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Spying on climate change negotiations: waiter, there’s a bug in my soup

June 17, 2013

As the Guardian continues to reveal the remarkable extent of surveillance activities, both in the UK and US, I’m minded to return to a topic that crops up from time to time regarding climate change conferences. Apart from fatuous comments about delegates attending simply to enjoy staying at nice hotels in sunny places (Copenhagen in December, anyone?), an argument that appears to make more sense is that, consistent with the damage that air travel does to the environment, negotiations should be conducted using the technologies available, particularly video conferencing.

I have argued before that this suggestion, while well-meaning, does not reflect the messy realities of international negotiations, where most of the work is necessarily done behind closed doors. Why behind closed doors? Because all negotiations boil down to some pretty ugly horse-trading. That a conference is (nominally) about climate change does not mean for one moment that negotiations are restricted to that subject, that chips on the table are necessarily environmental. The horse-trading that actually takes place will encompass any and all current topics, from arms sales to food imports, from banking regulation to human rights, from solar panel tariffs to copyright and patent agreements.

I don’t think the public are aware quite how diverse, expedient and cynical such negotiations can be, but if you accept for a moment the probability, then it becomes immediately apparent that you would not want to make public the kind of back-room deals done to secure agreement on the environment, when so many bargaining chips have little or nothing to do with the apparent aims of the conference, and where the public might well be horrified to find things they value, issues they care about, reduced to their trading value alone irrespective of merit or meaning.

There are a number of very good reasons why politicians and diplomats prefer to meet in person, perhaps the main one being that productive discussions happen spontaneously as often as not. The speed at which things change when delegates are continuously updated by the principals they represent, the shifting tides of self-interest, and the nuance apparent across a table that a video camera can never capture or transmit, all contribute to the give and take of negotiation in person. How, for example can you expect a video conference to adequately communicate the reactions, body language and expressions of a dozen delegates and their advisors? How do you emulate in digital terms the pick-up meeting, the chance encounter in a hallway, the late-night discussions in a hotel room or over a meal? It is this flexibility, this dynamic, that makes useful negotiation possible.

Then again, if one requires privacy or indeed secrecy in order to forge agreement, video conferencing might be something of a liability. Here’s a quote from today’s Guardian headline article, in which they reveal the extent to which the UK security services spy on everyone else:

Foreign politicians and officials who took part in two G20 summit meetings in London in 2009 had their computers monitored and their phone calls intercepted on the instructions of their British government hosts, according to documents seen by the Guardian. Some delegates were tricked into using internet cafes which had been set up by British intelligence agencies to read their email traffic.

Source: GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians’ communications at G20 summits, Guardian 17/6/2013

I haven’t been surprised by recent revelations about systems like PRISM, because their development seems very logical to someone like me who has worked with IT for a long time. Since the potential for spying – on each other, on employees, on celebrities, on politicians, even on the spies themselves – has long been evidence, it really shouldn’t surprise us to discover that, in these anxious times, government agencies, councils, police, security services and the media should avail themselves of such a rich seam of valuable information.

That said, even I was surprised by the almost comic report of MI6 setting up fake internet cafes, something I’d be reluctant to swallow if it occurred in a John Le Carre novel. But there it is; the latest ‘scandal’, the latest breach of trust, another nail in the coffin of privacy, and probably freedom.

Anyway, the next time someone suggests that climate change conferences be conducted using video conferencing, just bear in mind that the fastest way to lose any kind of negotiating advantage is to use a medium for discussion that everyone can listen in on, record, and use against you later on. The internet; don’t you love it?

Footnote: what I left out of the post is an observation about the origin of certain complaints. Too often, the criticism of those who attend climate change related conferences, and the travel (and therefore CO2 emissions) this entails, do not do so out of concern for the environment at all. The ‘objections’ are frequently nothing more than cynical attempts by climate change deniers to discredit conferences and the attendees, as part of the broader agenda of discrediting everything about climate change and its advocates. You can tell these from genuine observations by the frequent inclusion of claims that attendees are on a jolly – a ludicrous accusation when you’re familiar with how tedious they are – drawn out, and dull a lot of time, but very demanding on time (early starts, late finishes, rushed snacks in lieu of proper meals, hours spent sitting around…it’s really no fun whatsoever).

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2013 9:55 pm

    Reblogged this on acckkii.

  2. markhb permalink
    June 20, 2013 11:23 pm

    I do take your points Graham – and they are fine ones. As someone who does a lot of skype business meetings across multiple jurisdictions – i know that they can & do work, but it tends to go better with fewer participants who are aligned in purpose and already know each other quite well. The frustration is probably down to the general lack of meaningful progress which seems to emanate from these damn summits. The bon mots – if it works don’t fix it – is turned on its head. its not working so we really do need to change something about supranational governance in order to make it work better.

  3. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 21, 2013 5:54 am

    acckkii – Thanks – much appreciated

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    June 21, 2013 6:07 am

    markhb: Thanks Mark. That’s actually a helpful comment to me, because I’ve been out of the business world since 2007, when Skype use was not common, even in the IT business I was in. These days it’s ubiquitous, and there’s no doubt that on a one on one basis it’s miles better than a phone call – much richer and more nuanced way to communicate.

    The thing I wonder about, and you confirm, is that if you get a large bunch of strangers with diverse or conflicting aims, and who are unfamiliar with each other, the compression of data (expression, tone, body language) on a multi-participant screen renders the information vague, easy to misinterpret, and – as I mentioned – all too easy to hack, record and misuse when the discussions are confidential or even secret.

    That there is much dirty laundry in some closed-door negotiations is a fact of life, and wishful thinking isn’t going to change that, no matter how well intentioned (although I’ll add that too often, the ‘objections’ are an attempt by climate change deniers to discredit conferences and the amount of people who must travel to them, as part of the broader agenda of discrediting everything about climate change and its advocates, something I left out of the post but have now added as a footnote).

    As for the problems, the lack of progress, the posturing and so forth – it’s just domestic politics writ large. While I agree that trans-national politics needs sorting, I think that if we improved the domestic versions, perhaps the greater issue would also improve. I think we need to do it in that order too, because trying to tackle the larger issue without fixing first the smaller one doesn’t sound to me like a viable strategy.

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