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Guardian Environment Editor John Vidal on WikiLeaks Cables and U.S. Manipulation of Climate Talks

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John Vidal, the environment editor for The Guardian of London, is in Cancún after reporting on the Copenhagen summit a year ago. The Guardian is one the five news outlets to receive the massive trove of WikiLeaks cables ahead of time and has been publishing new revelations every day. We speak to Vidal about the latest diplomatic cables on the U.S. manipulation of the climate talks. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryDec 07, 2010U.S. Climate Envoy Refuses to Answer Democracy Now!'s Questions on WikiLeaks Cables' Account of Summit Manipulation
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Mexico. Here in Cancún, WikiLeaks is also a hot topic after secret diplomatic cables published by the whistleblowing group revealed new details about how the United States manipulated last year’s climate talks in Copenhagen. The Guardian newspaper reported the cables provide evidence that spying, threats and promises of aid formed part of the U.S. diplomatic offensive to shore up the controversial Copenhagen Accord.

One striking example was the case of the Maldives, which was one of the fiercest critics advocating for a robust climate treaty. The cables reveal that in February, two months after the Copenhagen talks, the U.S. deputy climate change envoy, Jonathan Pershing, met the European Union climate action commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, in Brussels, where she told him, quote, “the Alliance of Small Island States countries 'could be our best allies' given their need for financing.” The cables show talks between officials between the Maldives and the U.S. referring to several projects costing approximately $50 million. The Maldives has since wholeheartedly embraced the Copenhagen Accord.

The cables also reveal Hedegaard and Pershing also discussed the issue of “fast-start” funding where the Copenhagen Accord had promised $30 billion in aid for the poorest nations hit by global warming they had not caused. Hedegaard reportedly asked if the U.S. would need to do any “creative accounting” in funding aid pledges.

E.U. climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard held a news conference yesterday here in Cancún, so I had a chance to ask her about the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about the U.S. State Department cable documenting your conversation with Jonathan Pershing that was released by WikiLeaks about the — how the Alliance of Small Island States could be, you said, “our best allies” given their need for financing. This was a conversation you had in February. This is what’s leading many to say you’re talking about blackmail. So you have countries like Maldives, who are fierce critics in Copenhagen, turning around and signing on to the accord when they get tens of millions of dollars from the United States. You also talked about “creative accounting.” Can you explain this conversation?

CONNIE HEDEGAARD: I can only say that what I could read also, and that is a one-sided and selective report of what that conversation was all about. I think that one of the things we have done from the European Union is to try to do a lot of outreach to some of the least developed countries, some of the most vulnerable countries, and for many good reasons, we want to work very much with them. For instance, I went myself this spring to the Maldives to discuss with the Maldives exactly what could be the way forward. A lot of constructive countries, we have been working with them, others we have been working with them, and our conversations definitely is not just about financing.

I’m not going into a lot of detailed things about these WikiLeak documents. You can imagine that there is a conversation. Some of it is sort of reported back home by the one side, but all the elements from the other side is not there, so it makes not a lot of sense to go in and argue a lot about what is in and what is not in. The fact is that we have done a lot of outreach with developing countries, the most vulnerable countries. We are delivering on our financial pledges. And we all know that this is very important also to the credibility of the developed countries here in Cancún.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s European Union climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard. I put a similar question to U.S. special climate change envoy Todd Stern and his deputy envoy, Jonathan Pershing. They held a news conference right after Hedegaard. Todd Stern answered.

AMY GOODMAN: A question about the WikiLeaks documents, the U.S. State Department cables, for example, the one in February of this year, the meeting between you, Jonathan Pershing, and the European commissioner on climate change, Hedegaard, talking about especially the Alliance of Small Island States, that they could be the “best allies” on the Copenhagen Accord, given their need for financing, and then Maldives getting millions of dollars. There’s a great deal of discussion here, inside and outside the summit, about the kind of coercion that goes on either to get nations to sign on to the accord or to punish those who won’t, like Bolivia and Ecuador. The question has been going back and forth: is it bribery or democracy? What can we expect from this? And what is your comments on the WikiLeaks release?

TODD STERN: Thanks very much. Well, on the WikiLeaks release, per se, I have no comment. And that’s a U.S. government position, and we don’t comment on leaks of classified or private information. So I’m not going to comment on WikiLeaks directly.

I will tell one little anecdote in connection with your broader question, let’s say, which is to be reminded of one of the most forceful, eloquent and powerful interventions that was made in that long middle-of-the-night final night in Copenhagen last year, where the forceful and eloquent minister from Norway, Erik Solheim, stood up after being accused directly — and I don’t remember what country did it — of Norway engaging in bribery by being so outstandingly generous in its provision of climate assistance. And he just stood up and blasted the person who suggested that, by saying, you know, you can’t, on the one hand, ask for and make a strong case, legitimately strong case, for the need for climate assistance and then, on the other hand, turn around and accuse us of bribery. I mean, if you want to accuse us of bribery, then, you know, you don’t need to — you don’t need to — we can eliminate any cause for accusation of bribery by eliminating any money. And Erik was powerful in that statement. I agreed with it 110 percent then, and I do now.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the countries that were punished then, Bolivia, Ecuador, for not signing?

TODD STERN: Let’s go to the next question.

MODERATOR: I think we’ll go to the next question, and we’ll turn to this side of the room.

AMY GOODMAN: That follow-up question that I asked the U.S. special climate change envoy — Todd Stern refused to answer — was about the U.S. withholding funds to countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, when they refused to sign on to the Copenhagen Accord.

John Vidal, the environment editor for the London Guardian reported on the exchange. John Vidal covered the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen and is in Cancún covering the summit here. His newspaper is one of five news outlets to receive the massive trove of WikiLeaks cables ahead of time and has been publishing new revelations every day. I asked John Vidal about the latest diplomatic cables on the U.S. manipulation of the climate talks.

JOHN VIDAL: We’ve lifted the lid on what actually happens at conferences like that, and we begin to see the kind of intense pressure and arm twisting and blackmail and different tactics, which has always been used by the rich countries over the poor countries. The only new thing now is that it is — we actually have it written down, we can see it for the first time with our own eyes. So what, you know, we tried to report two years ago, three years ago, whatever, now we actually know. We know for a fact this happened and that happened and he said that and what. The surprising thing is it’s not surprising, in a funny way. I mean, it’s like, we always suspected that this is how America operates, and now we know. So, in a way, our information was good at the time. I think that Bolivia and other countries’ reaction has been very, very interesting, because that’s that outrage that the — how the rich have been bullying and press ganging the poor. It’s a terrible situation.

AMY GOODMAN: You refer to the terrible night in Copenhagen. Explain exactly what you meant, what went down, and what was revealed in the WikiLeaks documents.

JOHN VIDAL: Copenhagen was just a complete nightmare, a diplomatic meltdown, I think is the fairest way to say it, where you had countries accusing each other of genocide. You had a total failure of the diplomatic process, that text which was meant to enhance everybody and bring them together in fact did the absolute opposite, and it shattered the confidence and the trust between different countries. And WikiLeaks just shows us, from that one point of view of the American cables, that — but this was happening in many, many other countries. It wasn’t just America. You know, if we could get hold of the British equivalent of WikiLeaks or the French or the Germans or the Canadians or whatever, we would see similar things, I’m quite sure. This is international diplomacy, which is a very, very dirty business.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the money that was offered to countries, the tens of millions of dollars that we see in the WikiLeaks documents, for example, offered to places like Maldives, the country that was fierce, their representatives, about getting some kind of global warming deal at Copenhagen, and then signed on to the accord?

JOHN VIDAL: I mean, that’s how these meetings work. I mean, frankly, it goes to the line, in the end, there’s this horse trading thing where I’ll give you money if you side with me. This is how — this is how the world works. I mean, we’re seeing it very clearly. It is not at all amiable negotiation. People are using every tactic under the book, including blackmail, including, you know, finance. They’re using muscle. They’re threatening. And that’s what happens in the last hours of these conferences. And we’ll it again, similar, this time. It won’t be quite as bad, because there’s not so much at stake at this particular meeting. But when it goes forward next year to Durban, we will see exactly the same stuff, and even in spades. We’ll see far more [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Why is there less at stake here in Cancún?

JOHN VIDAL: Because they’re not trying to find a final agreement. They’re trying to find a path to a final agreement. So they have limited their — their ambition is much less than it was last year. So they’re going to push it all forward to next year, so they can have more talks in between or whatever. But they have to make some very, very important decisions. And even to get to there, they will need to twist arms. But they won’t — I don’t think we’ll be seeing the money. I don’t think we’ll be seeing that kind of pressure as we saw last time.

There’s trillions of dollars at stake. I mean, that’s the point about this. You know, for a country to offer $100 million to another country in these circumstances is not great, when the prize may be $10 billion or $100 billion. I mean, a REDD agreement on forests may be worth $30 billion a year to carbon markets, to developing countries. A good deal on carbon markets might be worth $100 billion. I mean, you know, we’re talking about massive flows of money here. And so, it’s not surprising that countries are offered or being offered, you know, an awful lot of money under the counter to develop.

AMY GOODMAN: John Vidal, there are much — many fewer of the elite media represented here. Some might say it’s because they act as stenographers to power, that the leaders are not here — maybe there will be 20 leaders here, but before, at Copenhagen, there were 120 — and so they don’t bother coming. And when they don’t bother coming, it doesn’t rev up the conversation in their country about this critical issue of global warming. So, in Copenhagen, we saw thousands of journalists packed into the press halls. Here, we’re often in a room with no one else.

JOHN VIDAL: Yeah, and in a funny way, I think that’s quite a good thing, because world leaders have a sort of an awful habit of mucking up everything. I mean, they destroyed the talks last year, because they didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. I mean, most world leaders are absolutely, totally ignorant when they turn up in a meeting like this, which is being very carefully negotiated by diplomats and trade people and whatever over a long period of time. The world leaders come in, they are given a choice, and they make a political choice. Fair enough. But if you want to get decent agreements, you need the negotiations beforehand. You need that careful thing. And that’s what we’re seeing much more of here. That’s why these talks will not collapse in the same way, is because there are very few world leaders here, so there’s much less grandstanding, far fewer presidents standing up and making their sort of enormous points or whatever.

Yes, I mean, the media is always attracted to power. I mean, it’s as simple as that, because that’s the way these things operate. And the fact that not all the world’s media is here, I don’t think matters particularly at this point. I mean, by next year, when these talks are, you know, at their final conclusion or reaching their conclusion, then you will see absolutely everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: But then leaders like President Obama can use that as a way to take pressure off of him at home, his base deeply concerned about global warming. But he is — the question is, who is he catering to? And if he comes here, it will raise the question once again. If he doesn’t, he can be sure that most of the media that will cover him will not be here.

JOHN VIDAL: He came to Copenhagen last year. He made a complete mess of it. And he went back with his [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: That’s not how it was conveyed in the United States.

JOHN VIDAL: Well, no. But I mean — but the reality was that it was a disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: What did he do? What made the mess of it?

JOHN VIDAL: Well, he didn’t have anything to offer, so he came here when Hillary Clinton had already made a financial offer and whatever. There was nothing for him to do. So he came, and he started blaming China, which was like the maddest thing you could possibly do in that situation. And so, he — it was a big strategic mistake, and it set the talks back absolutely enormously. So the presence of these guys, the big beasts of the diplomatic jungle, presence of these guys here can work — that’s what they hoped last year — but it’s a high-risk strategy, and it can all fall apart. And that’s what happens, so they’re desperate, desperate, not to go down that road again.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Kyoto, the Kyoto Protocol being dead? Japan, Canada, Australia saying they’re not going to sign on to an extension?

JOHN VIDAL: Yeah. I don’t know about Australia, but yeah, I mean, it’s a fairly extreme position. And so, it’ll be very interesting to see whether they can, whether the other countries, like Britain or Brazil or whoever, can roll them back and get them to soften their position. You know, is it a negotiating position? It maybe is, so that, you know, next year they can gain purchase from it and get credit. So when countries take a position here, it is very often for a very, very specific reason. So, we don’t need to be too alarmed by it yet, but I would say that it just leaves an awful lot of work to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: The Guardian is one of the newspapers that released the WikiLeaks documents. The U.S. government is slamming on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks right now, basically calling — many in the U.S. government are calling him a terrorist. What do you say about that?

JOHN VIDAL: Well, it’s an outrage. It’s absurd. You know, I mean, you have to believe in a transparent media and government. I mean, so it’s like, you know — it’s absurd. It’s absurd. I mean, this is America bullying an individual because it has been embarrassed. This is the elephant blaming the fly. You know, America should clearly look to itself. I mean, it was —- its diplomats made those statements at that time. They were working in the public interest. They are paid by the public. It is outrageous that now -—

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. saying that the release of the documents will muck up diplomacy? Do you think that’s a good thing?

JOHN VIDAL: It certainly may happen. I don’t know how — I think diplomats may be a little bit more careful now about what they actually say. No, it won’t muck up diplomacy, because diplomacy is very much of the moment. It may very much make countries think about very carefully about what they put — what they commit to paper and computers and whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you think the release of the documents will improve this conference here in Cancún?

JOHN VIDAL: Yeah, because anything to exorcise the ghosts of — as Pablo Solón says, of Bolivia, anything which can exorcise the ghosts of that terrible, horrible night in Copenhagen, when the whole thing collapsed, has to be a good thing. So this adds in to that debate, and that makes it easier and clearer, and it gives people like Bolivia even more moral strength to fight for what it believes is the best solution to these things.

AMY GOODMAN: John Vidal is the environment editor at The Guardian of London. His article on my exchange with Todd Stern is called “US Envoy Rejects Suggestion that America Bribed Countries to Sign up to the Copenhagen Accord.” We’ll link to it at This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from Cancún, Mexico, from the U.N. climate change talks.

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