Senior administration official: “Well, no, no, no, no. We weren’t crashing a meeting; we were going for our bilateral meeting.”
The White House Office of the Press Secretary has now released the remarkable details of how Obama achieved the Copenhagen Accord.
The point CAP Senior fellow Andrew Light made in his summary analysis of the deal is that it represents “a move away from developed vs. developing countries to major emitters and everyone else” (see “Obama Hits the Reset Button on the Foundations of International Climate Agreements“). Indeed, Obama’s key meeting to cut a deal at the Bella Center was with the big developing country emitters: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, South African President Jacob Zuma and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.
The White House backgrounder reveals how this meeting – a Shakespearean Comedy of Errors style “wrong door” escapade — came about. It is quite long, but the must-read story defies paraphrasing, and indeed, would defy belief if it came from any other source.
Two key points: First, it is very clear that the UNFCCC process simply has too many countries in it to allow meaningful negotiations, especially when combined with the inane policy of giving any individual country a veto — just look how dysfunctional the US Senate is with merely a 60 vote supermajority “requirement.”
Second, the Copenhagen accord would not have occurred without Obama’s personal relationship with key leaders, developed during his many overseas trips. Those trips have been the subject of some criticism by conservative ideologues, but were a necessary measure to begin undoing 8 years of incompetent and malevolent action, particularly in the area of global warming, where the Bush-Cheney administration did not merely obstruct international negotiations, but actively worked to undermine all efforts to develop a fall onto the Kyoto protocol.
It was never realistic that such damage to the complex and delicate international negotiating process could be undone by team Obama in just a few months, which is precisely why the leaders of the big emitters told the world last month their wasn’t going to be a final deal in Denmark (see World leaders say Copenhagen to be a steppingstone to final climate deal).
Obama achieved much of what he set out to do in Copenhagen — and here’s the amazing story of how it happened:
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release December 18, 2009
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
Aboard Air Force One
En route Andrews Air Force Base
11:46 P.M. CET
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I just want to make sure everybody is cool with the rules here. We’re going to have probably a couple of these on this flight. What I want to do though, on background as a senior administration official, I want to go through a series of events that led up to the President going into what we had set up as a bilateral meeting with Premier Wen. So I just want to get””I want everyone to be clear on this set of events. So let me go through this timeline and then we can go through questions. And bear with me because I sometimes can’t even read my own writing.
At the first bilateral meeting with Premier Wen, the President, as we have done over the past several days, was pushing quite hard on transparency language. And we had given some transparency language to them and negotiators on our side had gone to work with their side on the notion of transparency.
Q The language was before the meeting, though? Was given to them before the meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, say again.
Q When you said, “we had given language to them,” you meant before their bilat?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This was during the bilat. So this was at the end of the bilat and the President says to Wen that he thinks our negotiators should get together, spend about an hour seeing if we can make some progress – because in all honesty, rhetorically, we were hearing what we wanted to hear about steps that they were willing to take on transparency, but wanted to make sure that we would have something to agree on that wasn’t just them agreeing to agree.
So the President at that point – you guys will have some times in your email to go through – but remember there comes a point in which you should have gotten from Kevin Lewis, via an update from me, that says the President has gone to the multilateral meeting and representing the Chinese was their climate change ambassador in the ministry of foreign affairs, who was in this meeting – to put it, I guess, accurately – as to speak for the entire Chinese government.
It’s at this point that the President, before our Medvedev bilateral, the President said to staff, I don’t want to mess around with this anymore, I want to just talk with Premier Wen. So we were trying to do that before the Medvedev bilat. Our advance team called their advance team to try to set this meeting up, and in all honesty make one more chance, make one more run at getting something done. The Chinese say they need to call our advance guys back. So it’s clear that it’s going to take some time to get this Wen meeting done, so we’re going to go ahead and do the Medvedev bilat earlier than was on the schedule.
And as the President waited for Medvedev to be – to move the delegation down into the room, the President also says to staff, we should meet in a group of three with Lula of Brazil, Singh of India, and Zuma of South Africa. All right. So, let’s get a meeting with Wen, let’s get a meeting with these three guys.
We get a call back from advance that Wen is at the hotel and the Chinese staff are at the airport.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know what level of staff, but some of their staff – a decent chunk of their staff was at the airport.
Q So they had all left the Bella Center?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q Including Wen – and that was news to you guys -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Wen was at the hotel.
Q Oh, he was at the hotel.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Indians – when we called also about Zuma, Lula and Singh, we were told Singh was at the airport.
Q Do you consider that a walk-out?SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think they thought the meeting was done. I think they thought there wasn’t anything left to stay for, in all honesty.
Q That was around 4:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d have to – my sense is probably closer to 4:00 p.m. So we basically – we set times for when we want to have these meetings. We called the advance for each of these countries. We want to do – we had given the Chinese to a certain point before we were going to lock in first the other meetings. So we hadn’t heard back from the Chinese so we lock in first the notion at 5:30 p.m. we’d like to meet with the three, Zuma, Lula and Singh. And then at 6:15 p.m. – the Chinese called back – we didn’t know if they were going to call back, at 6:15 p.m. we lock in that we’re going to do a bilateral meeting with Premier Wen.
Zuma originally accepted this 5:30 p.m. multilateral meeting. Brazil tells us that they don’t know if they can come because they want the Indians to come. The Indians, as I just said, were at the airport. Zuma is under the impression that everybody is coming. Advance basically tells the South Africans that at this point the Brazilians are unclear about meeting without the Indians, the Indians are at the airport, and Zuma at that point says, well, if they’re not coming I can’t do this.
The Chinese then call and say, can we move our 6:15 p.m. bilateral back to 7:00 p.m. And we said – we put them on hold, talked a little bit, the President walked up, the President said, move it to 7:00 p.m., I’m going back to the multilateral. The President goes to the multilateral and we had been getting emails at this time from those in the European delegation about – because the President had left that first multilateral – or the previous multilateral after the deputy foreign minister for climate change had been there representing the Chinese and saying, I’m going to go find and talk to Wen. All right, we’re going to do this Wen thing. So the Europeans are wondering sort of where we were with Premier Wen.
He spent about 45 minutes in the bilateral meeting -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL #2: In the multilateral.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, in the multilateral meeting; thank you. That’s with the Europeans, that’s with Ethiopians. At the very -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So this would have been, quite frankly, leading up to about 7:00 p.m.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL #2: After Medvedev.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, after Medvedev. We said – a couple of us start to walk up to the room where the multilat is because we had sent advance to look at the room, the room where we were going to have the China bilat and realize the room is occupied by what we think are the Chinese and we can’t get into the room to look at it.
So they come back and it sort of got our antennae up a little bit. So by the time several of us, including Denis McDonough and I, got into the multilateral room we’ve now figured out why we can’t get into that room: because that room has Wen, Lula, Singh and Zuma. They’re all having a meeting.
Q So they weren’t at the airport?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Or they came back.
Q And you guys didn’t know this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We did not know this. We are getting – I can show you some of the emails that we’re getting saying – because truthfully I asked one of the advance guys, did you see anybody else in the hallway? And he said, just clearly Chinese.
Q So Wen -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Wen, Lula, Singh and Zuma. But we’re starting to get emails one by one, hey Zuma is in this room, too; hey, Singh is in this room, too. So all of a sudden that’s when we start to make sure we’re walking up to the multilateral room. The President is beginning to leave. He spends time right before he leaves – this would have been right before 7:00 p.m., the President is talking with Chancellor Merkel and Gordon Brown about going for this bilateral meeting with Premier Wen, that they had rescheduled for 7:00 p.m.
Again, we thought we were still on for a bilateral meeting. That’s when our delegation walked over. We held and I think Ben moved the pool because we had heard at this point previous to this that the pool for the Chinese had been assembled outside of this room. And we had the President wait for a minute while Ben moved the pool so that – we had heard that they were going to pre-set without any of us. So we had the President hold.
That’s I think when many of you start to pick up this story. This is when I think you, in the pool report, said, you know -
Q When he said, are you ready, are you ready?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Are you ready for me? We were going to -
Q You were going to crash their meeting.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, no, no, no, no. We weren’t crashing a meeting; we were going for our bilateral meeting.
Q And you found those other people there.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We found the other people there. We found this out as we were going -
Q So as you walked in you realized it -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We found this out – remember, we found this out as Denis and I are walking up to the room to go with the President, because the delegations were the same for the Wen bilat, Denis, Ben and I were both in the delegation for the original Wen bilat. That’s when the President walks in – Helene has in the pool report, you know, “Are you ready for me?”
Q Is it correct to say that when he walked in he didn’t know?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t – I think it’s safe to say they did not intend to have that meeting with four of them; they intended to have that meeting with one. The President walks in – and by the time I finally push through I hear the President say – there aren’t any seats, right, I mean, I think if you’ve seen some of the pictures, there were basically no chairs. And the President says, “No, no, don’t worry, I’m going to go sit by my friend Lula,” and says, “Hey, Lula.” Walks over, moves a chair, sits down next to Lula. The Secretary of State sits down next to him.
And that leaves us at a series of events that Doug and others covered where there’s pushing and that would have been at 7:00 p.m. local time, so 1:00 p.m. sort of East Coast Time.
Q When the President -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just – I want to do a couple things now. They’re still meeting back in Copenhagen. We’re going to get some regular updates, and as we get some updates, our hope and goal is to provide you then a little bit more context. Then we’ll start then at 7:00 p.m., or 1:00 p.m Eastern, because there’s several more twists in this road before we get to I think my notes have it at about – that whole meeting concludes about 8:15 p.m.-8:20 p.m. But there’s a whole lot of fun in between.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me take a few -
Q Can I clarify two just sort of factual points. You said at one point that the President left the multilateral because of the level of Chinese representation – is that right, that he – basically he said, I’m out?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me say this – I think the President realized, based on a meeting that – meetings that he’d had in Beijing with Premier Wen and the bilateral, he felt like he had a very good relationship with Premier Wen, and quite frankly, if the Chinese were going to make – if the Chinese were going to move on transparency, it wasn’t going to be through the deputy mining minister – right?
Q Is that what the guy is, deputy mining minister?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I was just – sort of a joke. But, no, he’s the – I think we sent it around – he’s the -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL #2: Climate change ambassador.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: – climate change rep for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But in all honesty, it’s a position lower than the person that was in the original multilateral when we got there -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right, yes. So I think at that point, the President – I think the President understands that he wants to make one more run at this, but he wants to make one more run at this with Premier Wen.
Q And later in the – when he was going up to the meeting that turned into the multilateral, is it your thought that they meant to have a meeting with each other to exclude the United States, or get their ducks in a row, or what was going on?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I will assume that their meeting was to get their ducks in a row. Because at this point, though our – certainly our impression was that a number of these people were either at or on the way to the airport. We had confirmed with the Chinese before he went to the multilateral the second to last time – the last time being right before the press conference – but the second to last time, that we had just then agreed to move the bilateral meeting that we wanted to set up with the Chinese to 7:00 p.m. So we believed, up until about two minutes before Denis and I walked into the multilateral, before moving to the 7:00 p.m. meeting, that we were having a bilateral meeting.
Q But it’s not – it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise because those four countries have been working as a negotiating team on this issue, right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Certainly no surprise. Again, we were trying to put together a similar meeting, but found the logistics to be hard to do. And I think I know now why the logistics proved somewhat challenging. They were busy; they were meeting.
Q Was it logistics, or were they trying to have their own separate meeting without the U.S. involved?
Q Were they trying to scuffle the deal and get together and -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know that they were trying – I don’t know where they were on the deal. I know that the – again, the President’s viewpoint was I’m going to make one last run. When it appeared we couldn’t get the Chinese earlier in the day, the President said, well, if we can’t get the Chinese then let’s get the next three that are – absolutely they’re working as a team. They’ve got similar interests, there’s no doubt about that.
Again, the only surprise we had, in all honesty, was we did not know at 6:15 p.m., when we moved our meeting from 6:15 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., that in that room wasn’t just the Chinese having a meeting about their posture going into the 7:00 p.m. meeting, but in fact all four countries that we had been trying to arrange meetings with were indeed all in the same room.
Q Well, when did that become clear? When the President goes to that meeting does he think he’s going to meet Wen, and walks in the door and is, like, oh, everyone is here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no. Denis and I had told him that – we had told him -
Q That they were all in there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: – that the room that the meeting is being held in for our bilateral currently contains the leaders of those four countries. And he said, “Good.”
Q That was his thought – good?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And we were off.
Q Can I ask one logistical -
Q So he said, “Good,” and, I’m going to go up there at 7:00 p.m. for my prior appointment with Wen -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He said, “Good,” on the way to walking to the meeting. I mean, we had a 7:00 p.m. meeting and we were walking on our way to meet our 7:00 p.m. meeting. We briefed him that our 7:00 p.m. meeting is in a room currently occupied by not just the Chinese, but the three other countries. And the President’s viewpoint is, I wanted to see them all and now is our chance.
Q Were they waiting for him there? Is that why they were all there, because they knew he was coming?
Q Was there surprise when he walked in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, the Chinese were waiting for us. I do not believe they anticipated that the meeting that we ultimately had would actually include all the countries. There’s no doubt -
Q They thought you guys would wait until they were done?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t know whether they thought we would – there really wasn’t anybody to – actually I think we were shown into the room, in all honesty. I think we were shown which direction to go to the room and I think there was no doubt there was some surprise that we were going to join the bigger meeting.
Q I‘ve got to ask why you didn’t have better intel – and I don’t mean in the CIA sense – on where all these people were? I mean, it’s not -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We did. We thought they were at the airport.
Q Right, exactly.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, that’s what we were told.
Q But, you know, you’re all sort of in a close area there. Why didn’t anybody from the administration know where all these people were? I mean -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it’s not our job to know where Prime Minister Singh is if his – if we’re told he’s at the airport.
Q But usually at these summits there’s a lot of Sherpa-tracking going on and that sort of thing, you know.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, look, I – I mean, we were – we were told they were at the airport. We were told delegations were split up. We were told they weren’t going to meet – Zuma wasn’t going to come unless he was under the impression that the other two were going to come.
Q Do you think that’s all part of the brinksmanship and the sort of horse-trading and maneuvering?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I honestly think that they – well, my gut instinct tells me that they knew they had to make one more run at this.
Q One more?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: One more run at this.
Q But there’s this – what they call a taxicab strategy, when you always threaten to walk out. I mean, do you think that’s what -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, they didn’t threaten to walk out. When we tried to set up the meetings we were told they were gone. I mean, if they employed that strategy they didn’t lay down the threat.
Q Can I ask a logistical question just about when – I mean, because we’re all on the plane and we land at 1:00 a.m. in the morning -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If we’re lucky.
Q If we’re lucky.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If somebody wants to type this up and call it in, I will tell them that that’s fine to do – largely because I want to be – I want to make clear, we did not break into what we thought was a secret meeting, okay? Again, the reason that we appeared at the room – the reason we appeared at the room was at – in the 5:00 p.m. hour the Chinese wanted to move their 6:15 p.m. meeting back to 7:00 p.m. in the room that they had for their meetings. We said, fine. We were walking to meet our 7:00 p.m. appointment.
Q Well, you guys want – I mean, can we – because are we going to try and get this in for tonight? Or – I just want to make sure that – the one thing I just want to make sure doesn’t happen is a transcript lands and some – and we don’t somewhere -
Q I‘m more interested in what happens between 7:00 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s a good story, my friend, and with a little luck we’ll be able to tell that at a little bit later leg on the flight.
Q That’s what I mean. So we, like hold – are we holding everything until we land? Or are we trying to, like -
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I just want to make sure – I don’t want to be – just again, I just want to make sure that – the reason I gave you this series of events is because to accurately portray just sort of what is happening and when. We did not – again, our presence at that room at 7:00 p.m. was expected based on the meeting that we had set up. Whether or -
Q With Wen.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right. Whether or not the other – fair enough we did not know the other three were there until at a point at which we were about to go and walking to that meeting.
Q And you and Denis told the President?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Denis and I -
Q Was anybody mad about it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. We thought this was a great opportunity to finish four meetings.
Q The other guys.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, it’s hard to tell because the truth is – and we’ll get into this on the next leg of this – there were – quickly dove into about an hour and 20 minutes worth of negotiating that – I want to do this part off the record.
- * * * *
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, the President believed that he needed to talk to Wen, they needed to make one more run at getting an agreement. So he’s in this meeting – this is the group of leaders that we first visit in the very beginning of the morning. So it is comprised of – obviously you’re going to take the four out that are already in the different meeting. So you’ve got a pretty decent cross-section, first, of – you’ve the Europeans – you’ve got Merkel, Brown, Sarkozy; you’ve got Rudd from Australia; you’ve got Rasmussen from Denmark. You’ve also got Meles from Ethiopia; you’ve got Mexico, Norway – so you basically have the smaller developing countries, Europe, Australia, Scandinavia – so you basically have the larger group minus the four that he ultimately sees.
This larger group had come to the conclusion that the agreement would either – they needed to make one more run at two main points. One of them was the percent reduction by 2050 and the temperature change, as well as the transparency; that they had to do that with Wen or they were not going to get an agreement.
So, at this point – so the President went around to – went around the table, physically walking around the table, talking to Ethiopia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Australia, the Maldives – all these countries to talk about what they were going to go – what he was going to go do in making a last run at Premier Wen. And they talked about the fact that if they didn’t – if they went to Wen and they couldn’t get an agreement, that basically they would still try to structure something for those that would sign on in order to continue to make progress toward something in the future.
So essentially the President has – is working with Europe, Asia – I’m sorry, Europe, Australia, and others in the developed – of the developed economies, in addition to the smaller developing countries minus India, China, Brazil, and South Africa, which is essential in ensuring that, in all honesty, the other four realized – this is where I think the other four realized that they’ve got to make one more run at this, too, because what they were – what the President was discussing along with this group was, if they couldn’t get something that included China, India, Brazil, and South Africa on transparency and temperature mitigation, that they would get what they could with who they could get it with.
So you basically have – you’ve got – you’ve now got two different coalitions. All right.
Q I just don’t understand your last sentence – they would get what they could with who they could get it with.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, basically if the Chinese were unwilling to do transparency, and the Indians and the Brazilians and the South Africans followed the Chinese, then the President and those in that multilateral group would try to get something that all they could agree on, and we would go out with all of that.
I mean, look, I think it’s safe to say at that point in the day, China had real – they were balking at transparency. The President thought at the very least we could get – we can make progress on something by putting together a coalition of those that were agreeable to having some sort of declaration or agreement.
Q And that coalition included both developing and developed countries?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, and that obviously is the key to -
Q Like you could create leverage against the four outstanding.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, yes. I think that’s why people stowed their luggage in their overhead bins and decided to come back to the negotiating table. Came back from the airport.
All right? Thanks, guys.
Truth is stranger than fiction.