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Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace on Obama’s Peace Prize, Obama’s War, Copenhagen and Climate Debt

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Longtime South African activist Kumi Naidoo was recently appointed the new executive director of Greenpeace International. In 1986 Naidoo was forced to go underground after he was arrested for violating the apartheid government’s state of emergency regulations. He later became one of the founders of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. We speak to Naidoo about Obama’s Nobel Prize, the status of the Copenhagen summit, climate debt, and how his days resisting the apartheid government have influenced his current fight for climate justice. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We are inside the Bella Center. For more on President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, we’re joined now by Kumi Naidoo, the new executive director of Greenpeace International. Naidoo is a longtime activist in South Africa. At the age of fourteen, he joined the anti-apartheid movement. In 1986 he was forced to go underground after he was arrested for violating the apartheid government’s state of emergency regulations. After nearly a year underground, he moved out of South Africa, not to return until after the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990. He later became one of the founders of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty.

As the new head of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo has not been shy about criticizing President Obama and his stance on climate change. Greenpeace recently unveiled a billboard showing President Obama as an old man. The text of the ad reads, quote, “I’m Sorry, We Could Have Stopped Catastrophic Climate Change…We Didn’t.”

Well, Kumi Naidoo, I want to welcome you to Democracy Now!

KUMI NAIDOO: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. As you sat here watching President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech, actually just about 300 miles away in another Scandinavian capital, in Oslo, Norway, your thoughts?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, firstly, we congratulate President Obama on his achievement. We welcome his statements on working for nuclear disarmament. But overall, I think the speech spent too much of time on justifying war, too little time looking at the root causes of war, and, in fact, the one — just only one passing reference to climate change and, in fact, this big summit taking place here.

If we understand what’s happening in terms of the current impacts of climate change, climate change is driving up conflict across the world and, in fact, is probably the biggest threat to our security in the future. So therefore, while we wish him well in accepting this Nobel Peace Prize, overall, we would have wanted to see much more commitment to saying that what he was going to do when he came back to Copenhagen in a week’s time was to actually work hard for delivering a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty. And the fact that there was no mention to it, that is quite disappointing.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the role that the US is playing here in the climate negotiations? Can you explain what’s happening behind the scenes?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, the US delegation here has, overall, been largely playing a negative role. Todd Stern, the leader of the delegation, surprised us yesterday when he said that the reason that the US government was not pushing for a legally binding treaty was because that was the preference of the Danish government. Now that sounds really strange to us. Since when the Danish government had so much of influence over the US government?

But overall, they are holding back on targets. They still — even though the EPA has given a ruling that allows President Obama to be more ambitious in terms of committing to midterm cuts by 2020, there’s no substantial figures on the table. And also, we know that one of the deal breakers here behind the negotiations is with the developing countries, who have had virtually no responsibility in the climate catastrophe that we find ourselves and are paying the biggest price, require the financial support to actually cope with it, and the US has not been generous in terms of money on the table, either.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of climate debt, I want to go to what the climate change envoy Todd Stern had to say about the demand for climate reparations at his news conference here on Wednesday.

    TODD STERN: I actually completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations or anything of the like. I mean, let’s just be mindful of the fact that for most of the 200 years that — since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. So I think that’s the wrong way to look at this. We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting the emissions in the atmosphere up there that are — you know, that are there now. But the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just — I categorically reject that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the chief US climate negotiator Todd Stern speaking here yesterday in Copenhagen. Kumi Naidoo, your response? And explain, for people who are not used to hearing this term, “climate debt and reparations,” what this means.

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, developing countries, the majority of whom have been hardly responsible for the climate catastrophe we find ourselves, which means the amount of emissions and pollution that has actually had the impact and that is accelerating the impact that, you know, threatens the climate, are saying that rich countries developed their economies in a particular dirty energy path. Now they need to help developing countries, who are paying the first and most brutal price, in many cases, for the climate impacts, to do two things.

One is to deal with already the reality that we are losing 300,000 lives every year as a result of direct climate impacts now, the fact that in Africa, for example, we already have climate refugees, the fact that conflicts like Darfur, for example — people see it simply as an ethnic conflict, but Lake Chad, which is a neighboring — neighbors Darfur, was one of the largest inland seas in the world, it’s virtually dried up now. So, given all of that, there is a — there’s acceptance on the part of most of the developed world, which is reflected in the Kyoto Protocol already, that there has to be support for developing countries to actually recognize that they have not been culpable and they need support.

With the United States, in particular, we — the United States population is less than five percent of the world’s population, but it’s been responsible, historically and presently, for in excess of 20 percent of harmful emissions into the atmosphere. And when you look at it in that way, there is obviously a responsibility. I don’t think President Obama actually denies that. Todd Stern might.

But the reality now is that we need to move beyond the blame game, as well, because the climate catastrophe now offers us an opportunity, as well, because we have to recognize that if — unless rich and poor countries come together, get it right at the summit, and deliver an agreement that can address climate change in terms of stopping deforestation, slashing emissions, providing the cash, then we can actually secure this planet for our children and grandchildren. If we don’t get it right, we all go down. It’s not as if the rich countries can protect themselves and somehow get away with it. We either get this right as a global family, or we’re sunk.

And our disappointment with the stance of President Obama, while we understand the political difficulties he’s had to deal with in the United States, is that there has not — he has not used his political capital with the American people in the way that he’s used it on healthcare, which many progressive people like myself actually support, you know, healthcare reform in the United States, of course, but he needs to use — and he should have done it already — that same kind of emphasis with the American people, convening a joint setting of Congress, during town hall meetings, and so on.

And we must remember that when President Bush was engaged in eight years of denialism, it was the American people — local governments, certain states and civil society were way ahead of the Bush administration. And sadly, I have to say, right now, we would have expected that President Obama would have been way ahead of public opinion, and that does not actually appear to be the case, because still the majority, 54 percent, of American people, according to recent surveys, want action on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo, when we come back from break, I want to ask you about what some call the Obama effect, what is happening to progressives in the United States when, for example, President Obama is receiving the Nobel Peace Prize as he’s just announced a surge of war, an escalation of war in Afghanistan. And I want to talk to you about your own life experience, as you fought for the liberation of South Africa and then took on the very government representing a party you supported for so many years, the African National Congress.

Kumi Naidoo is our guest. He is head of one of the largest environmental organizations in the world. It’s their first African leader. It’s Greenpeace International. We’ll be back in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting live from Copenhagen. We’re the only grassroots, global public television, radio news hour that is coming out of the COP15 summit daily for the full two weeks of this summit. Yes, this is Climate Countdown.

And our guest today, Kumi Naidoo, he is — has just taken on the reins of one of the largest environmental groups in the world. It’s Greenpeace International. He comes from South Africa, a longtime South African anti-apartheid activist.

Kumi Naidoo, I want to go back to President Obama on the issue of war. And you just said he spent too much time in his Nobel Peace address talking about war. What about this escalation of war in Afghanistan?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, this war is going to cost $30 billion a year, in terms of the escalation. President Obama and the rest of the developed world have not yet put that amount of money to help poor countries cope with climate change. It is also something that I think it’s a spiral, that there doesn’t appear to be a clear strategy to get out of it.

But in any event, what we would say is that we have to look at the causes of war. There’s too less emphasis on understanding and addressing the root causes of war. And we would say that working — addressing climate change, addressing human rights, addressing some of the issues of deep sense of injustice that people have faced, and putting more energy in that, we would have liked to have seen, you know, a big chunk of that money be deployed for addressing the root causes of war, because, you know, if you look at the Darfur genocide, for example, one of the drivers of that has been the impacts of climate change. It’s water scarcity, land scarcity, and so on.

And even though there is in the kind of spin — lip service is paid to the importance of development and so on, but if you interrogate the resource allocation, the amounts of money that are going to addressing development issues, building democratic institutions and so on, it’s still minuscule when compared to the amount of money that goes actually into military expenditure. And that’s not good enough. And we would have expected better from President Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s look at your history and look at what movements mean and what it means then to take on the leaders of your own movements when they move into government. Tell us a little about your history. You are — were not — did not come to Greenpeace International as an environmentalist.

KUMI NAIDOO: No. I started — well, I should say I didn’t come as a conventional environmentalist. I was expelled from school when I was fifteen years old for getting involved in a national student uprising against apartheid education.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you live?


AMY GOODMAN: In Durban, South Africa.

KUMI NAIDOO: And that probably was a very good thing, because it set me on a cause of struggling for justice, because, you know, it was a very pivotal thing to happen, then participated in both the mass movement as well as in the underground movement as part of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. I had to flee the country when I was twenty-two. And I was lucky that I had a Rhodes Scholarship and got to Oxford and Yale and got some education.

I came back immediately after President Mandela was released from prison — of course, he wasn’t president then — to help build the ANC as a legal political party. I worked one year on a voluntary basis doing that. And then, when the elections eventually came, I made a decision to stay out of government, even though I was offered positions, to help build civil society, because what we felt was it was critically important for democracy that, in fact, we don’t understand democracy simply as the singular act of voting in an election, you know, every couple years, but to actually ensure that there’s real participation, real voice.

And so, I understand the problem that progressives in the United States are having, because, you know, they are passionate about President Obama’s candidacy, and now there are several positions that he’s taken, obviously, that is not, you know, necessarily in line with some of the expectations.

So, in South Africa, we confronted the same thing, and we evolved a notion of what we called critical solidarity, which we said was — you know, we’re obviously in solidarity with the first democratic government that we’ve had, but that solidarity has to be based on a critical basis, that if, in fact, there are policies that we disagree with, we must have the space to articulate that, we must be able to speak truth to power. And I’m happy to say that there is that space in South Africa to do that right now.

AMY GOODMAN: When you were tapped to be head of Greenpeace, you were not exactly sitting in your office waiting to receive a phone call.

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, I was approached by the search company actually on the nineteenth day of a twenty-one-day hunger strike to put pressure on my own government in South Africa to change its policy toward Zimbabwe. I had been in Zimbabwe at Christmas time consulting with colleagues there about how we might assist them from the outside, and people said to me, “Kumi, go back home and get your government to stop acting like a condom to Robert Mugabe.” And, you know — and what I saw was shocking, given this was one of the most promising countries on our continent.

And, of course, I also chair the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. And we have been doing — we have seen, some time ago, the connection between poverty and climate change, because we’re seeing that climate change is doing two things with regard to poverty. One is, it’s exacerbating it immediately, and it’s also reversing certain successes that we’ve had.

So when the call came, I was a little bit surprised. I was deeply honored, because I have been a big admirer of Greenpeace ever since the French intelligence service sunk the Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace ship, in Auckland, New Zealand in the mid-’80s. And persuaded by my sixteen-year-old daughter, I got the confidence to go ahead with the process. And I’m very pleased actually to be at Greenpeace and to be able to connect these different agendas of human rights, poverty and environmental activism.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go right now to the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu, which has taken a firm stand at the climate talks here in Copenhagen, citing its very survival as being at stake. Tuvalu is among the world’s most vulnerable to rising sea levels due to climate change.

On Wednesday, Tuvalu tried to get the full conference to consider a legally binding new protocol that would require more aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and a more ambitious climate target than is being considered. Specifically, Tuvalu asked to amend the UN climate treaty to cap the rise in temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius, instead of the proposed two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

After an exchange with the Danish conference president, Connie Hedegaard, Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry called for a suspension of the conference to consider the proposal.

    IAN FRY: Thank you, Madame Chair, and thank you for your consideration of the matter. Unfortunately, we cannot accept your ruling on this matter. This issue is too important for us. We cannot accept an informal process, and therefore, if this cannot be resolved by a procedure, then we call for a suspension of the COP. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The suspension was granted, and while the delegates went into recess, Tuvalu supporters started a rally outside the doors of the plenary room.

    TUVALU SUPPORTERS: Treaty now! Legal treaty now! Legal treaty now! Legal treaty now! Legal treaty now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now!

    ASHWINI PRABHA: I’m Ashwini Prabha. I’m from Fiji. I’m here to support Tuvalu and the AOSIS, who have basically demanded in the session at COP and said that they need an open session and a session where they can discuss their proposal, where they can discuss about a legally binding treaty, two protocol treaty, basically, because they believe that all the countries should be able to sign onto a treaty and the Kyoto Protocol should stay alive. And they believe that we need to look at 1.5 degrees to stay alive. And that’s why I’m here. I’m here because my people are affected by climate change. Our survival is at stake if they don’t strike a legally binding agreement in this city, in Copenhagen, this year, now.

    BEN MARGOLIS: I’m Ben Margolis. I’m from the UK. We’re here today with a whole bunch of different groups, because at the moment the climate talks are at a critical phase, and every discussion that is happening in these plenaries is crucial. And we’re following them closely.

    And what we saw this morning is that when a small island state, a state that is the most vulnerable to climate change, Tuvalu, asked for these meetings to be held in an open and transparent way, they weren’t given their wish. They were told that they were being closed out of the meeting.

    And we feel that now, more than ever, civil society needs to stand with these states who are going to be affected by climate change. And it’s amazing to see that there are hundreds of people who care about this. And everybody came out spontaneously. We’re here together in a stand with Tuvalu and the other small island vulnerable states.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ben Margolis of the Global Campaign for Climate Action, and before that, Ashwini [Prabha], a resident of Fiji.

If you could talk about the Tuvalu presence here, the experience of this country, Kumi Naidoo?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, for the Pacific Island states, and particularly for Tuvalu, climate change is not something that’s going happen; it’s hitting them already. Already there’s impacts of sea level rise. If nothing is done here urgently at this summit to begin to reverse the trajectory we’re on, this island state is going to be wiped off. And sadly, it looks like, you know, for some of those Pacific Island states, already some of it is lost already.

AMY GOODMAN: Can they stop the COP15 summit with the prediction that there will not be a binding treaty out of this conference?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, you know, two years ago in Bali at this stage of the conference, the similar conference, everybody had more or less thrown in the towel, because President Bush’s delegation was blocking everything. And people persevered right until the end, and it was the small island states, in the final plenary session on the final day of the conference, that actually intervened, and actually President Bush’s people had to go and come back and actually concede, and that gave us a road back to get there.

So we are saying, as the Tck Tck Tck campaign and Greenpeace, that it’s not over until it’s over. And, in fact, you know the phrase when you say, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”? We are saying it ain’t over ’til the thin man from the United States sings — President Obama — because he has the power to make the difference here. And so, basically the real issue here is about the legally binding, because basically all these small developing countries and citizens across the world know from UN summits that if you don’t get a binding treaty, no implementation takes place. And this is one summit we have to have a real road map that has specific benchmarks and targets and that is binding, because time is running out very, very fast for the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Kumi Naidoo, for joining us, executive director of Greenpeace International.

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