They gathered in July at the incongruously named Commune by the Great Wall, a high-concept luxury hotel nestled in China's Badaling mountains.
For two days, the secluded group of top U.S. and Chinese officials -- including one member of the Bush administration and a handful of now high-level Obama advisers -- worked out climate change policy. Participants yesterday said the off-the-record sessions broke new ground and may have laid the foundation for new cooperation between the world's two largest emitters on the thorny matter of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
"It convinced people in both countries that there was a new spirit of willingness to work this out," said William Chandler, director of the climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Chandler and officials with the Chinese nonprofit Global Environmental Institute spearheaded the talks, which first were reported yesterday in the London Guardian and were billed as "secret backchannel negotiations."
While hardly akin to the secret trip to China that Henry Kissinger made when he was President Nixon's national security adviser, the climate meeting -- which included White House science adviser John Holdren and former Undersecretary of State Frank Loy -- was not heavily advertised, and the group did not issue any statements when it returned. Together, the group members consented to the "Chatham House Rule," under which they agreed they could repeat generally what was discussed, but not identify who said what.
"What it didn't have was a published outcome. That was not the point," Loy said.
Away from the bustle and traffic of Beijing, with a private trail leading to the Great Wall, Chandler and two others who participated in the meetings said they held long, in-depth conversations with Xie Zhenhua, China's chief delegate to the U.N. climate negotiations, and officials from China's foreign affairs ministry.
Departing from the traditional negotiating lines
In addition to Holdren, Loy and Chandler, the U.S. delegation included Taiya Smith, a top aide to former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson; Terry Tamminen, an environmental adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R); and Jim Green, an adviser to now-Vice President Joeseph Biden, who at the time led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mark Helmke, a top aide to Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the panel's ranking Republican, said he was invited but could not attend the meetings.
Chandler said the July talks started out on a rocky footing, particularly when Loy opened with what Chandler described as the traditional U.S. negotiating line that climate activists liken to a "suicide pact."
The United States and China, which together account for about 47 percent of global emissions, have long been at loggerheads over how to reduce emissions. For years, the debate essentially boiled down to each country pushing the other to act first.
"Frank was pushing Xie on 'What can you guys really commit to?'" Chandler recalled. He said Loy, who at the time was advising then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, told Xie, "If we're elected, we're going to take action. But first we need to know what you can do."
Xie, in turn, rattled off China's long-held negotiating position: that the United States has a historic responsibility to reduce emissions, and that China as a developing country should not be expected to halt its economic growth.
"It was just like punching a tape recorder," Chandler said of Xie's well-worn comments. But just a few minutes into the spiel, he said, the Chinese negotiator stopped and said the group needed to go beyond the rhetoric.
"Everybody's shoulders kind of eased back, and we started talking about what we can do to make a difference," Chandler said.
A better awareness of China's low-carbon ambitions
Loy said the group was able to delve into the positions of both countries and gain better understandings about the political realities both countries face. Yet as to reaching a global deal in Copenhagen, Loy said, little progress was made.
"There were things that we learned, but it wasn't a totally radical or surprising conversation. We knew a great deal about China's views before," he said. The discussions were "more informal and occasionally more substantive and frank, but Mr. Xie is a cautious person."
Loy said what he did come away with was a much greater understanding and appreciation of China's ambitious energy efficiency and renewable energy plans.
"I became persuaded that China really has made a decision internally to become or seek to become a low-carbon economy," he said.
Smith, who had been working under Paulson on the Strategic Economic Dialogue between the United States and China, agreed. She recalled one particularly startling response to a comment she made expressing an interest in discussing "smart buildings" that use sophisticated technology to save energy.
A search for common projects
Officials with China's ministry of construction, Smith said, told her, "That's great. I want to talk about smart buildings, too, but we're building smart blocks."
Smith said she believes the meetings broke new ground, but "not in a concrete way." Rather, she said, she believes the discussions created new room for the United States and China to cooperate, particularly on technology.
"When you really sit down and take the time to understand what the Chinese government is doing, it's really impressive," she said.
China is going to be a key focus for lawmakers and the Obama administration in the coming months, particularly as the United Nations barrels toward completing negotiations on an international treaty in December.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is planning a trip on climate issues, as is Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.). A State Department spokesman yesterday said U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern is planning a China trip, possibly in June after the next meeting of the Major Economies Forum.
Chandler said he would like to see a strong framework outlining efficiency initiatives and some limited research and development areas like carbon capture and storage or fuel economy where the United States and China can work together. But, he said, he worries that although he sees a wide opening for cooperation, neither country is moving fast enough.
"I'm not questioning the commitment of the Obama administration," Chandler said. "But I don't see yet actual barriers being lifted or money being spent."