In our extended interview with Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International, he examines connections between climate change and U.S. war in the Middle East, and shares how his activism is shaped by his experience in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and much more.
Photo Credit: © Andreas Schoelzel / Greenpeace
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. This week, world leaders have wrapped up a one-day United Nations summit on climate change with pledges to tackle global warming but no binding commitments. President Obama was one of the leaders who addressed the summit, calling for a global pact to fight climate change.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Five years ago, I pledged America would reduce our carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020. America will meet that target. And by early next year, we will put forward our next emission target reflecting our confidence in the ability of our technological entrepreneurs and scientific innovators to lead the way. So today I call on all major economies to do the same, for I believe in the words of Dr. King, that there is such a thing as being too late. And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate while we still can.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama addressing the U.N. climate summit, invoking Dr. Martin Luther King. That actually is very interesting for a number of reasons, among them, well, of course, Dr. King and President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, but this summit was taking place in the midst of the U.S. bombing of Syria and Iraq.
Our guest is Kumi Naidoo. He is executive director of Greenpeace International, usually lives in Durban, South Africa, here for the historic events of this week. Four hundred thousand people marched for action on climate change on Sunday here in New York ahead of the U.N. summit. What do you make of—what kind of connections do you make, Kumi, between this massive action on climate change and the fact that the U.S. is now once again bombing the Middle East?
KUMI NAIDOO: I think it’s extremely unfortunate. You know, in 2003, the CIA and the Pentagon commissioned a report which they presented to President Bush, and President Bush, as an agent of the oil, coal and gas industry, buried it. In that report, they said, in 2003, in the coming decades, two decades, the biggest threat to peace, security and stability will not come from conventional threats of terrorism, but will come from the impacts of climate change. Today there are sitting leaders of the U.S. military who are saying exactly the same.
Syria, for example, if you look at what was one of the major catalysts for people standing up to the dictatorship of Assad, was that in the last decade about 40 percent of fertile land, as a result of climate-induced drought, was wiped out. Now, I think that, you know, many people in the world are saying that ISIS is the U.S. and its allies’ creation, just as the Taliban was after the U.S. backed the Mujahideen and pulled out in ways. And so, right now to just continue to engage in addressing the conflicts that we have with more military intervention, without any sense of strategy, with putting so much of resource on the line, it really backfires, because actually what it shows is that life of people in the Middle East, whether you see it as Arab lives, Muslim lives or whatever, is dispensable because the number of civilians that have been killed in these conflict areas has just been completely, completely unacceptable.
So, yes, ISIS is a fundamental problem. For us to have allowed it to get to this point, I think the responsibility must rest with those that went in Iraq in an unjust, illegal war and created a situation which is now significantly worse than anything that we had with Saddam Hussein. Of course, Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but, you know, the U.S.—let’s be very clear: What people say around the world is that U.S. foreign policy is stuck in the old logic of, you know, when one of the presidents said, "Somoza might be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch." I mean, your previous guest, Abdullah, right? He is standing up against the very people, now, that are getting absolute support from the U.S. administration and other Western governments. And listen, if the U.S. government was serious about getting these journalists out of prison, and as well as the hundreds, actually thousands of others that have been put, they have the political and economic leverage to do it. And I find that the timidity of the U.S. government and its allies, who preach democracy, on the one end, but actually make deals with some of the most authoritarian governments, on the other, is completely, completely unacceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: You cut your teeth on activism in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Talk about how your experiences there inform what you do now around climate change.
KUMI NAIDOO: Well, the most important lesson from South Africa is that you don’t address a major injustice as if you’re at a Sunday morning picnic, that, in fact, whether it’s apartheid, whether it’s civil rights struggle in the United States, women’s right to vote, these struggles only move forward when decent men and women stand up and say, "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, right now, I would argue that climate change, as a global challenge, is more important than every other injustice we have faced in the world, because this is not about saving the planet. The planet doesn’t need saving, actually, because if we warm up the planet to a point that humanity cannot exist, the planet will still be here. It will be bruised, scarred and damaged by humanity’s actions on it. But, you know, if we cannot live here anymore, actually, the forests will replenish and so on. This struggle is about securing our children and grandchildren’s future. So, in that sense, I would say one main lesson is the power of civil disobedience, because all our political and business leaders seem to be suffering from the same medical condition, which is that they have a problem hearing the pleas of the people, and it is only civil disobedience and mass mobilization that actually sends a message for the urgency.
The second lesson is the power of alliance, that one of the things we succeeded in doing in South Africa is building an alliance of faith leaders, trade union leaders, women’s movement, youth organizations and so on. And that was the beauty of what we saw on Sunday, because, you know, for far too long climate change was seen as an environmental issue. Actually, it is much bigger. It’s a cross-cutting issue. It’s a issue of survival. And therefore, I am so, so—I’ll leave New York with such a wonderful feeling, that—you know, in the old days they used to talk about red-green tensions, for example, between labor and the environment. Now we can talk about red-green alliances.
We can talk about the indigenous peoples having their rightful leadership role in the struggle and so on, because one of the things I say very controversially, if you and I were the last two people on this planet, assuming we warm it up and go the way we’re going, and we were asked to write the history of this planet and put it in a capsule so that if life emerged again, we won’t make the same mistakes, it is quite likely—in fact, I know we will say—that actually those that were considered to be uncivilized, indigenous peoples, who needed the civilizing of the Western world, if you want, were actually the most civilized, and in fact those that sought to do the civilizing were the most uncivilized, because indigenous peoples, if we go to their wisdom of the critical importance of humanity being able to live in a mutually dependent relationship with nature, it’s critically important if we’re going to have live continue on this planet.
AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo, as the U.N. summit was happening at the United Nations, this climate week of massive activism was taking place not only here in New York, but around the world. Greenpeace activists were getting arrested in Britain?
KUMI NAIDOO: Yes. Basically, on the day of the summit, what we’re seeing is this cheap and very dangerous coal coming out of Russia and is going to U.K. power plants. We had a polar bear, a puppet, stop a train, with no risk to anybody. And then our activists basically got onto the train, and they had bags which said "return to sender, to President Putin," and they were loading all the coal to actually send back. And basically, people need to understand that coal, oil and gas kills, and coal, in particular, is one of the biggest threats we have with regard to climate change. And, of course, there are different kinds of coal, but all coal is bad. The kind of coal that was involved here is particularly bad. And I think that that’s the kind of resistance that we need to see around the world, where every coal, oil and gas company is meeting resistance on a daily basis.
One of the things people ask, "What are you trying to do with Chevron and Shell and so on? Are you trying to shut them down?" Actually, these are energy companies, and they deliver energy at the moment through dirty energy means. We say to them, if you make the change fast and quick, as an energy company, to clean energy output and you wean yourself off dirty, addictive energy—oil, coal and gas—then you can exist. But if you think you’re going to continue with dirty energy, then we will do everything in our power to shut you down. It’s not our core agenda to shut them down. We would rather make them make the transition and make it quickly.
And coal is something that is having huge impact on people’s health, apart from climate change and emissions. In China, for example, communities around China are actually standing up. Or in Turkey, for example, people are standing up because their children’s lives are being attacked. The cancer rates are going up and so on. And people need to understand that the true cost of coal, when you factor in the health impacts and so on—leave climate change aside for a second—is far too expensive. And when you put that, then you’ll actually see that solar and wind and so on is actually much cheaper than the so-called market tells us.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn for a moment back to the U.N. climate summit. One of the most memorable speeches was by a poet from the Marshall Islands. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem is actually a letter to her child.
KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: dear matafele peinam,
you are a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles
you are bald as an egg and bald as the buddha
you are thighs that are thunder, shrieks that are lightning
so excited for bananas, hugs and
our morning walks along the lagoon
dear matafele peinam,
i want to tell you about that lagoon
that lazy, lounging lagoon lounging against the sunrise
men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you
they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of seawalls
and crunch through your island’s shattered bones
they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home
dear matafele peinam,
mommy promises you
no one will come and devour you
no greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas
no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals no blindfolded
bureaucracies gonna push
this mother ocean over
no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing their homeland
no one’s becoming a climate change refugee
or should i say
no one else
to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea
and to the taro islanders of fiji
i take this moment
to apologize to you
we are drawing the line here
because we baby are going to fight
your mommy daddy
bubu jimma your country and your president too
we will all fight
and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend that we don’t exist
who like to pretend that the marshall islands
typhoon haiyan in the philippines
floods of algeria, colombia, pakistan
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes and tidalwaves
there are those
who see us
hands reaching out
fists raising up
and we are canoes blocking coal ships
we are the radiance of solar villages
we are the fresh clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are teenagers blooming petitions
we are families biking, recycling, reusing
engineers building, dreaming, designing
artists painting, dancing, writing
and we are spreading the word
and there are thousands out on the streets
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW
and they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us
because we deserve to do more than just
dear matafele peinam,
you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes
and sleep in peace
because we won’t let you down
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem, a Marshall Islands poet. She got a standing ovation at the U.N. as she read this at the day of the U.N. climate summit. Kumi Naidoo, you weren’t actually in the hall, having trouble with security getting in. But I think that’s an interesting point: On the one hand, the power of people’s firsthand testimony; on the other is, what happens? It reminds me of Anjali Appadurai, who was the College of the Atlantic student who addressed the U.N. summit in Durban in 2011.
KUMI NAIDOO: Durban.
AMY GOODMAN: The next year, she was banned for the first week of the U.N. summit. And the question is: What happens next? Peru is the U.N. climate summit this year, and then the binding summit is supposed to be Paris in 2015. We were speaking with Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth on Democracy Now! this week. He was saying, "I can already write the press releases for both Peru and Paris. And they’re not very optimistic—unless something changes." So, what is the strategy, you think, to deal with all of this?
KUMI NAIDOO: Well, in terms of the formal timeline, the best that Peru can do in December is deliver a clear framework for the agreement, with some commitments locked in. All governments are supposed to, by March next year, put the cards on the table to say what are their emission targets and what actions they are prepared to take. And then there will be multiple negotiations with the idea that there will be a deal in Paris.
I was in meetings yesterday all day with Asad and a coalition of organizations that are working together. And our assessment is that we would be foolish, as activists, to put faith in the formal process to deliver what the world needs to have, and therefore we are going to now intensify as much as we can on the resistance and mobilization, as well as go after those companies that are holding us back, because, see, the problem is, you know, President Obama can stand up and give all these nice words, but the bottom line is, you know, the U.S. democracy—like many other countries, but the U.S. is the most obscene in this way—is the best democracy money can buy today, and if you look at which money buys that democracy or buys that power, it’s oil, coal, gas, nuclear, military and a few other polluting industries. For every member of Congress, there are three—a minimum of three and a maximum of eight full-time lobbyists paid by the oil, coal and gas industry to make sure that no progressive climate legislation goes through.
And, you know, we must remind President Obama, he invoked Martin Luther King in this presentation when he talked about the fierce urgency of now, which was one of the things he said repeatedly in his first presidential bid. But there was another phrase that he use, apart from "Yes, we can," and that was "a planet in peril." If you go back and look at his first—he got it, right? "A planet in peril" was about climate change. And if we look at the timidity with which he has stood up to the fossil fuel industry, as a whole, it’s extremely disappointing.
So, we cannot take our political and business leaders solely on their words. We are saying we need to see actions, and we need to see them between now and Paris. And what we are saying to people: We must prepare for the long-haul fight. Yes, we will try everything in our power to put as much pressure to get the best possible outcome in Paris, but if we think that our political and business leaders are going to deliver what we need in Paris, then we are actually fooling ourselves.
And I think Sunday provides—the People’s Climate March on Sunday, provides has provided a base of support that we’ve never seen before, not just here in the U.S., but globally. And now we need to build on that base every week, every month, and so on, so that the power of the voices of ordinary people around the world, like the poet from the Marshall Islands—which, I have to say, completely drives me to tears up to now to just think about, because, you know—and we have to tell stories. And let me make a self-criticism of activism around climate. I think that we are partly to blame, because we did not focus enough on storytelling, letting people who are impacted, because the climate question is so complicated—emissions, targets, parts per million and so on—and we actually sometimes become as bad as the governments in the way we talk about it. We have to talk about this in more accessible ways and enable ordinary people who are affected by this to be able to actually engage in the conversation and get involved. We have to talk. We have to throw out the jargon. We have to talk with simplicity—and I’m not saying being simplistic, right? It’s very different. I mean, we have to be able to—I mean, that’s one of the things I learned from South Africa, that if you go there and you talked about constitutional provisions and so on, it just didn’t resonate. And ever since I came to Greenpeace, you know, I don’t talk about saving the climate or saving the environment. I say this about securing our children and grandchildren’s future. Just that phrase. Anybody who’s a parent, anybody who is a grandparent, hopefully, will sit up and say, "Well, this conversation is about me." Right? And we have to make this conversation about everybody, whether you’re a worker, whether you’re a professional, whether you’re a CEO of a fossil fuel company. I say—when I meet with the CEOs of companies, I say, "Tell me something. How are you going to look your children and grandchildren in the eye and answer the question when they ask you 10 years from now, 'When the writing was on the wall that we had to act, how did you not put my interests, as your child or grandchild, and act?'"
AMY GOODMAN: Explain to people who say, "Well, if there’s oil in the soil, if there’s coal in the hole, why shouldn’t we develop it?" Can you talk about how much the world can afford to have drilled out and how much has to stay in the ground?
KUMI NAIDOO: Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the biggest scientific enterprise probably in the history of humanity, has said in their last report that at least 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, if we are to have a chance to keep warming below, as far below, two degrees.
AMY GOODMAN: So it can’t be touched?
KUMI NAIDOO: It shouldn’t be touched. If we touch it, we’re gone. Right? It won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen very rapidly. And let’s be very clear: The climate impacts are happening now. Right? We are seeing lives being lost now.
And, you know, Archbishop Desmond Tutu recorded a message, which was not shown at the General Assembly. He offered it. Because why? He said four things we need to do. Simple. One, no further fresh investments in fossil fuel exploration, because it’s senseless. Even what we know, we shouldn’t be touching. And he said all that money should go to renewables. Divest from fossil fuels, so anybody today who has a bank account, who has any investments, should be asking, if you care about your children’s future, "Are you investing in oil, coal and gas companies?" and try and get that—and rather invest it in renewable energies. The third he’s saying, we have to have a sense of justice. The Marshall Islands and these small island states, they’re almost zero carbon in terms of—it’s so unfair that people who have been least responsible for emissions are paying the first and most brutal price. And the fourth thing he said was, there has to be a climate liability, that those that have profited, those fossil fuel companies, must be held accountable to provide that support.
The thing I would say also to people of faith—and maybe I’ll put it in a light way. I was in Rome on a nuclear referendum, which we won, where the Italian people voted against nuclear a couple years ago. And I was in a studio sort of show on TV, and I said to the journalist, "You know, the pope"—because the Vatican was just around the corner, I said, "The pope and all our other religious leaders should come before us and ask us a simple question. They should ask, 'To those of you who believe that God exists, do you really think God is so cruel?'" Because if you accept that God—for those who believe that God exists, God presumably knew humanity will need energy to survive on this planet. So did God scratch his head and say, "Oh, these people are going to need energy, so let me take the coal, put it deep in the ground, take the oil, put it deep in the ocean, and so on, so people will kill themselves trying to get to it and destroy things that actually humanity needs for its existence?" So, clearly, humanity has been looking—our religious leaders need to step forward now. And I’ll say that, yes, they are talking more now, but for far too long our religious leaders, their silence has been deafening on climate, right? I welcome the increased voices of the religious community now, because if you go with a religious philosophy, everything on this planet was created by God—our rivers, our oceans, our mountains and so on. So, clearly, our religious leaders should come and say, "Folks, you all have been looking primarily in the wrong direction. Rather than looking down for oil, coal and gas, you should look up and see that God gave you wind and sun to actually meet your needs." You just have to be careful with that analogy, because some clever person is going to tell you geothermal also comes from below. So you should say, primarily we should be looking up rather than looking down.
And that’s what I mean about changing the narrative, right? We need to—and that’s why I’m so impressed with the trade union movement, globally and as well as in the United States. When Sharan Burrow, the first woman to lead the international trade union movement—in a meeting with Ban Ki-moon in Rio, she said, "Secretary-General, you might be surprised why me, as a trade unionist, where my main job is to fight for jobs and decent work, that I am so passionate about climate change, because, Secretary-General, I realize there are no jobs on a dead planet." You know, I mean, fundamentally, short-term economic interest, which will kill the long-term interests of working people and so on.
And let’s be very clear: As Hurricane Katrina showed, when there is a major environmental disaster, it is the poor that suffer the most. Often—of course, I’m not saying that the rich are completely sanitized from it, but the rich have more options. They can jump in their cars and drive away, you know. The poor are stuck. And I still remember the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and when I saw that on television, while I was in Ghana when that happened. And I was sitting with a friend, who’s now dead, a Nigerian friend, Justice Egware in the anti-poverty movement, and we were both sitting there, and he said to me, "You know, in Africa, we might live with extreme poverty, but when our people die, we actually offer them dignity in the way we let them go. Look at those bodies, you know, wrapped around lamp poles, just hanging and floating there." So, you know, what’s being challenged is our very sense of humanity. How do we think? How do we care?
And we must very clear: At the center of all of this is an acceptance that we have come—and when I say "acceptance," not just the rich, but the poor, as well. We have accepted unacceptable levels of inequality. Part of what’s driving this, driving us to the cliff is overconsumption, overconsumption by the rich, and a total underconsumption by the poor. And we have to recognize, if rich people in the world care about their children’s future, they have to ask themselves the question: What level of wealth is acceptable, and what level of poverty is acceptable? Because everybody in the world says, "Oh, poverty is a bad thing. We shouldn’t have poverty." But understand that poverty is there partly because those of us at the top want to have such a high level of income and such a high level of consumption without any real, meaningful care for those that are completely shut out of even the basic economic necessities.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Latin America very briefly. The next summit is in Peru. You have countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, their leaders hailed by indigenous people when they were first elected to represent their interests, but now these countries, the indigenous people feel like they are, in many cases, at war with their government, because the governments, they feel, have turned on them. Can you talk, for example, about what’s happening in Ecuador, what the government, President Correa, tried to do, and then not succeeding, what he is doing now?
KUMI NAIDOO: Well, I think many of the governments in Latin America, those that were more environmentally concerned, concerned about climate, and also wanted to address the historical injustices that were done to indigenous peoples—and let’s be very clear, that redress has not even really started within the United States or elsewhere, but that’s another conversation which has to be addressed. But the reality is, you can get elected with those promises, and then you find yourself with the power of the fossil fuel industry, the power of developed governments who sometimes you might have reliance on aid, and those governments are saying to you, "If you don’t let X, Y and Z oil company from my country come here and so on, we’re going to cut your aid package and so on." So, sometimes once you are in power, the amount of actual space you have to advance your agenda is very limited. Having said that, I’m not wanting to let those leaders off the hook for some of the things that they’ve actually done.
I should say Latin America also is a very tragic situation right now. Global Witness, a think tank out of London, just released a study a month ago, or six weeks ago, showing that every week two environmental activists are being killed. Just think about that—every week. Some of these folks might not self-describe themselves as environmentalists, but they are certainly engaged in defending forests. I spoke at the U.N. on forests with an indigenous leader from Brazil. I was very sad to hear him say—he said, you know, "Our people are literally dying to protect the forests." Right? And most of these deaths, by the way, of this two-per-week average is in Latin America. It’s in Brazil, other Latin America countries, of course also Africa and Asia. And therefore—you know, there’s a new book, or not-so-new book now, that’s come out, I guess, called Green is the New Red, you know, where we are seeing that environmental activists are facing increasing repression.
But as I say, whenever—you know, like when our folks were in prison in Russia last year, the Arctic 30, and people were taken aback, I said, "You know, the one thing we should take comfort from is what Mahatma Gandhi once said. He said, 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight with you, and then you win.'" The fact that they’re not ignoring and laughing at us, the fact that they are fighting us so hard, I take a little comfort from that, because if Gandhi was right, let’s hope that we are just one step away from winning.
AMY GOODMAN: Kumi Naidoo, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Greenpeace International. He’s usually based in Durban, South Africa, though it seems the whole planet is his home. Thanks so much.
KUMI NAIDOO: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.