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 Denmark.
"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 decade.
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, climate 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."