would then come to realize that there are advantages to be gained by compliance,”went the thinking in a U.S. memo spotted by Der Spiegel.

3. If they do refuse, punish them.


Countries that didn’t comply didn’t get the same aid. When Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman recently asked another U.S. climate negotiator why Bolivia and Ecuador were “punished” for not signing the watered-down climate accord, the response was, “Let’s go to the next question.”

4. Send your diplomats on PR blitzes.

In September 2009, the State Department told its embassies in Europe to go on what Der Spiegel characterizes as “a kind of PR campaign,” going after governments, the press, NGOs, and “other opinion leaders,” according to one document. Diplomats were directed to harp on one talking point: that “Obama is taking the United States in a new direction in the fight against climate change.”

5. Have fun with numbers.

In discussing aid to small island states, EU climate action commissioner asked Pershing if the U.S. would need to do “creative accounting,” or whether the islands could count on aid being strictly in cash. Pershing responded: “Donors have to balance the political need to provide real financing with the practical constraints of tight budgets,” according to one cable analyzed by The Guardian. Europeans were also skeptical of Obama’s claims of commitment to a 17% reduction in emissions–since Obama used 2005 as a baseline, rather than 1990, the European standard.

6. Rinse and repeat?


With the current climate summit in Cancun on track to be a similar anti-climax, who knows what intrigue, double-dealing, horse-trading, and other unsavory tactics the U.S. might be up to. We’ll have to wait for next year’s WikiLeaks to find out.

[Images: Flickr users John-Morgan, marckjerland]


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.