Bush-administration officials privately threatened organizers of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, telling them that any chance there might’ve been for the United States to sign on to the Kyoto global-warming protocol would be scuttled if they allowed Bill Clinton to speak at the gathering today in Montreal, according to a source involved with the negotiations who spoke to New York Magazine on condition of anonymity.
Bush officials informed organizers of their intention to pull out of the new Kyoto deal late Thursday afternoon, soon after news leaked that Clinton was scheduled to speak, the source said.
The threat set in motion a flurry of frantic back-channel negotiations between conference organizers and aides to Bush and Clinton that lasted into the night on Thursday, and at one point Clinton flatly told his advisers that he was going to pull out and not deliver the speech, the source said.
“It’s just astounding,” the source told New York Magazine. “It came through loud and clear from the Bush people—they wouldn’t sign the deal if Clinton were allowed to speak.” Clinton spokesman Jay Carson confirmed the dustup took place and that the former president had decided not to go out of fear of harming the negotiations, but Carson declined to comment further.
On Friday afternoon, Clinton did end up speaking at the conference, a global audience of diplomats, environmentalists, and others who were in the final hours of a two-week gathering devoted to discussing the future of the protocol, the existing emissions-controls agreement. In 1997, Al Gore, then vice-president, helped negotiate the protocol, but it never passed the Senate. In 2001, it was formally renounced by the Bush administration, which argues that cutting greenhouse-gas emissions would hurt the American economy.
Some delegations at the conference appear ready to move forward and renegotiate the agreement without the Bush administration. But environmentalists and conference organizers are holding out hope that the administration will reconsider and sign on to the treaty or take steps to implement tougher climate-control standards. Both options would be considered an improvement over current U.S. commitments. But the specter of Clinton’s speaking caused the Bush administration to threaten to walk away.
In his Friday speech, Clinton blasted the Bush administration’s opposition as “flat wrong.”
But the speech almost didn’t happen.
The contretemps started late Thursday afternoon, when the Associated Press ran a story saying that Clinton had been added at the last minute to the gathering’s speaking schedule at the request of conference organizers. According to the source, barely minutes after the news leaked, conference organizers called Clinton aides and told them that Bush-administration officials were displeased.
“The organizers said the Bush people were threatening to pull out of the deal,” the source said. After some deliberation between Clinton and his aides, Clinton decided he wouldn’t speak, added the source: “President Clinton immediately said, ‘There’s no way that I’m gonna let petty politics get in the way of the deal. So I’m not gonna come.’ That’s the message [the Clinton people] sent back to the organizers.”
But the organizers of the conference didn’t want to accept a Bush-administration dictum. They asked Clinton that he go ahead with the speech. “The organizers decided to call the administration’s bluff,” the source said. “They said, ‘We’re gonna push [the Bush people] back on this.’”
Several hours went by, and at the Clinton Foundation’s holiday party on Thursday night, the former president and his aides still thought they weren’t going to Montreal. “The staff that was supposed to go with him had canceled their travel plans,” the source said.
At around 8:30 p.m., organizers called Clinton aides and said that they’d successfully called the bluff of Bush officials, adding that Bush’s aides had backed off and indicated that Clinton’s appearance wouldn’t in fact have adverse diplomatic consequences.
Several hours after all these tense negotiations had been resolved, the U.S. delegation’s chief, Paula Dobriansky, issued a statement saying that events such as Clinton’s speaking “are useful opportunities to hear a wide range of views on global climate change.”
“They were trying to clean up the mess,” the source said. Late Friday the U.S. walked out for other reasons.
A White House spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.