U.S. at 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit: Spying and Lying While the Planet Burns

by Larry Everest | February 10, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


When Barack Obama won the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, he promised to "build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century," including global climate change. Fifteen months later, after being elected president, he had his chance at the December 2009 UN Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, with 195 nations in attendance. Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. had refused to sign the 2004 Kyoto Agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—the main driver of global warming. Many hoped Obama would change course and fight for a global climate agreement which would take significant steps to reduce global warming.

Were they ever wrong. We now learn that the U.S. unleashed its spy apparatus to make sure it had the upper hand at the climate talks—so that no agreement would be passed inhibiting U.S. global capital, or giving any other power a competitive economic or political edge.

On January 29, huffingtonpost.com reported that according to material leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) was intercepting and monitoring the "signals intelligence"—phone calls, texts, emails and other electronic communications—before and during the Copenhagen summit. "Top secret" internal NSA documents said:

  • "[L]eaders and negotiating teams from around the world will undoubtedly be engaging in intense last-minute policy formulating; at the same time, they will be holding sidebar discussions with their counterparts—details of which are of great interest to our policymakers."
  • In this light, NSA "signals intelligence will undoubtedly play a significant role in keeping our negotiators as well informed as possible throughout the 2-week event," including other countries' "preparations and goals."
  • Memos "provided advance details of the Danish proposal and their efforts to launch a 'rescue plan' to save COP-15," as well as "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."

Did the U.S. spy on a climate conference so they could anticipate moves by other countries and head off efforts to sabotage the talks? So they could put added pressure on other governments to strengthen an agreement to cut global warming and protect the planet? No!

Climate scientists had argued that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions were needed to slow global warming, for instance 25-40 percent cuts by industrialized countries from 1990 levels. Yet at Copenhagen the Obama administration proposed only 4-6 percent reductions in CO2 (a key greenhouse gas) emissions and insisted it would not sign any binding Kyoto-style agreement. This, despite the fact that over the past decades, the U.S. has been responsible for more carbon emissions than any other country. (China has now overtaken the U.S. as the world's greatest polluter on a yearly basis.)

The leaked NSA documents point to two major U.S. concerns. First, a Danish proposal (deliberately kept secret by the Danish government) was more ambitious than anything the U.S. was willing to sign. Obama may have been concerned it might put the U.S. in an economically disadvantageous and politically embarrassing position. So this became a focus of U.S. spying. One Danish official said the spying may have given the U.S. a "huge advantage" going into the conference and in the negotiations there.

The NSA documents also show the U.S. was concerned that China would team up with India (and perhaps other countries) to demand the U.S. and other Western powers assume a larger environmental burden, given their wealth and far greater historical contribution to global warming. The Danish newspaper Information (January 30) concluded that the leaked NSA document "suggests that the NSA's ... focus in relation to climate change was spying on other countries to collect intelligence that would support American interests, rather than preventing future climate catastrophes."

For the U.S., Copenhagen was never about protecting the climate and humanity's future—it was about gaining ground in U.S. global capital's raw, expand-or-die competitive battle with its rivals and competitors, while preserving a fig leaf of "concern" about the environment which is critical to the U.S.'s global and domestic legitimacy.

As Raymond Lotta points out, global climate summits like Copenhagen cannot be understood "outside the framework of the drive for profit and intense competition and rivalry at the enterprise, sectoral, and national-state levels in the world economy and imperialist interstate system." Lotta writes, "The most salient characteristic of recent climate negotiations is the fact that they have been sites of intense rivalry among the 'great powers'—on the one hand, unwilling and unable to make any substantive moves away from reliance on fossil fuels; and, on the other, pressing climate-change adaptation into the tool-box of competitive positioning (the Europeans and the Chinese, for instance, having advantage in certain renewable energy technologies)." ("Climate Negotiations and 'Big Power' Rivalry," November 25, 2013)

The only thing that ended up coming out of Copenhagen was a last-minute agreement brokered by Obama that did nothing to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, while being portrayed as a major breakthrough. This was worse than nothing coming out of Copenhagen, because it deluded people into thinking progress was being made and there was still hope in relying on the U.S. (See "Copenhagen Climate Summit Accord: A Crime Against the Planet," January 10, 2010, revcom.us.)

The planet is increasingly in peril. A new draft report from the UN's panel of climate scientists—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—finds that "Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising," that "another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies," and that "it is not clear whether such technologies will ever exist at the necessary scale." ("U.N. Says Lag in Confronting Climate Woes Will Be Costly," New York Times, January 16, 2014)

From Obama on down, the rulers of the U.S. say that the government's massive spying and data collection operation is about the "national security" of the United States. Why does this "national security" dictate massive spying on an environmental summit (and the many other outrages the U.S. commits around the world and against the planet)? They're talking about the "national security" of the world's dominant imperialist nation, and telling us that they're compelled to lie and spy to protect those interests. What does this say about the nature and legitimacy of such a system, whether humanity can continue tolerating such a system, and what it's actually going to take to rid the planet of it?

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