The news broke quietly in the Danish press the Saturday before the U.S. midterm elections last month: according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, a spy from Britain’s most secretive intelligence agency, GCHQ, went disguised as a UK delegate to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, and another was deployed to the UN’s Cancun climate talks in 2010. This followed news last winter that the NSA also spied on the Copenhagen negotiations.

As climate talks pick up again this week, this time in Lima, Peru, a number of negotiators and observers have shrugged off the reports of espionage. Although Secretary General Ban Ki-moon initially hinted that the UN would launch an investigation into British spying, a spokesperson has refused to confirm that any formal inquiry exists.

One senior negotiator from the G77 group of developing states wrote of past spying in an email, “I am afraid that it does not surprise me at all, nor many other negotiators for that matter, I believe.” She added,  “Those countries which have the means to use the latest technology, or the financial resources to ’embed’ agents in their delegations…have been doing so and will continue to do so.”

Veteran climate negotiator Ronny Jumeau, of the Indian Ocean archipelago Seychelles, was unshaken by the news of British and NSA spying. At this point, Jumeau is used to prying eyes. Seychelles, located off the Horn of Africa, are home to a base from which the U.S. has launched drones bound for Somalia on counterterrorism missions. Rumors regularly circulate of alleged new plans for foreign military bases by countries like Russia and China. “Everybody and his dog spies on us,” says Jumeau.

Venezuela’s chief climate change negotiator, Claudia Salerno Caldera, told ClimateWire earlier this year that she was not surprised by last winter’s revelations of NSA spying nor planning to dwell on it in Lima. “We knew,” she added.

The resigned attitudes toward spying at the climate talks signal a normalization of broad surveillance by states like the U.S. and Britain. It seems that spying has become part of the woodwork of international ecological negotiations.

Intelligence gathering is fading into the background in part because it has become so ubiquitous, expanding well beyond traditional redoubts like diplomacy and military affairs into corporate operations, political activism and, yes, environmental affairs. Faiza Patel, who helps lead efforts against surveillance overreach at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, says, “The big point of this story for me is the fact that both the GCHQ and NSA shroud their actions as if it’s all about national security, when what we’ve seen over and over again is that it’s not.”

Memories from two decades of often ugly negotiations may be helping to keep Lima delegates focused on ecological goals rather than surveillance. The talks there, which will continue until December 12, are supposed to produce a draft agreement that would cut greenhouse gas emissions and fund efforts to adapt to climate change impacts that prove unstoppable. The agreement is slated be finalized in Paris in December 2015, six years after the talks in Copenhagen deteriorated.

Spying Tales from Cancun

A series of photos embedded in a PowerPoint presentation titled “Supporting HMG’s [Her Majesty’s Government’s] Climate Change Ambitions (or ‘A GCO’s [Government Communications Officer’s] Tales from Cancun’)” show the pathway the British GCHQ agent must have taken at the 2010 Cancun climate talks. He or she walked alongside men with briefcases on palm-tree-lined sidewalks, watched from a distance as a group of black delegates met outdoors under straw-roofed umbrellas, and sat behind rows of men and women in translation headphones listening to a representative from Japan speak on stage. The spy contemplated a sign on a door marked “China.” (One of his or her photos is included above.)

The agent sought the negotiating strategies of the delegates he or she sat next to. According to the documents, the GCHQ, which is short for Government Communications Headquarters and is Britain’s equivalent of the NSA, hoped to determine other delegations’ positions on “broad or specific issues,” their “red lines,” and what decisions they’d made in advance of the negotiations. The agency wanted to know who was lobbying whom, who were the spoilers and (in bold) “Are delegates reporting back and getting fresh instructions… What are they?”

The presentation’s authors seemed particularly interested in information about how climate change mitigation would impact the economy. The documents asked, “Is low carbon ambition driving government and investor decisions in economies? Is UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] still important or is private capital shifting to low carbon because costs and scarcity of resource make sense? Are governments making the link between extreme weather and high commodity prices?”

The intelligence agency was to pass on the information to a range of “customers,” including Britain’s energy department, its treasury, diplomats with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, its G20 representative, and the prime minister’s office. According to the document, GCHQ’s operation in Cancun was an opportunity to show the recently elected prime minister David Cameron “what we can do.”

It’s not clear whether or not the GCHQ has continued to spy on annual climate negotiations, but a 2010 slide titled “The future” indicates that the agency was already looking ahead to talks in 2011 and 2012.

Other documents described by the Danish paper Dagbladet Information, show the agency also accessed fiber optic cables to intercept communications exchanged in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen talks. Even more egregious, rigged Internet cafes at London’s 2009 G20 summit allowed the GCHQ to collect email addresses, passwords and other sensitive information from delegates, which enabled “attacks providing valuable insights to UK reps prior to meetings informing other government stance on climate change etc.”

Shortly after news of the British spying incident broke on November 1, Ban Ki-moon told Danish TV 2 (translated from Danish) “I do not know at this time what exactly happened. I will look into this matter, but the principle is firm and clear: All diplomatic premises, activities and information are inviolable, and if there is any breach of it, it should be investigated and it must not be repeated.”

Yet, when asked to confirm the existence of an inquiry, UN spokesperson Eri Kaneko told The Intercept only that, “UN premises and facilities are inviolable and our communications must be protected.” She added later, “I don’t have anything to add at this point, other than to say that our standard practice is to follow up on all such allegations with the concerned Member State.”

The presentation indicates that the GCHQ has been leaning an ear towards the climate talks since 2007, but 2009 was the first year it actually sent an agent to the annual meeting of negotiators.

This timeline is similar to one revealed last January in leaked NSA documents. In one document from May 14, 2007, then Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper was quoted at an internal NSA conference saying, “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.”

Another NSA document indicated that the agency may have intercepted early details of a Danish climate proposal that favored U.S. interests. The Danes had avoided sharing the draft out of fear that it would discourage the U.S. from putting forth ambitious proposals at the 2009 conference. According to a government official quoted in Dagbladet Information, “They simply sat back, just as we had feared they would if they knew about our document. They made no constructive statements.”

Copenhagen ended with the a turn away from internationally agreed-upon, legally mandated carbon emissions reductions, towards goals set domestically, driven by what each individual nation found politically feasible.

At the Climate Talks, Money Talks

The fact of spying by two of the climate talks’ wealthiest negotiating parties indicates a chasm in resources and decision-making power between climate delegates from rich countries and ones from nations that are “developing.”

“It’s just a reproduction of greater geopolitics, because climate change in the negotiations–it’s not exclusively about the environment–a lot of it is about economy and money and politics,” says Karen Orenstein, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Friends of the Earth. “The power politics that exist outside the negotiating halls, also exist inside the negotiating halls.”

It appears unlikely that this week’s Lima talks will circle back to legally binding emission reduction targets. Since the U.S. and China together release nearly half of the world’s carbon dioxide from energy consumption, their priorities decide how far any accord will go. A treaty would require approval from a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

What is politically expedient for the U.S. and China may be a death sentence for coastal communities and island nations. Breakthrough emission reduction pledges put forth by the two countries last month have little chance of keeping temperatures below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above which scientists and politicians have agreed lies extreme consequences. A recent UN report said that the globe’s net emissions will have to be zero by 2055 to 2070 in order to meet the 3.6 degree goal.

Seychelles, for example, is also the site of a massive coral die-off due to ocean acidification, which has been bad for the country’s fisheries, its tourism and its efforts to avoid coastal erosion as the tides rise. The country is one of 44 states and observers that make up a negotiating bloc known as AOSIS – the Alliance of Small Island States. Jumeau, the Seychelles negotiator, says many developing nations lack the resources to send enough delegates to even attend all of the meetings, which often last hours, bleed into one another, and spill out into informal, simultaneous, side-gatherings where some of the most important decisions are made.

WikiLeaks Cables Reveal Financial Aid Haggling

If commitments by bigger, richer states aren’t enough, some island nations could disappear, and that fact is exactly what gives negotiators aligned with AOSIS some degree of power. By setting high emission reductions goals and presenting their own demise as an immediate consequence of weak climate actions, island nations pose as the “moral conscience” of the negotiations.

Yet many AOSIS countries count on financial aid from their negotiating adversaries in Lima to support climate adaptation projects. Diplomatic cables leaked by Chelsea Manning reveal how countries have attempted to use financial need as bargaining leverage in climate dealings.

In one cable from February 2010, former EU climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard “suggested the AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) countries ‘could be our best allies’ given their need for financing.”

In another cable from around the same time, an ambassador from the Maldives, a tiny island nation, suggested that cooperation could be bought with aid. The cables read, “Maldives would like to see that small countries, like Maldives, that are at the forefront of the climate debate, receive tangible assistance from the larger economies. Other nations would then come to realize that there are advantages to be gained by compliance.”

Developing countries’ strength in the negotiations lies in unity, says Meena Raman of the Third World Network. “If they are divided, then they lose and the small voices will not be heard.”

And if the voices of nations confronting the first wave of climate crises are drowned out, Jumeau wonders who’s next. “You have to redraw the shape of the whole world. It’s not just you paint some blue over where we are. Already on the globe we’re a speck,” he says. “The coastline of Africa, of Australia, of the U.S. will have changed.”

Orenstein of Friends of the Earth cautions against dismissing the talks. “We have to take it seriously – it’s the most democratic space we have,” she says. “You don’t want to take it outside the United Nations because then you end up with the Big Boys Club,” in other words, organizations like the G20, a body that only includes 20 of “the world’s largest advanced and emerging economies”, and one that has also been subject to NSA eavesdropping.