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At Durban Summit, Leading African Activist Calls U.S. Emissions Stance “A Death Sentence for Africa”

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We continue our week-long coverage from the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 17, in Durban, where negotiators from more than 190 nations are in their final week of key talks on fighting climate change. The future of the Kyoto Protocol is in doubt, as is the formation of a new Green Climate Fund. With the talks taking place in South Africa, special interest is being paid to how the continent of Africa is already being heavily impacted by the climate crisis. We speak to Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria and chair of Friends of the Earth International. He is author of the new book, “To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa.” “We’re seeing a situation where the negotiation is being carried out on a big platform of hypocrisy, a lack of seriousness, a lack of recognition that Africa is so heavily impacted,” Bassey says. “For every one-degree Celsius change in temperature, Africa is impacted at a heightened level. So this is very much to be condemned.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryDec 07, 2023“Green Colonialism”: Nigerian Climate Activist Nnimmo Bassey Says Africa Is Being Sold Out at COP28
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting today from just outside the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre here in Durban, South Africa. King Luthuli was the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also the first African head—he was the first head of the ANC, the African National Congress. He was banned and imprisoned, like so many others, for years. This convention center is also built on the site of a prison, and the walls, some of them, are still standing. Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. And this week, the conference center is home of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where negotiators from over 190 nations are in their second and final week of key talks on fighting climate change.

The future of the Kyoto Protocol is in doubt, as is the formation of a new Green Climate Fund. As we go to air, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and South African President Jacob Zuma are opening the plenary session of the COP 17. Even as they meet, U.N. Environmental Program chief Achim Steiner said earlier today that a treaty on climate change may not be enough to avert a dangerous rise in global temperatures. He presented a new report that shows the gap is widening between pledges by nations to reduce emissions and the targets scientists have set to prevent global warming.

Well, with the climate change talks taking place here in Durban, South Africa, special interest is being paid to how the continent of Africa is already being heavily impacted by global warming. Our guest today is a longtime Nigerian environmentalist. Nnimmo Bassey is executive director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria, chair of Friends of the Earth International. He is author of a new book; it’s called To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa.

Nnimmo, welcome to Democracy Now!

NNIMMO BASSEY: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this U.N. conference on climate change and what you think it could achieve and will achieve?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Well, we came to Durban hoping that the rich, industrialized, polluting nations will for once step up and take responsibility by making a commitment to cut emissions at the source, not by continuing pollution and then believing that carbon stocks elsewhere in the world will offset their polluting activities. But from what we’ve seen over the past week and the past two days, there is no chance that we’re going to have any kind of agreement at the end of the week that will show any level of seriousness, that will indicate that politicians understand that this is a planetary crisis and not just an opportunity to do business or to pat each other on the back. We hear a lot of beautiful language when you speak one-on-one to some of the delegates, but from what—with the analysis we are receiving, from intelligence that are getting to ordinary civil society, we see that they are not really on track to having a serious agreement that would help the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is getting in the way?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Principally, a country like United States never signed the Kyoto Protocol, for example. They never agreed to having a legally binding agreement on emission reduction. They’ve always favored a situation where they stand apart and then allow others to struggle against the tide. And now, because the U.S., as the major emitter of greenhouse gases, has stepped—has never agreed to fully multilateral system of cooperating with other countries in the world, some nations like Japan, like Russia, Australia, Canada, who is a heavily polluting nation, have teamed up with the United States. And we’re seeing the European Union generally speaking one language and walking the other way. So, the rich countries are standing in the way of a real agreement that could avert disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: The way that the media plays this in the United States is that China is already ahead of the U.S. in emissions—I mean, not emissions per capita, the U.S. is still ahead of China there, but overall emissions—and that China is not willing to agree to any kind of regulating of their emissions. And so, why should the United States?

NNIMMO BASSEY: I think it’s a very faulty analysis. At one level, the historical responsibility cannot be forgotten—cannot be overlooked. The atmospheric space for carbon, for greenhouse gases, has already been colonized by the United States and other rich, industrialized nations. Now we have about 25 percent of the space left, and the debate is about who is going to occupy that remaining space. But a country like China is—the contributions of—the efforts of China to turn to green energy, to reduce emissions, is not being recognized. Scientists tell us that China has done far more than the United States in terms of reduction of emissions. And in fact, the developing worlds have—the developing nations have put—have committed to deeper emissions reduction than the industrialized world. So people are calling China a bad name in order to hang it.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just watching the news conference of Todd Stern, the chief U.N. climate negotiator, works out of the State Department under Hillary Clinton, has long been an ally of President Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who continually talks about 2020. That seems to be the buzzword here, that any kind of regulating of emissions, the goal is to start talking about eight years from now.

NNIMMO BASSEY: Eight years from now is a death sentence on Africa. We’ve heard this, and it’s being presented in the framework of a proposed Durban mandate that may be the successor to Copenhagen Accord and the Cancún Agreement, but still meaning about the same thing, because countries like the United States don’t want to commit to cut emissions. They want to open up a new negotiation, a series of negotiations, to postpone action for another 10 years, another eight, 10 years. And, you know, if, by 2012 or thereabout, or 2020—by 2020, they agree that they’re going to begin a new series of negotiations, before ratifying the agreement, would take another number of years. So we’re seeing a situation where the negotiation is being carried out on a big platform of hypocrisy, a lack of seriousness, a lack of recognition that Africa is so heavily impacted. For every one-degree Celsius change in temperature, Africa is impacted at a heightened level. So this is very much to be condemned.

AMY GOODMAN: Nnimmo Bassey, you’re based in Nigeria, one of the leading oil exporters in the world. Your—the title of your book extremely provocative and graphic: To Cook a Continent. Talk about what that means.

NNIMMO BASSEY: Well, Africa, over the years, has been a major source for materials for energy, starting from the human—human beings as an energy source and then moving on to items like palm oil and other energy crops. And right now, we’re having a major shift to land grabbing in Africa for production of biofuels and agrofuels. Everything about Africa is about extracting resources to power industry, to make life comfortable for people outside of Africa. So African resources are not used by Africans. They’re not used for Africa. They’re not used to improve the situation on the continent. And especially the fight for crude oil extraction, the fight for minerals like gold, like diamond, all this have been done in a way that the African environment is severely degraded. And now the oil companies are extracting with complete impunity, abusing human rights in the way. And, of course, you know, by the addiction of the world on fossil fuels, the industry gets away with murder.

And you’ve seen what’s going on in Africa. The many conflicts, the conflict over diamond, conflict over gold, the many wars on the continent, can always trace to resources. And all this add up to fry, to cook the continent, and to make life very precarious. We’ve seen the recent bombing and destruction of Libya was all about oil. I mean, we could say, well, Gaddafi was being pushed out of power. But before he was gotten out of power, just when one or two sea ports were secured, the first thing was to start pumping oil to Europe. So we could see the underlying reason why all the destruction of the continent is being played out.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Nnimmo Bassey. He is the head of Friends of the Earth International and Environmental Rights Action based in Nigeria. He’s here at the Durban South Africa U.N. climate change summit. It’s in its second week. It’ll wrap up this weekend. When we come back, I want to play for you what one of the Nigerian delegates had to say here in Durban and also what the youth activists are saying from Nigeria. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Durban, South Africa. We are broadcasting from the U.N. conference on climate change, a gathering of over 190 countries from around the world and their delegates. But perhaps for some more importantly, thousands of people around the world have converged on Durban, South Africa. I’m Amy Goodman. On Sunday, Democracy Now! producer Mike Burke attended the World Climate Summit, a side conference here in Durban sponsored by a number of corporations, including Siemens and Coca-Cola, Philips, Dow and Duke Energy. Several members of the Nigerian delegation to the U.N. climate conference were there.

OLUBUKOLA OYAWOYE: My name is Professor Mrs. Olubukola Oyawoye. I came from Osun state in Nigeria. I represent the Ministry of Environment and Sanitation as the commissioner in charge.

MIKE BURKE: How does Nigeria reconcile the fact that Africa as a continent stands to be affected most by climate change at the same time that Nigeria is pushing ahead with the exploration of oil?

OLUBUKOLA OYAWOYE: Well, that Nigeria is pushing ahead with exploration of oil, that is not to say that we lack the consciousness of renewable energy like biofuel. It’s just that it is what—since the '70s, there had been overreliance on the oil sector, which is the organic source in oil. But right away I can assure you, like I say to my state—and I'm thinking that it’s national—we’re thinking in terms of when the oil will not be there. When the oil will not be there, what will be the next step for Nigeria?

MIKE BURKE: One more question: have the international oil companies, including Shell and Chevron, done enough to help the Nigerian people that, number one, have been affected by climate change, as well as the environmental degradation of parts of the country?

OLUBUKOLA OYAWOYE: Let me tell you that I will—I will be unfair if I judge Chevron or Shell or Schlumberger about what they have done. I know that initially Nigerians, particularly, do not have enough information, to start with, about climate change. But right away, Nigerian is educated about climate change. That’s why we are here. And I’m sure we can continue to talk. What we were talking about priorly was oil spillages, cleaning up, our community development, for these companies. And in recent years, they have particularly performed and improved over their past performance.

AMY GOODMAN: Nigerian delegate to the U.N. conference on climate change. Nnimmo Bassey, our guest, he’s head of Friends of the Earth International. Your response, that the records of these oil companies, like Chevron, like Shell, are improving?

NNIMMO BASSEY: The records of the oil corporations in Nigeria—Shell, Chevron, Exxon, Agip from Italy—their records have not changed. I tell you, every day, even while I’m here in Durban, I’m receiving messages from home about new oil spills. Two days ago, we had five oil spills on one pipeline alone. They’re still not maintaining their equipment. They’re still inviting the military to suppress communities. Last week, three youths were killed in Ogoniland, just because they resisted an effort for land grabbing to be carried out in their territory.

And I should just mention this. Although it’s historical, but it’s ongoing reality—the United Nations Environmental Program just issued a report on the environment—environmental assessment of Ogoniland. And we believe that their assessment is not as—doesn’t show a result as severe as what would be carried out if such a study were to be done in an area where active oil extraction were to be—is still continuing. Now, oil extraction stopped in Ogoniland in 1993 and was followed by the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. But the study by UNEP shows that the Ogoni environment is polluted so severely that it will require 30 years to clean up the waters in Ogoniland, five years to clean up the land. The land is polluted in some places to a depth of five meters. The water is polluted with benzene to a level of 300 times—900 times above World Health Organization standards. And as I speak to you, people are still drinking that kind of water all over the Niger Delta. In the places operated by Shell, by Exxon, by all these multinational oil companies, they are carrying out mayhem against the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! also met up with a number of Nigerian youth activists here at the U.N. climate change summit. Democracy Now!'s Mike Burke asked them about the government's view on oil exploration.

ZAID SHOPEJU: Zaid Shopeju. I’m the executive director for Youth Vision Alliance Network, a youth-led organization based in Lagos that work to empower youths with sustainable leadership skills through workshops, seminars and other means.

MIKE BURKE: Yesterday we met up—we were at a meeting, and there were members of the Nigerian delegation there. And I asked one member of the delegation if she believed that Shell and Chevron had done enough to help the people of the Niger Delta deal with the environmental crisis there, as well as to deal with climate change. And essentially she wouldn’t criticize the oil companies at all. I’m just curious, your thoughts on that.

ZAID SHOPEJU: Well, it’s not surprising, because, for over 20 or 30 years, the government have been protecting the polluters in—to the detriment of the people down there. They haven’t heard their voice, even now that we have a president that is from that region, the region [inaudible] on that development. So I’m not surprised that a government official will not openly criticize Shell and Chevron. These are people that are polluting the place. These are people that are messing up the livelihood, the life of people living in this place. And our government are not standing up for us. So it’s high time that we, as youths and concerned citizens, need to rise up to this occasion. We don’t believe in our government to deliver this promise. We don’t believe in them to give us the deal we really need. We have to step up, and we are doing that already.

AMY GOODMAN: Nnimmo Bassey, here in Durban, South Africa, as well, one of the leaders of the environmental movement, not only in Nigeria but around the world, is head of Friends of the Earth International. Nnimmo, the solutions, they may not be being talked about inside this U.N. conference, but outside, in the streets, at the KwaZulu-Natal University, where so many of the side conferences are taking place—the youth, the longtime, experienced environmentalists. Talk about what you see is what has to be done now.

NNIMMO BASSEY: From the public people’s spaces and from discussions going on and from analysis from social movements, one of the biggest challenge to finding a solution to global warming is the overpowering control of politicians by transnational corporations. The delegates are listening more to these people, to these organizations, than listening to people. Would you believe that Nigeria has at least one Shell official on its official delegation to the conference? So, you know, we are looking for a situation where the decisions on global warming will be taken by people, not by the corporates. And so, one of the key things to be done is to decolonize our governments. We are holding—we’re believing that the solution will come by peoples from the outside of these conference halls. We have to change the entire paradigm, because right now, I mean, it’s been right to call this a conference to polluters, a conference of hypocrites, a conference of people who are not listening to voices, the democratic voices of people on the streets.

So we need to look at the fundamental cause of global warming, move away from fossil fuels, leave the the oil in the soil, leave the coal in the hole, leave the tar sands in the land. As long as the world continues to be addicted and hooked on the fossil fuel-driven civilization, there’s not going to be any solution. So we need to shift to renewable energy. We need to shift to community, discrete, small-scale control energy forms, and not on mega grids, mega dams and all other dirty forms of energy production.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you giving up on the conference inside this convention center?

NNIMMO BASSEY: I believe we have to interrogate the level of participation by civil society on the inside. And from my personal analysis, we still need to have some people who can inform us on the outside about what is going on in the rooms, what is going on in the corridors, what is going on in these so-called green rooms and secret rooms. But we need to invest more energy in opening up the space for debates and more conferences of the people, like Cochabamba. We need to draw up the solutions and push the political structures to agree to real solutions, not coming here to negotiate on climate finance that has not been on the table at all, not coming to a conference like this where carbon is being traded and nothing is being done.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by carbon traded.

NNIMMO BASSEY: Well, carbon—the major debates here, and what gives some delegates hope, is that they could—if they have forests, they will not see forests for the value of forests, the natural value of nature, but they will see trees as carbon stock. So they could say, “Well, I’ve got a forest. Pay me some—you know, I want to obtain some carbon credits or some money to protect the forest.” But forest protection and forest as a carbon stock are two different things.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for people who don’t understand the issue of carbon trading, if you’re talking about countries or companies that are polluting in another area of the world, saying they can continue to pollute, but they will buy up an area, perhaps in the rainforest, perhaps in Africa—and what do they do? What happens to the people in those areas?

NNIMMO BASSEY: This is—this is one of the issues that is not being examined when they talk about reducing emissions from deforestation or forest degradation.

AMY GOODMAN: Which goes to the issue of what’s called REDD.

NNIMMO BASSEY: REDD, and now they’re talking about—

AMY GOODMAN: Reducing Emissions—

NNIMMO BASSEY: Actually, the conference is looking for how to introduce more market mechanisms rather than carrying out real solutions. What happens is that rich countries or rich industries, polluting industries, would secure a forest, buy up a forest somewhere in Africa or Asia or Latin America, and then there will be a review process to examine and determine how much carbon is being held by those trees. And then carbon credits are issued. And they would now match it with the level of pollution they carry out, either in Europe or somewhere else, and whatever is extra, if they say, “Well, we’re not polluting as much as the trees are holding,” then they can sell the extra or extra credits to another polluter, who will continue polluting. The idea is to keep on polluting, while pretending something is being done.

But you see, seeing trees as carbon thing is patently false. I mean, trees do hold carbon. We have carbon in our bodies. We are all, at the end of the day, made up of carbon. But the thing is that trees don’t live forever. So, one day the tree is going to die, and the carbon you say the tree is holding is going to be released. And you stop deforestation in one place, you don’t stop deforestation somewhere else. So all these are the false solutions being drawn up by polluters who are powerful enough to drive the system. And rich countries think they can get money from this process. And so, like somebody drinking, saying, “I want a—I’m thirsty. But let me drink portion for today. Maybe I’ll live for two days.” This is all a false solution. We’re asking for a real solution: stop emissions at the source.

AMY GOODMAN: Nnimmo Bassey, I want to thank you for being with us. His new book is called To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa. Nnimmo Bassey, head of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria and chair the international organization Friends of the Earth International. You mentioned the issue of tar sands. Well, a group of youth and indigenous activists from Canada staged an action outside the United Nations Climate Change Conference this morning here in Durban, South Africa. They were protesting Canada’s reliance on tar sands oil. The activists gave delegates mock gift bags containing samples of fake tar sands along with tourism brochures for Canada and Canadian flags. Democracy Now! spoke with some of the organizers.

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Indigenous Activists from Canada Protest Tar Sands Oil at Durban Climate Change Summit

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