Perhaps, prior to the WikiLeaks scandal, small island nations which stand to be deluged by rising sea levels might have looked to the European Union and, specifically, Germany to provide leadership on climate change. Recent disclosures, however, have probably dashed any such hopes. Far from looking out for the interests of vulnerable countries imperiled by global warming, the European Union has conspired with the United States to limit the scope of climate change reform in international negotiations.
Even if the EU wanted to set an ambitious course on climate change, there are serious doubts about the bloc's ability to do so. Indeed, when it's not negotiating with the U.S. behind closed doors, the EU has shown little unity on issues of vital environmental importance. To make matters worse, Germany and the U.S. reportedly lied about a satellite program ostensibly designed to collect information about climate change. In reality, Germany had no intention of employing the satellites for any such purpose --- the technology would be simply used for spying.
The WikiLeaks scandal represents a kind of fall from grace for Germany, which has long prided itself on its green credentials. Indeed, it wasn't so long ago that U.S. diplomats painted a rather flattering environmental portrait of the Angela Merkel government. In December, 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia noted that "Germany has long been the leading contributor of financial and technical assistance to Brazil on deforestation and climate change." U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske added that Germany planned to invest 100 million Euros on climate change and renewable energy projects. Furthermore, Kubiske added, "Germany has long played the leading role in the international effort on conserving the Amazon forest."
Even as it sought to deal with the Amazon, however, Germany fretted about climate change politics closer to home. According to cables, there were acrimonious divisions within the 27- member EU prior to the Copenhagen climate summit held in December, 2009. When the Dutch demanded that the EU cut its emissions by 30 percent, Italy and Poland balked during a particularly "vicious" meeting. One German official dismissed Poland's argument disdainfully as "give us two billion euros for technology." "Germany is concerned that a lack of internal solidarity is leading to problems with the EU's position and leadership internationally," noted the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Brussels.
Copenhagen and German Lack of Leadership
While Germany certainly confronted a disconcerting scenario, Merkel failed to push ahead and seemed to accept a zero sum game. Prior to the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, U.S. ambassador to Germany Phillip Murray wrote Secretary of State Clinton that
"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. 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."
Far from seeking to exercise true leadership on climate change, Merkel advocated a strong "US/EU position towards the major emerging economies, particularly China and India, to urge them to commit to ambitious national actions at Copenhagen."
During the conference itself, major powers such as China, the U.S. and Brazil amongst others cobbled together a hastily agreed upon climate compromise. In the wake of the summit, some countries were left feeling bitter and pessimistic. The EU signaled that it would only sign on to a new UN treaty if other big economies agreed to make deeper cuts in their emissions. According to cables, incoming European Council President Herman Van Rompuy felt "angry that Europe was elbowed out of discussions in Copenhagen."
Van Rompuy was pessimistic that upcoming climate talks at Cancún would yield any positive result, and suggested that the U.S. and EU negotiate on their own and then approach China. The EU official was not the only one to share such a dismal outlook: Chancellor Merkel too was frustrated by the lack of progress at Copenhagen and started to move away from her goal of limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Merkel even signaled to the rest of the EU that she would not support the idea of Europe going it alone on climate change. Playing the blame game, the Chancellor said that China and India represented a true "structural problem" when it came to reaching a binding climate agreement.
Climate Change Shenanigans
The EU, then, felt excluded from negotiations but was not prepared to act as a trailblazer on climate change, arguing instead that emerging economies such as China and India should assume responsibility. The EU takes its cue from Germany, and in this case Merkel's lack of leadership had unfortunate consequences: in early 2010, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman met with EU officials, including Van Rompuy's Chief of Staff, in Brussels. The aim of the discussions was to "push back against coordinated opposition of BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) to our international positions." Though the BASIC group had widely differing interests, U.S. diplomats observed, the bloc was "surprisingly united" and would "take turns" playing the U.S. and EU off against each other.
To be sure, BASIC is a huge obstacle when it comes to climate change and other nations should take a stand against the bloc at international summits. On the other hand, the U.S. is not much better than BASIC when it comes to setting policy. If they wanted to take a more principled stand at this point, EU officials might have refused to take sides with either the U.S. or BASIC in the meaningless race to the bottom. According to cables, however, the EU cynically negotiated with the U.S. in an effort to head off meaningful change. When Froman remarked that "the U.S. and EU need to... work much more closely and effectively together... to better handle third country obstructionism and avoid future trainwrecks on climate," the Europeans agreed to lobby BASIC as well as the G-77 group of poor nations in advance of the next climate summit in Cancún, Mexico.
If Washington had any doubts about where Europe stood, EU officials certainly cleared up any uncertainty: when Froman remarked that it would be necessary to "neutralize, co-opt or marginalize" radical Latin American nations which were advocating deeper cuts in carbon emissions, the Europeans agreed that it was imperative to "work around unhelpful countries such as Venezuela or Bolivia." An EU official then noted how "ironic" it was that Europe donated a lot of money to radical Latin American countries, but they in turn were "actively discouraging" others from signing on to Copenhagen, a heavily criticized accord which the EU nevertheless sought to foist on the rest of the world. Simultaneously, in preparation for Cancún the EU aimed to downgrade public expectations for the summit, hoping to merely score modest agreements on climate financing and a climate warning system.
Despite such unpromising backroom diplomacy, the Cancún summit ended with Germany agreeing to reduce its emissions by 40 percent by 2020. That would be well ahead of pledges made by the EU bloc as a whole, which only agreed to reduce emissions by 20 percent. Indeed, Der Spiegel reports that "other countries in the [EU] club are appreciative of Berlin's pledge -- but none have followed the example." For Cancún to be effective Germany will have to cajole other member states to make deeper commitments, but already there are indications, in the words of Der Spiegel, that the central European powerhouse "no longer wants to be the model EU pupil."
Since China and the U.S. left Cancún without offering concrete carbon pledges, it is up to the EU to make the greatest difference on global warming. German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats, argues that his country must "advance decisively," in the post Cancún milieu. A new eco-boom, he declares, might create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. If other EU members should renege on carbon reductions, Röttgen argues, Germany should lead even further by raising its targets to between 42 and 50 percent.
Throwing cold water on that idea, Merkel says that such a deep commitment would put pressure on the economy. Officials at the Chancellery declare that "Germany, with its national reduction target of 40 percent, is at the upper limit" of its Cancún targets and that other EU countries need to make up the difference. Seeking to avoid a confrontation with Merkel, Röttgen has now changed his tune and lambastes other EU countries, demanding that they "make a contribution that corresponds to the German contribution."
The Satellite Imbroglio
Failing to inspire fellow EU members is disappointing enough, though further WikiLeaks cables show that the Merkel government has truly acted cynically. Recently, Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten released U.S. cables from the American Embassy in Berlin dating from early 2009 to early 2010. The documents show that Germany and the U.S. sought to develop a joint satellite program which would be operational by 2013. Code named HiROS, or High Resolution Optical Satellite System, the project would reportedly detect objects on the ground as small as 50 centimeters in diameter and take infrared images at night.
Because of the controversial nature of HiROS, the U.S. and Germany planned to present the project to the public as a civilian project which would study climate change and improve the environment. In reality, however, HiROS was "under the total control" of German intelligence and the national aerospace center. Observing the growing German-U.S. détente, neighboring France grew concerned and sought to derail the satellite program at every turn. The Merkel government, however, which had long sought to become a leading player providing satellite data, disregarded French entreaties.
The satellite imbroglio reveals the Merkel government at its most crass. At a time when the world desperately needs satellite data to further understand global climate change, Germany seems more intent on outmaneuvering its fellow EU members on intelligence gathering. Even as its rails against other European countries for not living up to their carbon commitments, Germany is pursuing narrow self interest and failing to use its technology for the benefit of all. If anything, the WikiLeaks scandal may sow suspicion amongst EU members and make further environmental diplomacy that much more difficult to achieve.
On the other hand, ongoing disclosures might actually spur a public outcry and further debate. With the chances for climate change legislation looking dimmer and dimmer in the new Republican-dominated U.S. Congress, the EU must be a more forceful player on global warming. As the most significant political and economic country in Europe, Germany must lead in a much more convincing way than recent WikiLeaks cables suggest. Perhaps, German environmentalists and the media will raise a stir and pressure the Merkel government to finally assume its historic responsibility.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan). Visit his blog, www.nikolaskozloff.com