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Leaked Memo Reveals US Plan to Oppose Helping Poor Nations Adapt to Climate Change

Newly leaked documents have revealed how U.S. negotiators at the UN climate summit in Warsaw are opposing efforts to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

Newly leaked documents have revealed how U.S. negotiators at the U.N. climate summit in Warsaw are opposing efforts to help developing countries adapt to climate change. According to an internal U.S. briefing memo seen by Democracy Now!, the U.S. delegation is worried the talks in Warsaw will “focus increasingly on blame and liability” and that poor nations will be “seeking redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts.” We speak with Nitin Sethi, a journalist with The Hindu newspaper who first reported on the leaked document.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

Amy Goodman: ThisDemocracy Now!,,The War and Peace Report. I am Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Warsaw, Poland, from the country of Copernicus, of Frédéric Chopin and Marie Curie. We’re here at the National Stadium which was built for football or soccer two years ago, but this year it’s the site of the COP 19. It’s the 19th Conference of Parties, the U.N. climate change summit.

While the Philippines continues to reel from the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, U.S. negotiators here in Warsaw are opposing efforts to help poor countries adapt to climate change. According to an internal U.S. briefing document that was seen byDemocracy Now!, the U.S. delegation is worried the talks here in Warsaw will, quote, “focus increasingly on blame and liability” and that poor nations will be, quote, “seeking redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts.” The document was first reported on byThe Hindu newspaper and The Guardian, as well, in Britain.

The question about who should pay for the damage caused by extreme weather events is at the crux of much of the negotiating here in Warsaw. Developing countries insist the world’s largest historical polluters, the United States and other industrialized countries, have a financial responsibility to offset the negative impacts of climate change on the developing world. According to a new report by Germanwatch, Haiti, the Philippines and Pakistan were most affected by severe weather-related catastrophes last year. Over the past 10 years, the most affected countries are, without exception, developing nations, with Honduras, Burma and Haiti being the hardest hit.

Joining us now is Nitin Sethi, a journalist with The Hindu, who first reported on the leaked document. Last week, he published a piece headlined “U.S. to Oppose Mechanism to Fund Climate Change Adaptation in Poor Nations.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nitin.

Nitin Sethi: Thank you so much.

Amy Goodman: Talk about how you got these documents.

Nitin Sethi: Well, I can’t reveal my sources, but obviously it was from one of the diplomats somewhere across the world who wanted to share it out.

Amy Goodman: And talk about the significance. For people especially in the United States, this word, “loss and damage,” doesn’t have much meaning; it’s sort of U.N. speak. What does “loss and damage” mean? And then talk about what the document said.

Nitin Sethi: OK, let me try and unpack that for you. The two issues that have—we’ve been talking of for the last 20 years, one is how to reduce the emissions in the atmosphere so that we don’t reach a certain level of concentrations, that make sure temperatures also remain within certain limits. Now, while we do that, we still need to adapt to things that are changing in the atmosphere at the moment or changing in the climate at the moment, which is called adaptation. But because we’ve not done too much in the last 20 years on mitigation or reducing emissions, what’s happened is there’s enough damage happening at the moment that cannot be checked even if you adapt to your best possible capabilities. Countries are now coming and saying, “Because you’ve not acted to reduce emissions, we are being damaged, our houses are being lost, our livelihoods are being lost, people are dying.” And you need to be compensated for that. You need to be compensated for the lack of action over the last 20 years. And that’s what really loss and damage is about.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about the crucial points in the document that most surprised you?

Nitin Sethi: I think three things were fascinating for what—how they portrayed the U.S., of what it was going to do publicly and how it was going to negotiate withinUNFCCC or this present meeting. The first thing was its position on how it would treat the issue of loss and damage. And it was very clear that they don’t think loss and damage should live, except beyond its name; the loss and damage issue should not have any concern about liability or compensation attached to it. So they came here with the agenda to defang this idea which has been—or an animal which has been up for the last two years. What they want to do is keep the name intact, but put it in a place in this entire conversation where there’s no relationship whatsoever to any kind of liability, legal responsibility issues in it.

The second thing I find interesting in this document was something they’ve said in other words, but here they kind of go very explicit and say, while every country will be able to put its own pledges about how much emissions they want to cut, nobody shall be able to ask them to do more or less. So, while we put it out, say, 2014 end—the U.S. actually says 2015 early—every country can put out a pledge saying, “This is the amount I want to do,” and then everyone can talk about it for six months, but nobody can really tell anyone to do more than that, which really means, in other words, if science says that you’re required to do more to ensure temperatures don’t go beyond critical levels, there’s nothing anyone can tell the country to do.

Amy Goodman: I want to read, actually, from this confidential document—

Nitin Sethi: Sure.

Amy Goodman: —that we have right now on loss and damage. The U.S. internal briefing paper reads, quote—and this is from John Kerry to the U.N.—the U.S. climate change team—the internal briefing paper reads, “As it was in last year’s meeting in Doha, the issue of Loss and Damage is likely to be one of the most contentious issues in Warsaw. Loss and Damage is an agenda item largely driven by the small islands, and more recently the least developed countries, seeking redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts. … A central issue will be whether loss and damage continues to fall within adaptation or whether it becomes a separate, third pillar … which we believe would lead UNFCCC to focus increasingly on blame and liability, which in turn would be counterproductive.” Counterproductive, Nitin, for who?

Nitin Sethi: For the U.S. government, particularly, and other developed countries, because if you look at emissions from history, the accumulated emissions so far, a large percentage of that comes from the rich or the developed nations. So if someone goes to court tomorrow, or any legal redress system, and says, “Who is to blame for the typhoon that never happened before but has started to happen at a high level now?” it will primarily be the responsibility of developed countries to compensate these small, vulnerable countries. And that’s what U.S. government, I feel, is scared about, to enter a system where there is a legal compensation mechanism available for small, vulnerable countries, who otherwise don’t have voice in this large set-up.

Amy Goodman: Were you pressured not to release these documents?

Nitin Sethi: I could say that I had a long conversation with my friends in the U.S. delegation here. It took a while to convince them to talk about it.

Amy Goodman: Did they ask you not to reveal these confidential documents?

Nitin Sethi: I wouldn’t want to talk about this bit.

Amy Goodman: But you did reveal them.

Nitin Sethi: I did put them out. I quoted from them. They finally did make a statement, which didn’t end up saying anything about the document I had in hand. All they said was, “We’ll continue to work with the world to save climate change from happening,” and that was the end of it.

Amy Goodman: Can you very quickly address India? What does climate change mean for India?

Nitin Sethi: It’s a double whammy for India. At one point, India is one of the largest—or has a large percentage of its population vulnerable to what’s going to happen when climate change reaches certain levels. At the other stage, it has a development challenge of: Can it develop fast enough, cleaner enough, to ensure that more people don’t come in harm’s way? It’s a tough one for them, because you have about roughly 400 million people, even today, in India who do not have access to basic power and needs. And you need to provide them electricity and power in the next few years. You need to provide them quick, cheap and clean. It’s a challenge for any economy, I think, and it’s a great challenge simply because of the population levels, the way place—where they’re placed on the economic ladder right now, to do this and try and do this differently than other nations. And I think that’s the challenge for India.

Amy Goodman: And what about the Indian government? How is it dealing with climate change?

Nitin Sethi: I would say it’s been a slow start. There are some initiatives where they’ve done really well, on, say, issues like energy efficiency, building large solar plants. They’ve suddenly woken up in the last few years and are ratcheting up. But the energy demand overall is so high that even as they invest what in Indian rupees is 95,000 crores over the next 20 years, it still will not add up to more than 5 to 7 or 10 percent of the solar—of the entire energy mix of the country. So it’s a tough one, and it’s a risk for any nation to say, “I will invest in future rather than investing in my present.” And that’s the challenge India is facing.

Amy Goodman: Very quickly, what do you see as the most important accomplishment that should come out of the summit here?

Nitin Sethi: I think there are three that should act. Hopefully, they all come out together.

Amy Goodman: We have 20 seconds.

Nitin Sethi: One is loss and damage. Two is finance. Third is elements for the 2015 agreement which lays out the basic framework for that.

Amy Goodman: I want to thank you very much, Nitin Sethi, senior assistant editorThe Hindu, responsible for leaking the confidential U.S. briefing papers for diplomats prior to the climate summit in Warsaw, and we’ll link to those documents at

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