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Governments Have Been Spying Their Way Out of Dealing With Climate Change

Recently released documents from Edward Snowden's monumental leak trove show that the NSA spied on America's behalf during the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, apparently with help from signals intelligence henchmen in Canada, Australia, the UK, and New...

International spy club buddies. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Recently released documents from Edward Snowden's monumental leak trove show that the NSA spied on America's behalf during the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, apparently with help from Five Eyes henchmen Canada, Australia, the UK, and New Zealand. Something about New Zealand just doesn't fit in with the rest here—it's like the nice kid who fell in with the bullies in high school, but was too timid to leave the crew, then got pressured into shoving some fat kid into a locker. Putting aside that idealized picture, the crux of the issue here is that the NSA and its accomplices have undermined the international climate negotiation process considerably.


Leaders in a few Five Eyes governments thought it would be a good idea to throw the spy services another mandate to chew on: the battle against climate change. Some people may think that this sounds like a terrible idea, and these leaders should be swiftly removed from office. But they'd be wrong, since international climate negotiations are apparently all about arguing over who gets to do the least to prevent climate change. New leaks just revealed that the spies have been earning their budgets.

The Copenhagen Summit was supposed to deliver an ambitious international agreement and lay out targets for the world to get on with fixing climate change. It failed spectacularly, and commentators had since chalked that up to two main disagreements between industrialized countries and less developed countries: first, over who's responsible for the carbon already in the atmosphere; and second, who gets to add what amount of the remaining "budget" we have before the Yukon becomes a leading year-round exporter of outdoor tomatoes.

Before the conference began, the Danes had produced a "last resort" document that contained some weak pablum that every country could agree on to avoid a complete failure. Having already gained access to this document plus a number of negotiating positions from major players like China and India, US diplomats sat back sipping Big Gulps and tossing paper airplanes as negotiations dragged closer to the deadline. They knew that in the end, the Danish bailout was coming, which it did. Canada, for its part, contributed about the square root of fuck-all, and was naturally awarded a fossil award for backwardness on the very first day of negotiations.


Environmental advocates are already pretty angry about this story and the other toothless environmental protections being negotiated in our names at the international level. These new revelations aren't helping. I spoke with John Bennett, Director of the Sierra Club of Canada, who told me what should be obvious to everyone by now. "Climate change is not about national self-interest and calls for cooperation," he said. "There's no place for spying. The US, Canada, and the rest should be ashamed to have undermined international trust."

Indeed, they should. Let's contrast this with the way James Clapper, Director of the NSA, talks about the environment:

"Increasingly the environment is becoming an adversary for us. And I believe that the capabilities and assets of the Intelligence Community are going to be brought to bear increasingly in assessing the environment as an adversary."

Clapper's unsettling language is emblematic of the warlike way his agency will frame every problem it's tasked with solving, including the environment. This kind of thinking delivers its own kind of results. With the spooks' help at Copenhagen, we surely did defeat the "adversary," if the adversary was meaningful cooperation towards a collective goal! Instead, leaders agreed to keep recklessly blowing our "carbon budget" for a few more years, and maybe see if we can come up with something better at the next summit.


What this Copenhagen leak boils down to is that the US, Canada, and the other Five Eyes countries appear to have been negotiating in very bad faith for quite some time. They've already proven they'll sic their spy agencies on pretty much any target that delivers an economic advantage. Why not go for a meatier target, like a trade deal? Fellow countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations must be asking themselves a few awkward questions right now, and so should their citizens. The TPP has been kept secret from the public to ostensibly "preserve the integrity of the negotiations," but what if it turned out the Five Eyes had been spying on everyone else all along? Not only would this blow up that flimsy line of reasoning, but it would also fully expose the TPP for what it is: a "corporatist power grab."

Whether it's spying at the 2007 Bali climate talks, spying at the 2010 Toronto G20 talks, spying on world leaders' mobile phones, collecting the data of ordinary citizens en masse at Canadian airports, or lying about spying on Canadian and US citizens, our intelligence agencies can't help themselves when it comes to collecting any data that may be in the "national interest." In this latest case, the Five Eyes just lost all kinds of trust, and the casualty of the day was the entire process for negotiating international environmental agreements.

As the war on terrorism is increasingly revealed as an unwinnable war against a concept, it's worth remembering that bureaucracies are always hungry for more money and more problems. The massive domestic security apparatus built in the Western world after 9/11 has been expanding to meet its expanding needs for over a decade now. Unlike its social services and education counterparts, the security state has been rather adept at dodging this whole austerity thing. Somehow, a generation that grew up under constant threat of nuclear annihilation has been cowed into giving up their liberty and their tax dollars in the name of stopping terror.

This latest story is emblematic of a serious identity crisis for a set of agencies that have told citizens all along that their objectives are simply keeping us safe from the bad guys who hate our freedoms. When our governments seem to be spying on everyone all the time, it's virtually impossible not to feel like we all have a lot less freedoms for the bad guys to hate.

Chris Malmo is a donor relations coordinator at OpenMedia.

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