The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen radically changed the international politics of climate change. Old alliances are shifting and new ones are forming in response to the Copenhagen Accord, the agreement not quite reached at the end of the conference.

United States negotiators began suggesting some of the fundamental features of the Accord, most notably non-binding emission reductions from all countries, at an October U.N. climate meeting in Bangkok. The drum beat continued in November in Barcelona, at the final preparatory meeting for COP 15 in Copenhagen, with growing support from the E.U. and other major industrial developed nations. Meanwhile, the African Union and most developing countries regarded the U.S. suggestion with contempt, considering it an attempt to shift some of the responsibility for greenhouse gas emission reductions onto them and perhaps even kill the Kyoto protocol. African Union countries briefly walked out of the Barcelona meetings until they were assured that Kyoto protocol negotiations about developed country emission reductions would continue with increased priority.

This is the context within which Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, exercised his responsibilities as spokesperson for the African Union negotiating team. In September, he made clear that Africa was prepared to walk out of the negotiations if their minimum requirements were not met. As mentioned above, African negotiators made clear that their walkout threat was serious by briefly walking out in Barcelona.  Throughout the first week of the Copenhagen climate conference, Africa held the moral high ground, insisting upon an agreement that would hold average temperature increase to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius and require developed country emission cuts of 45% by 2020.

Many had reservations about the selection of Meles to speak for Africa in Copenhagen. His human rights record is abysmal and his critics considered him a cynical opportunist unlikely to represent Africa well. In the second week of the Copenhagen conference, their fears were justified.

Prior to their arrival in Copenhagen at the end of the conference, Barack Obama telephoned Prime Minister Meles to ask for his help in building an agreement. Here’s the White House statement describing the call:

With Prime Minister Meles, the President reviewed efforts by the United States on climate change and reiterated his commitment to making progress. He expressed his appreciation for the leadership role the Prime Minister was playing in work with African countries on climate change, and urged him to help reach agreement at the Leaders summit later this week in Copenhagen. For his part, Prime Minister Meles stressed the importance of success in Copenhagen, and the need to find ways to make suitable progress on the mitigation, adaptation, and the provision of finance for the developing countries.

On the day after Obama’s call to Meles, the Ethiopian Prime Minister stopped off in Paris on his way to Copenhagen to meet with French President Sarkozy. In a shocking contradiction of the African Union’s public position, Meles Zenawi and Nicolas Sarkozy held a press conference to announce a joint proposal calling for a temperature increase maximum of 2 degrees C. Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese Chairperson of the G77 and China developing nation negotiating group, has pointed out that 2 degrees Celsius would translate to 3.5 degrees Celsius for Africa according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That level of temperature increase would be “certain death for Africa”, according to Di-Aping.

The unilateral public reversal of Meles earned praise from Obama and Sarkozy, but criticism from fellow African Union members who made clear that the announcement was not based on consultation and did not represent either African Union or G77 positions.