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Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo, from Anti-Apartheid Activist to Leading Voice for Climate Justice

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The U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban marks a homecoming for Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo. At the age of 14, Naidoo joined the anti-apartheid movement and was soon 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. We speak to Naidoo about the climate summit and the link between his anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s and his environmental work today. “The problem is, the level of ambition and the level of urgency being exhibited in these talks do not match what the science is telling us to do,” says Naidoo. “We are seeing in Africa—in the Horn of Africa with the drought, the conflict in Darfur, the devastation that African women farmers are facing all over our continent—that climate change impacts are taking lives right now. So in that context, we feel that there has to be a much greater sense of urgency to move the agenda forward.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from inside the IFCCC. We are broadcasting from inside the climate change summit here in Durban, South Africa. And I’m joined now by Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, who did make it inside, eventually, the hotel to speak with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. Kumi Naidoo is a longtime activist from right here in Durban, South Africa, the site of this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference. At the age of 14, Kumi Naidoo 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.

Kumi Naidoo, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s good to be with you this year. We were with you last year in Cancún. This year, it’s in your home town, the U.N. climate summit, in Durban, South Africa.

KUMI NAIDOO: Thank you, Amy. It’s very good to be on Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: So, you did get in, eventually, to this World Business Council on Sustainable Development that the protesters attempted—Greenpeace activists attempted to do a banner hang over the hotel where they were meeting that said, “Listen to the people, not the polluters.” When you got into the council meeting, what did you say, and what did they say to you?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, because most of the seats at the back had been taken, we were directed—my colleague, supporter and I were directed to the third row in the front. And the executive director of the council was just doing his opening statement, and he acknowledged the head of the [UNFCCC], the United Nations head on climate change, Christiana Figueres. And as he did that, he saw me come in, and he said, “Oh, and here’s Kumi Naidoo from Greenpeace. Welcome.” And then he said, “It’s much better being inside than on the outside.” And then I said, “Unfortunately, we have to do both. Both are necessary.” We are not opposed to the idea of dialogue with corporations, but clearly corporations are not actually moving as fast as we need them to move and, in fact, are actually holding us back. Therefore, we think that calling them out, naming and shaming them, is critically necessary so that people know why these climate talks here are not actually going as fast as we need them to go.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you respond to the Siemens representative within the Business Council. When we got down from the roof to the meeting, he said the protesters are underestimating their effect. He said, in fact, they have a tremendous effect, and that is why we’re here, he said. We are here to, yes, make a profit, but over renewable energy. We are trying to sell these new products that actually partly come as a result of you outside.

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, he is right that civil society pressure has got momentum and has got people to this point of discussions. But the problem is, the level of ambition and the level of urgency being exhibited in these talks do not match what the science is telling us to do. The science is telling us emissions should peak by 2015, which is like three years from now, and start coming down. We are seeing in Africa—in the Horn of Africa with the drought, the conflict in Darfur, the devastation that African women farmers are facing all over our continent—that climate change impacts are taking lives right now. So in that context, we feel that there has to be a much greater sense of urgency to move the agenda forward.

And the truth is, if you look at the United States example, for every member of Congress, there are three full-time lobbyists paid by the oil, coal and gas industry to ensure that progressive climate legislation is not passed. If we look at what the United States did to this negotiation—not the people of the United States, but when President Bush was there, as a climate denialist, even when the Pentagon was telling him in 2003 that the biggest threat to future peace and security will come from climate impacts, that report was buried, and no action was taken. So when we think about how much of time we’ve lost—and sadly, because of the lack of political vision in the national political leadership in the U.S. — we must pay tribute in the U.S., of course, to the efforts of 400 local governments that are trying to do the right thing in many states like California and so on, but the sad reality is the U.S. right now in these negotiations is coming out as the pariah at a time when actually the world needs U.S. leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you say the U.S. is a pariah. What do you mean by that? What role is the U.S. involved in? I should say, right behind us, because as we do this broadcast, right now the U.S. climate negotiator, Todd Stern, is holding his news conference behind us, as the climate negotiators have been through the last week. What is the U.S., do you feel, not doing?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, firstly, the U.S. emission reduction targets that it is putting on the table, when taken in terms of 1990 levels, is about less than 5 percent, when the science actually says that, based on 1990 levels, it should be between 25 and 40 percent. So the U.S. as historically, if you take it over time, the largest emitter, and still per capita a larger emitter than China, even though China now, given its population size and all that, is the largest emitter, the U.S. has to carry a greater level of burden.

Secondly, the U.S. is showing no commitment towards a legally binding deal. The U.S. wants to keep it more to a sort of voluntary level.

Thirdly, the U.S. is obsessed with technical detail that actually goes away from the substance of the talks. So there’s huge fights about the Green Climate Fund in terms of its architecture, how it’s going to be governed. But we can do all of that, but we’ll end up in the same situation that poor countries have been, which is no money is put in the fund, because countries are not actually stepping forward, the rich countries, to actually contribute to, for example, the fast-track fund that was set up in Copenhagen. Most of that money has not actually reached the places where they’re meant to.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Africa particularly hard hit as a continent from climate change?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, you know, as some people say, our continent is cooking, is boiling. We are a hot continent, to start with, if you want. But the bottom line is, the infrastructure that we have on the continent is not as developed, we know, for good historical reasons, as others are. So we have a huge adaptation problem. Sea level rise is hitting us and hitting all the countries that have, you know, coastal populations. If you look at the genocide in Darfur, most of the world understood it as an ethnic conflict. But when you look deeper, that’s probably the first big, tragic resource war that we’ve had, because Lake Chad, one of the largest inland seas in the world, has shrunk to the size of a pond. And on the northern side, climate change is contributing to the Sahel Desert marching southwards at the rate of one mile a year. So water scarcity and land scarcity is impacting severely. So, throughout the continent, one of the biggest issues we have is water stress and then land for agriculture. And to make things worse, those countries that have good agricultural land, we have a land grab going on where certain countries like Saudi Arabia are getting 99 years’ lease on good agricultural land to secure food production back for the—

AMY GOODMAN: They’re buying up the land.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yeah, yeah. Well, they’re getting long-term leases, not technically fully buying it, but essentially, because African countries have such huge financial and economic problems, sadly many governments are actually giving away their food sovereignty by leasing the land for cash. And this is a trend which is a very big concern to many of us in Africa right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo, at the protest this morning, you gave out the “Dirty Dozen in Durban,” the COP 17 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Can you tell us about who some of the people are on your “Dirty Dozen” list?

KUMI NAIDOO: OK, so one of the big culprits is the Koch Industries. The Koch brothers have been actually the biggest funders of climate denialism. They are the ones that have contaminated the national public conversation in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Charles and David Koch of Wisconsin.

KUMI NAIDOO: Yes, yeah. And, you know, of course, we know they’re funding the Tea Party and a whole range of other things, as well. But one of the biggest devastations that they are doing is the way they are confusing the public debate in the U.S. I mean, they are the ones, together with others, that are supporting the false ad campaigns around promoting clean coal, which doesn’t exist. I mean, coal kills. I’ve been in the United States in Chicago, in North Carolina, seeing how in fact the policies of oil, addiction to oil and coal, is actually destroying the health, the prospects of communities and so on.

The second is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce itself. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been very much holding back, through aggressive lobbying at Congress, holding back Congress from passing climate legislation. I mean, you’ve got countries like Australia, where the political leadership faced a public opinion that was heavily stacked against them, but they saw the need to do this. They passed legislation with one vote to spare and took the risk that the government could fall. And sadly, when we look at the U.S., you know, what people are saying on the streets here and in the corridors is the U.S. democracy today is the best democracy fossil fuel your money can buy. Right? And, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s certainly had its effect, because polls show that every year an increasing number of Americans say that climate change is not a problem, is not caused by humans. The majority, the vast majority, of Republican presidential candidates call climate change either a hoax or just say they don’t know what causes climate change. So you have that on one hand, and then you have President Obama who has said that he would make this one of the major issues of his campaign, and yet so many people here are saying, in fact, what, 16 organizations, including your own, Greenpeace, and many of the other major U.S. environmental organizations have said, the U.S. has become a major obstacle to dealing with climate change here.

KUMI NAIDOO: Absolutely. And that’s because, sadly, the U.S., like Canada and many other governments, are listening more to the polluters rather than people. And, you know, notwithstanding the huge amount of resources—and if you want to put it in context, what the fossil fuel industry spends in terms of lobbying to prevent climate legislation go through, it’s more than the GDP of the 50 poorest countries in the world. So I don’t blame American people for being confused.

And let’s be very clear about the U.S. media environment. The U.S. media environment also has a disproportionate influence and control. I mean, in the—one commonality between Australia and the U.S. in terms of the carbon tax, for example, is that Rupert Murdoch played a very negative role in Australia, but we were able to still push through the control and the influence that Fox News and Rupert Murdoch had in the context of Australia. But I have to say that the media environment in the U.S., which is so right-wing, so controlled by certain vested interests—and you must look at the cross-ownership between those that have dominance in the fossil fuel industry and where—certain big media outlets, who owns it and so on. And I think one of the things American people now must ask for, and I think the Occupy movement is expressing that outrage, is about having more media diversity, so that if companies like Koch Industries and all try to contaminate and promote lies, that actually the alternative diversity of opinions can actually break through and balance it.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, very quickly, the “Dirty Dozen,” more of those that you have named?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, we also name Shell, because Shell is one of the key players in the tar sands in Canada, one of the worst polluting ways of extracting oil out of these tar sands. And they, I have to say, all kudos to the American and Canadian people who stood up during your summer months here, getting arrested in Washington, D.C., and all along the pipeline, and President Obama showing some courage, after a long time on this issue, by actually going against a conventional view that it was a done deal and it was a no-brainer, as Stephen Harper, the Canadian—

AMY GOODMAN: The Keystone XL pipeline.

KUMI NAIDOO: —prime minister said, and actually reversing that and putting it on hold for review.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, finally, about—

KUMI NAIDOO: So, can I just say, I don’t want to put all the blame on the U.S. companies, because here in South Africa, Eskom, which is the electricity provider, which is state-owned, is also on the list here, because while it’s talking a good message around “we’re moving in the renewables direction” and so on, it inexplicably is in the process of trying to build two of what will be the five biggest coal plants when they are constructed. So, you know, and South Africa, by the way, is the only African country that is contributing so much greenhouse gas emissions. We are the 12th largest carbon polluter in the world. Right? And so, we put the spotlight on Eskom, as well, because we need them to move more aggressively in the direction of renewable energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your own background? As I saw on Saturday in the streets on Saturday of this mass global day of action for climate justice, you were walking through your own streets, through Durban, South Africa. Can you talk about your own history, your history of anti-apartheid activism, and how it relates to your activism around climate change today?

KUMI NAIDOO: Well, I have to say, it was quite a sense of déjà vu, because when you were talking to me on the street, I was actually—at least on two occasions I got arrested on that same street when I was quite a young person in my late teenage years. And I think that the main lesson from that period is that—and also what history teaches us about activism, you know, whether it’s slavery, civil rights in the U.S., apartheid and so on, when humanity has faced a major injustice or challenge, those struggles only moved forward when decent men and women stood up and said, “Enough is enough, and no more. We’re prepared to put our lives on the line. We’re prepared to go to prison, if necessary,” and so on. And I think that if it was good enough for defeating apartheid that affected people in one country or civil rights in the United States, which affected part of one country, and so on, then I think it’s clear that when the entire future of our children and grandchildren is at stake—because that’s what we’re fighting for here—then surely, in the absence of the urgent action we need on the part of our political and business leaders, civil disobedience now has to be the major part of pushing this.

Clearly, our political and business leaders seem to be suffering from a common medical condition that they all have a problem hearing. You know, we talk to them nicely. We engage with them. In my role in Greenpeace, I’m meeting with heads of state, ministers, CEOs of companies. Very cordial, they agree with everything we’re saying. But quite often, they go back to a default position of business as usual or incremental baby steps in the right direction, when what we need is a fundamental shift to a movement from a dirty, brown fossil fuel-addicted energy framework to a green, renewable energy framework.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re in the largest port in Africa, Durban. Do you equate your anti-apartheid activism with the work you’re doing today?

KUMI NAIDOO: Oh, absolutely. I mean, most of what I’ve learned, actually, and what I use in my work today, I learned from the city, you know? I learned from having—from the activism that I was engaged in. You know, I was very privileged to have been expelled from school when I was 15, which was the trigger, you know, to actually move you into activism. But if I can make a connection between Durban and the transition away from apartheid and these negotiations, nobody in the world would have thought we would have transitioned from a violent apartheid system to a democratic system without a bloodbath. Everybody was predicting a bloodbath. But there was a miracle that actually moved things forward. I hope and pray, and will struggle for, hoping that—in fact, a kind of sudden shift that we had, because we resisted and kept the pressure, and people around the world united to support us. I think if we have that same kind of global solidarity, if people around the world can actually unite—trade unions, social movements, religious leaders, environmental groups and so on, which we saw in the march on Saturday—I pray and hope that we will have a similar kind of miracle to get these climate negotiations to deliver a fair, ambitious and legally binding outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo, I want to thank you for being with us. Kumi Naidoo is the executive director of Greenpeace, before that a longtime anti-apartheid activist, born here in Durban, South Africa—Durban, South Africa, the site of this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, where we’re broadcasting from today. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the road to Durban. We’ll be joined by John Vidal of The Guardian, who took a trip from Egypt to South Africa, with many states in between, looking at the effects of climate change, leading up to this summit. Stay with us.

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The Road to Durban: Tracking Global Warming’s Devastating Impact Across the African Continent

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