U.S. Pressured Saudis to Accept Climate Change Agreement

Leaked Cables Show U.S. Pressured Saudis to Accept Copenhagen Accord

The handful of climate-related cables–among the

hundreds of thousands of secret and unclassified messages released by
the whistle-blower organization Wikileaks–show the United States put
climate change at the center of its foreign policy relationship with the
oil-producing giant

By Lisa Friedman and Climatewire

Obama administration leaned heavily on Saudi Arabia to associate itself
with the Copenhagen Accord climate change agreement, confidential State
Department memos show.

Image: Pete Souza, courtesy whitehouse.gov

The Obama administration leaned heavily on Saudi Arabia to
associate itself with the Copenhagen Accord climate change agreement,
confidential State Department memos show.

The handful of climate-related cables — among the hundreds of thousands
of secret and unclassified messages released by the whistle-blower
organization Wikileaks — show the United States put climate change at
the center of its foreign policy relationship with the oil-producing
giant in the months after last year’s blowout U.N. climate summit in

“You have the opportunity to head off a serious clash over climate
change,” James Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote to
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as she prepared for a February
visit to the kingdom.

“Saudi officials are very concerned that a climate change treaty would
significantly reduce their income just as they face significant costs to
diversify their economy,” Smith wrote. “The King is particularly
sensitive to avoid Saudi Arabia being singled out as the bad actor,
particularly on environmental issues.”

And in a memo summarizing the trip of Assistant Secretary of State for
Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman to Saudi Arabia in January, Smith
wrote that Feltman urged the country to send a formal notice to the
United Nations indicating its acceptance of the climate pact.

“A/S Feltman noted the importance that the President places on climate
change, and the Copenhagen Accord,” Smith wrote. “Given that Minister of
Petroleum Al-Naimi was involved in crafting the final agreement, A/S
Feltman noted the United States is counting on Saudi Arabia to associate
itself with the accord by January 31.”

Saudi leaders were noncommittal, according to the cable, noting that the
country’s ministries would need to consult on the topic.

A push for information on key negotiators

The memos come as international climate talks kick off in Cancun,
Mexico. This year, the focus of the United States is to nail down the
agreements that President Obama and other world leaders made in
Copenhagen and to devise a set of formal decisions setting in motion
emission cuts and the mobilization of funding for poor countries that so
far has been agreed to in principle.

The vast majority of the leaked cables deal with Iran’s nuclear program
and other diplomatic issues. But the handful of times that climate
change is raised, it appears as a front-burner Obama administration
issue, a ClimateWire review of the cables found. They provide new
insight into the behind-the-scenes discussions leading up to Copenhagen
and the focus of the administration after the meeting.

In the months before Copenhagen, the summit was listed as a “substantive
issue” about which diplomats were directed to gather information. One
memo getting a lot of attention asks U.S. envoys at the United Nations
and elsewhere to procure credit card and frequent flier numbers as well
as other biographical data. In that same document, diplomats are
instructed to relate “perceptions of key negotiators on U.S. positions
in environmental negotiations” and indications about how cooperative
countries may be.

The document also asks diplomats to be on the lookout for information
about whether countries adhere to their own environmental programs and
laws, and any “efforts by treaty secretariats to influence treaty
negotiations or compliance.”

China makes a brief appearance in the cables. After a meeting of G-5
ambassadors in Beijing in May, acting Deputy Chief of Mission William
Weinstein relayed to Washington that U.K. and Chinese officials
discussed the then-upcoming Copenhagen talks.

“In the lead up to Copenhagen, China would not agree to targets on
emissions, but was willing to be constructive and would come to
Copenhagen with a package of action items related to nuclear power,
renewable energy and reforestation,” Weinstein wrote, adding that the
U.K. diplomat added that “his impression was that China could be induced
to do more on climate change.”

Indeed, by the time nations met in Copenhagen, China had pledged to cut
its carbon intensity about 45 percent below 2005 levels in the next

Warning signals about skeptics in France
U.S. European envoys sent up warning flares early last year about both
the U.S. political landscape and prospects for Copenhagen. In a memo
called “Scenesetter,” as Secretary Clinton prepared for a trip to France
late last year, U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin included the
heading, “An urgent focus on climate change.”

In it, he wrote, “The French remain divided on how to respond to the Obama administration’s approaches to climate change.”

At the time, the U.S. House had passed legislation to cut carbon
emissions about 17 percent below 2005 levels in the next decade — a
target that much of Europe considered pitifully low. The Senate later
failed to pass any climate bill, and cap-and-trade legislation is these
days considered dead for the foreseeable future.

According to the November 2009 cable, though, French analysts were early
in recognizing a difficult U.S. political horizon, and American
officials worked hard to stamp out concerns about the strength of the
Obama administration’s commitment to climate action.

“Even sophisticated observers are skeptical that long-term reduction
goals legislated in the United States can be counted on as more than
aspirations, especially if radical cuts are not imposed up front,”
Rivkin wrote. “We have reiterated that U.S. laws are reliably enforced
by the federal government and by U.S. courts, using the Clean Air Act as
an example.”

Rivkin also said that officials in France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs
took exception to a comment that Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo
made criticizing the U.S. House measure, and described the minister’s
comments as “distracting attention from the need for China and India to
reduce their rates of growth of GHG.”

Germans lowered expectations before Copenhagen
And as Clinton arrived in Germany to celebrate the 20th anniversary of
the fall of the Berlin Wall in early December, clim
ate change was also
high on the agenda. According to the Nov. 5, 2009, cable, German
officials wanted “strong U.S. leadership” going into the Copenhagen
summit and advocated for a common position toward major emerging
economies, particularly China and India.

That missive also gave early glimpses of the early efforts to try to
dampen sky-high expectations for that meeting — because of the unlikely
possibility of U.S. action.

“German leaders recognize the challenge of passing climate change
legislation in the U.S. and have lowered their expectations for the
possibility of reaching a legally-binding agreement next month at
Copenhagen,” the cable notes. “They have begun to describe the summit as
one step in a larger process — a politically binding framework — and
may be preparing the German public for a less ambitious outcome.”

Analysts said the Saudi memos, in particular, show the lengths the Obama
administration went to in order to sway a fierce opponent of
international climate action. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil
producer, has a long tradition of blocking movement in the U.N. climate
talks. It and other oil-producing nations have, among other things,
claimed a need for adaptation funding — normally reserved for the poor
nations that have done little to cause climate change but are bearing
the brunt of weather disasters and other problems — because of rising sea levels that threaten offshore oil rigs.

After the Copenhagen summit, Saudi officials expressed “satisfaction”
with the political agreement. But so far, the country has not formally
associated itself with the agreement.

Nevertheless, said World Resources Institute Climate Director Jennifer
Morgan, the cables are “a sign, to me, that the administration is
serious about climate change, and serious about it as a foreign policy
topic if it is raising it with one of its partners who takes a different
position with the U.S.”

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