Listen to the People, Not the Polluters: Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace on the Global Climate Uprising

September 25, 2014
Image Credit: Michael Nagle / Greenpeace

The People’s Climate March, which saw hundreds of thousands around the world take to the streets for action on global warming in New York City, was followed this week by a United Nations climate summit in which world leaders advanced an agenda devoid of binding commitments. We discuss this global climate week and what comes next with Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International. On the eve of the climate summit, Greenpeace projected the message "Listen to the People, Not the Polluters!" on the side of the U.N. building. Much of Greenpeace’s focus here has been on the need to protect the Arctic. During a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the group handed over a petition with six million signatures calling for its long-term protection. With scientists reporting the region is warming more than twice as fast as the global average, Greenpeace and other groups are calling for a ban on oil exploration of the area. Watch Part 2 of this interview.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This week, world leaders have wrapped up a one-day day United Nations summit on climate change with pledges to tackle global warming, but no binding commitments. On the eve of the climate summit, Greenpeace projected the message, "Listen to the People, Not the Polluters!" on the side of the U.N. building.

AMY GOODMAN: Much of Greenpeace’s focus here has been on the need to protect the Arctic. During a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, they handed over a petition with six million signatures calling for its long-term protection. Scientists say the region is warming more than twice as fast as the global average. Greenpeace and other groups are calling for a ban on oil exploration of the area.

For more, we’re joined by Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! Your T-shirt says, "The Arctic affects us all." Kumi, talk about your meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the significance of this week in New York.

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, if forests are the lungs of the planet, the Arctic is the air conditioner and the refrigerator of the planet. When Hurricane Sandy happened here, for example, for the first time we started hearing mainstream American journalists talk about a polar vortex and Arctic freeze. And thankfully, people are understanding that what happens in the Arctic, unlike when Americans say, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. So, the meeting with the secretary-general was to ask him to call for a special summit of world leaders on the Arctic. Thankfully, he didn’t officially comment immediately, but he said he will consider and consult.

We also presented him with a declaration saying that the upper Arctic should be declared a global sanctuary, in the same way that the Antarctic is, where there’s no oil drilling, no industrial fishing and no commercial exploitation. Bear in mind that there are four million indigenous peoples that live in the Arctic. They have lived in a delicate balance with nature, and they have—and their livelihoods have already been impacted. So, from both a human rights and an environmental perspective, we believe that protecting the Arctic is now a critical imperative. And thankfully, the secretary-general completely supports us. The question is: How do we get powerful nations that feel that they have a claim on the Arctic to back down?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve made that appeal to a half-dozen nations that are in the Arctic. What has been generally the track record or the response of these nations?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, Finland is the first Arctic nation that supports our call. They’ve come out in saying that they will support the sanctuary. Sadly, the United States, Canada and Russia are the ones who are wanting to explore for oil and gas. I mean, President Obama is still considering giving Shell a license to explore in the Alaskan Arctic. We know that—you might remember the story of the Arctic 30 from last year. That oil now is actually coming out of the Russian Arctic. But the important thing is that there’s six million people already who have joined actively this campaign. And it was the strength of that support that Ban Ki-moon created a half an hour in his schedule to see us last week.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play clip of you, Kumi, speaking on the phone in 2012, when you and five other Greenpeace activists occupied this Russian oil rig to protest the Arctic, the rig belonging to Gazprom. Kumi, you were being sprayed with water cannons as you spoke to us.

KUMI NAIDOO: We are being—we are being sprayed by a high-pressure hose. We’ve been holding on for the last three hours. But you probably can hear the hose, a heavy [inaudible] spray. We are in a tent. We simply want to make the point that drilling in the Arctic is completely reckless and will accelerate catastrophic climate change. But we are terribly anxious now because they are spraying us heavily with water hoses. And it’s really hard to hang on to the little tent where we are taking refuge.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kumi, who precisely is spraying you with the water hoses?

KUMI NAIDOO: The employee—employees and the security of Gazprom. Gazprom is the oil company that is probably going to be, if we don’t stop them, the first company to start drilling oil in the Arctic. And they’ve been at us now for over an hour, so we’re really struggling to stay up here on the rig at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, that was a little hard to understand, but it was, to say the least, extremely difficult circumstances. In fact, Kumi, you were telling me the story of someone else who heard you on Democracy Now!

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, actually, this was one of my most special moments since I’ve been at Greenpeace, because two weeks after that, I was in Washington, D.C., and I was in a cab. And I get in, and the taxi driver kindly, you know, turned down the volume on the radio, because he didn’t want to disturb me. And then I recognized it was Amy’s voice. And then I said, "Oh, please, turn it up." And then he said, "Oh, do you know Amy Goodman and this program?" I said, "Yes, yes, I know it, and actually I was speaking to her recently." He says, "Oh, you were speaking to her?" And then I said, oh—"When?" I said, "Oh, it was rather weird circumstances." And then he turned around and said, "You’re not that crazy dude from Africa that was hanging off the rig in the Arctic!" And he refused to take—he refused to take a payment for my trip.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So you got a free cab ride out of it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what did happen? Talk about the significance of you calling attention to Gazprom, hanging off, being hit with water cannon.

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, basically, that action opened up a struggle that’s very hard to communicate, because, you know, so many people live so far away from the Arctic, and they think it’s just another world. And I think last year, when we went back, and when the Russian state took a different approach—because when we were there, the Russian coast guard didn’t act on us, right? I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you were the executive director of this international organization.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah, exactly. And I think it might have been that. And then, when our colleagues went back last year and they spent, you know, almost three months in prison, charged with piracy and so on, but that was maybe the unintended consequence of President Putin’s action, which led to an explosion of solidarity around the world. People know now that the Arctic is a critical part of the solution to address climate change. And I’m pleased to say that the first sitting head of state has signed the declaration that we—and he signed it in the Arctic just before he came to the United Nations. He went with us on our ship.

AMY GOODMAN: Of Finland.

KUMI NAIDOO: No, no, the president of Kiribati. President Tong went with us to the Arctic, and he got out on the ice, and he signed it. And one of the amazing things, while he was signing it, a little polar bear appeared on a ridge, you know, far above. And we—I am, after the summit, going to write every head of state to actually ask them to support the declaration. I believe that this is now winnable, that after the "urgency" voices we’ve heard at the climate summit, we now want to see whether they were just words or just—or whether it’s backed by real commitment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the climate summit. You also spoke there on a panel with Unilever and Cargill, two major international companies. And this whole issue of the corporations now that are stepping forward pretending or saying that they’re going to act even faster than governments are on the issue of beginning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is there any concern about this whole sort of "Let us do it voluntarily, rather than through treaties or through government commitments"?

KUMI NAIDOO: Absolutely perfect question, because Greenpeace’s position—some civil society groups have signed, and, you know, we can understand why they’ve signed. We’ve took a position not to sign the New York Declaration on Forests precisely because we do not believe that voluntary action on its own is going to deliver the solutions to protect our forests fast enough. We believe that there has to be strong governmental leadership, strong laws, and not only that should there be strong laws, but there needs to be implementation and compliance to the laws. There are some good laws that exist to protect forests all over the world, but our governments are not implementing it. However, when companies do take a step in a positive direction, we will push—you know, we will accept it, and we will encourage them to go further. But we do not have the faith that companies that have destroyed our forests, who have made billions of dollars from destroying our forests, are going to actually suddenly become, overnight, sort of good citizens, and to the extent where they will act with the scale of ambition and urgency that the situation calls for.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumi, what do you take back to Durban, South Africa, where you live? The largest climate march happened on Sunday. On Tuesday, this U.N. climate summit that you participated in. And some described it as this kind of self-congratulatory fest that they were concerned would lead to less regulation, because all the countries and the corporations were saying, "See, we’re doing a great job."

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, my one-line description of the climate summit outcome is that we got much more than many of us thought we would get in terms of stated commitments, but we got significantly less than what the world needs us to do. I have no doubt in my mind that the mobilization of people in New York and around the world in such large numbers was a wake-up call both to the U.S. political establishment, as well as to the others, as well as the corporate sector. I found CEOs of companies within the U.N. coming to me and saying, "Congratulations. You guys have now won the argument." Right? "There’s no question about it. You’ve got the momentum." And so on. The important message to individual citizens around the world: We cannot rest on our own laurels now. Four hundred thousand here in New York. We need, globally, not just hundreds of millions; we need—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

KUMI NAIDOO: We need billions of people to actually join. And I think we have the basis to build that movement.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to ask you to stay with us after the show to talk about what exactly the road to the solution should be. I want to thank Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, for being with us. And speaking of our taxi audience, I want to give a shout out to Shaun Randol, who just tweeted, "Cabbing it to work today. Driver tunes in to @democracynow ... I’m doubling his tip."

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