WikiLeaks Revelations Don't Shock Climatologists

For drama, the annual rite of climate talks that ended last week in Cancύn, Mexico, had nothing on the maneuvering that took place last year in Copenhagen, which failed to produce a binding international treaty to reduce greenhouse gases.  

That drama has been brought out into the open only now, by the unauthorized release of U.S. diplomatic communications through the website WikiLeaks.

Summaries of the leaked diplomatic cables, which appeared in two European publications on the last day of the Cancύn talks, paint a less-than-flattering picture of an American administration pushing for the less-restrictive Copenhagen Accord and the gritty deal-making behind it. The German publication Der Spiegel declared that the United States and China "joined forces to stymie every attempt by European nations to reach agreement." Meanwhile, an article in the British publication The Guardian describes the "mucky realpolitik" of Americans seeking "dirt" on nations opposed to the Copenhagen Accord, and talks of linking U.S. monetary aid to nations' support of the accord. [Top 10 Craziest Environmental Ideas]

No surprise

Instead of committing nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by certain levels, the Copenhagen Accord contained more-flexible pledges determined by individual nations. The WikiLeaks cables provide details of the goings-on leading up to this agreement — revelations that come as little surprise to those who follow international climate negotiations. Many observers met the new details with shrugs of distaste. 

"I am almost not surprised by anything that I hear from Copenhagen," said Elizabeth Malone, senior research scientist with the Joint Global Change Research Institute. "It's certainly not news that almost every country or small bloc of countries showed up with an agenda that prevented countries from reaching an agreement."

Nathan Hultman, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, agreed.

"Basically, I am not terribly surprised by what I have read here," said Hultman, who attended last year's talks in Copenhagen as well as the negotiations in Cancύn. "When I read these stories, I think they are making a bigger deal out of it than they maybe should be."

Referring to Der Spiegel's statement that the United States and China "colluded," Hultman said, "Countries talk to each other all the time." For instance, he said, the biggest emerging economies, a group called BASIC (for Brazil, South Africa, India and China), have common interests and communicate among themselves.

"You could say they coordinate or maybe they share information, but this is not scandalous, this is how negotiations work," Hultman said.

U.S. aid link

The summaries also reveal a link between U.S. financial assistance and support for the Copenhagen Accord.

The Maldives, a nation composed of many small islands that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, expressed eagerness to back the accord but asked for assistance, according to The Guardian. An American official is also quoted as saying the Alliance of Small Island States could be allies, given their need for financing.

While linking aid to political support is "a little bit questionable," this happens frequently in international political arenas, Hultman said. "It's already public knowledge that there was a little bit of deal-making shoring up the Copenhagen Accord," he said.

Science vs. politics

But to Rasmus Benestad, a senior researcher with the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the revelations showed a discrepancy in expectations between scientists and politicians.

In the wake of the scandal dubbed Climategate, in which private documents obtained by computer hackers fueled claims by global warming skeptics of scientific wrongdoing, there were calls for more transparency and openness among climate scientists, Benestad said.

But so far, it seems that standard has referred only to the scientific community. "When it came to diplomacy, and people making the real decisions, there were things happening behind the curtain and you didn't really see what is happening," Benestad told LiveScience.

There is a sharp distinction between climate science and politics, said Ken Caldeira, global ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University.

"There are climate-science deniers mostly because there are powerful groups whose interest it is to deny the science. The same is true for biological evolution," Caldeira wrote in an e-mail to LiveScience. "The rejection of climate science in some quarters of our political establishment saddens me, because it diminishes hope that our government can solve any important problem where understanding reality matters."

Benestad said he is excited to see what else comes out of the cables released through WikiLeaks. They may shed some light on whether the U.S. administration takes climate change seriously, he said.

In the future

The revelations do not bode well for future climate negotiations, said Niklas Höhne, director for energy and climate policy with the nongovernment organization Ecofys.

"Trust is very, very important, and a lot of trust was lost in Copenhagen, and it was slowly building up this year," Höhne, who both rounds of talks, said Dec. 10. The content of the cables, while not surprising, may erode some of that trust, he added.

News of the leaked cables may have affected the mood in Cancύn, but with talks ending that day, negotiators were focused on the substance of a potential agreement, he said.

"These climate negotiations are about much more than just climate. It is really world politics here," Höhne said.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.