November 30, 2012; Source: The Times of India

The chief U.S. negotiator at the climate change talks in Doha, Qatar, told assembled NGOs in a closed-door, off-the-record meeting, that they have to remember, as the Times of India put it, “who pays for their presence.” He was recorded as saying: “We are one of the funders to make it possible for you to be at the table. I hope you recognize that many of you who come to the meetings you do, the US fights for you at every chance to give you a chance to be in this room.” He also laid into the Qatari hosts of the summit, saying of the meeting involving the ministers of 194 nations: “We are worried frankly about the Qatari vision of a 5 hour session which deals with everything because it may not grapple very well with anything.” A little heavy handed?

Actually, both statements are true, though perhaps a little patronizing to the NGOs and the hosts. But weren’t they off the record? Apparently, one of the NGO reps secretly recorded Pershing’s not-to-be-quoted comments, sort of like the tape-recording of Mitt Romney’s unfortunate 47 percent remark.

The tension in the room deals with the U.S. reluctance to follow through on the Kyoto Protocol commitments on climate control, even under President Obama who has been vocally supportive, except during his reelection campaign, of government action against global warming. According to the TOI, “Pershing suggested that the NGOs shift focus from demanding greater commitment from the developed world to reduce emissions.” He is obviously referring to environmentalists’ criticisms of the U.S. and the European Union for failing to do enough on emission reduction commitments. Pershing is on record saying that the U.S. will not increase its commitment on emission reductions between now and 2020.

The criticism of the structure of the ministers meeting seems also accurate, in that dividing the number of countries into the five hours allocated for discussion leaves each one roughly 2-2.5 minutes of airtime apiece. “It’s not like they have much of a chance to have an engaged conversation under a structure like this. We could find a different way for our politicians to begin to really grapple with and focus on these things,” Pershing said.

It may be worth noting that the sort-of-open U.S. criticism of Qatar is a bit new. Although a tiny oil sheikdom, Qatar has been playing a big role in the west with nonprofit institutions, funding centers on Middle Eastern issues at Georgetown and the Brookings Institution. The U.S. has typically been reticent to whack Qatar too much, for example, expressing displeasure over Turkey’s visit to and support of the Hamas government in Gaza, but not doing the same about a visit from the Qatar’s Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani. Perhaps the presence of a large U.S. military base there is also a factor. But recent Qatari support of Islamists, not just Hamas in Gaza, but al-Shabab in Somalia, may be costing Qatar some of the wide berth the U.S. has accorded it in the past. Even more so might be the recent life sentence handed down by a Qatari court to a poet, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, for the crimes of praising the Arab Spring revolts and criticizing the Qatari leadership as “sheikhs playing on their Playstations.” That was deemed by the leadership as inciting the population to revolution and cost al-Ajami his freedom.

How Qatar hosts the summit – and how it responds to young Arab activists holding protests there to get commitments from Arab countries, especially Qatar, on climate change – may be important to progress on climate change, that is true. But having a global summit hosted by a country ruled by an absolute monarch does create challenges, not the least of which is having people secretly record your statements in closed-door meetings.—Rick Cohen