In Barack Obama’s recent account of his first term as president, A Promised Land, there is a telling story about the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in 2009. When Obama arrived the conference was deadlocked. The US had promised to give financial aid to help poorer countries transition to cleaner energy but the EU nations were demanding a binding treaty which developing countries, including the BRICS states, didn’t want.
In particular, says Obama, “China, India and South Africa appeared content to let the conference crash and burn and blame it on the Americans”. The best hope for a deal would be if Obama could get the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, onside. But Wen was clearly lining up the BRICS states to block a deal.
Obama had hoped to meet with Wen but Wen simply disappeared and it was clear that he was ducking a meeting. Rumours circulated that he was already on his way out to the airport though some said he was still in the conference building. However, Wen was then spotted in a conference room several floors up. Obama turned to Hillary Clinton: “When’s the last time you crashed a party?” “It’s been a while”, she laughed. So with a gaggle of staffers and Secret Service agents, Obama and Clinton made their way upstairs and burst in on a startled Wen who was sitting together with Prime Minister Singh (India) and Presidents Lula (Brazil) and Zuma (South Africa), together with a large contingent of Chinese staffers and secret service men.
To the general astonishment Obama just pulled up a chair for himself and suggested they make a deal. “Lula and Zuma looked sheepishly down at the papers in front of them”, Obama records. He then cut to the chase and said he assumed they were about to let the conference fail and try to blame it all on the Americans.
Well, he said, they might not succeed in that because if that’s what they did he, Obama, was going straight back down to tell the whole conference that he’d come there willing to commit the USA to huge new reductions in greenhouse gases and also to offer billions of dollars to help poorer countries but that the BRICS countries had decided it was better to turn down those offers and do nothing. He would then say the same to all the poorer countries and broadcast this news to the poor people of BRICS, who would be among the chief victims of climate change. Was that what they wanted?
The Chinese minister for the environment went crazy, shouting and red-faced, at this threat. Obama demanded a translation but Premier Wen waved it away – “what the environment minister said was unimportant” – and asked to see the text of the agreement Obama wanted. Manmohan Singh seemed entirely unfazed by the whole episode and, after listening carefully, also agreed to look at the text.