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“Cataclysmic Carousel of Greed”: Oscar-Winning Actress Emma Thompson on Oil Drilling in Arctic

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Just back from a trip to the Arctic aboard the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise, celebrated British actress Emma Thompson joins us to talk about visiting the Canadian town of Clyde River, which has been leading efforts against the oil industry blasting the Arctic in its search for oil and gas. Two years ago, Thompson joined another Greenpeace expedition to protest drilling in the Arctic and to research the impact climate change has already had on the region.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson.

MARGARET SCHLEGEL: [played by Emma Thompson] I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Why can you not be honest for once in your life and say to yourself, “What Helen has done, I have done”?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, that was Emma Thompson in Howards End, in a role in which she won an Academy Award. And this is Emma Thompson in the film Wit, when she played an English professor who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

VIVIAN BEARING: [played by Emma Thompson] I have cancer, insidious cancer, with pernicious side effects. No, the treatment has pernicious side effects. I have Stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no Stage V. Oh, and I have to be very tough. It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death. I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a professor of 17th century poetry specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language. And I know for a fact that I am tough—a demanding professor, uncompromising.

AMY GOODMAN: While Emma Thompson is one of the most celebrated British actresses, she is also a longtime activist. She has just returned from a trip to the Arctic aboard the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise.

EMMA THOMPSON: I suppose the Inuit here are the front line, but, actually, we are here to defend them and ourselves, because if the Arctic melts, then we’re all for it, as we know. We know if we don’t keep the temperature of the Earth at 1.5 degrees, we’re in big, big trouble.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Earlier this month, Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise sailed to the town of Clyde River in the Canadian province of Nunavut. The town has been leading efforts against the oil industry blasting the Arctic in its search for oil and gas. Two years ago, Thompson joined another Greenpeace expedition to protest drilling in the Arctic and to research the impact climate change has already been having on the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Emma Thompson joins us now from Toronto, Canada.

Emma Thompson, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you for the first time on Democracy Now! Why were you just in the Arctic?

EMMA THOMPSON: Thanks, Amy. It’s a great honor to be on Democracy Now! Thank you for inviting me. Well, I was invited, actually, by the Inuit community of Clyde River in Nunavut, with Greenpeace, because they know I’ve been working with them, and to come and examine the human landscape and what the effects of climate change were having on culture there and life there, but also to help to stand shoulder to shoulder in their battle against seismic blasting, which is a disastrous course of action, not only for the community, but for the global community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what exactly is seismic blasting, and what’s its purpose?

EMMA THOMPSON: Well, I’m glad you ask, because I knew about it, as it were—I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know quite how bad it was, until the most extraordinary marine biologist, called Lindy Weilgart, who specializes in the effect of seismic blasting upon marine mammals, gave a lecture on it. And it involves the pushing out of extremely high-pressured shots of air. It’s noise. It’s sound. And the sound has to travel over thousands of kilometers, hit whatever it can find, and come back to the ship, in order to—it’s prospecting, really, to see where they can drill for oil and gas.

Now, marine mammals basically see through their ears, so the effect of seismic blasting, because the noise it makes is equivalent to half a [kilogram] of dynamite going off—it’s like an underground volcano. It’s 260 decibels, and it happens every 10 seconds, for months on end, without cease. And so, you can imagine the effect upon these large mammals, who use their ears, really, to see, to communicate, to organize, to—it’s how they live. So, it’s a disastrous thing.

And, of course, the ultimate irony is that the region is melting because of oil and gas being overused. So, the oil and gas companies, instead of saying, “We have an eco-disaster happening here. Let’s stop,” are clapping their hands, piling in, prospecting for more of the stuff that melted the place in the first instance. So, if you see what I mean, it’s a kind of cataclysmic carousel of greed and destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Thompson, why did you choose to go with Greenpeace on the Arctic Sunrise?

EMMA THOMPSON: Well, a great friend of mine, Joanna Kerr, is someone I’ve traveled with a lot on activist journeys, and she became the executive director of Greenpeace Canada and said, “Em, you know how we keep trying to make the connection between climate change and human rights, and it’s very—it’s very difficult. Lots of charities and lots of NGOs work in silos. And, of course, now, it can no longer carry on like that. We have to make the connections between everything—between conflict, between women’s rights, human rights, between climate change. Everything is connected.” And, in a sense, I suppose, Greenpeace seems to me to be the organization that’s making those connections most successfully at the minute.

And also, they have this—they had created a relationship with a community that they had previously wounded badly in the past. The campaign against the seal hunt, commercial seal hunting, had devastating impacts on the life of Inuit up in the North. And there are no rude words in Inuktitut, but “Greenpeace” is one of them. That’s the only one they have, they tell us. And Joanna, again, issued a formal apology. I mean, it was a sort of spiritual act, really. She issued it, not knowing whether it would reach anyone or anyone would hear it. And an extraordinary man, who I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with, an activist, Inuit activist, called Jerry Natanine, read this apology, and he had been personally deeply affected by this campaign. His parents had suffered greatly, and he hated Greenpeace, hated Greenpeace. And he saw this apology and decided that he was in the process of struggling with this seismic battle threat, and he thought, “These people may be able to help.” So he went to the elders, and he said, “I would like to reach out.” And he did. They had a conversation. He rang. They had a conversation and started to work on the campaign that I was lucky enough to be a part of recently. And I think that one of the most striking things about this journey was Jerry saying to us all, “This apology and my reaching out and this coming together has healed something inside me, has healed the anger.” So we were very—we were intimately connected. As you know, if you wound someone, there is always an intimate connection. And whether it continues to be destructive depends on how you deal with the wound after it has been made.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to turn to some of the residents of Clyde River. This Greenpeace video features the town’s former Mayor Jerry Natanine and his daughter Clara.


JERRY NATANINE: They want to blast the ocean with seismic cannons, looking for oil. It’s a destruction machine. The way it could affect the sea mammals, I can hardly put it into words how much effect it would have on our lives. Our existence and where we are is based on the animals that go there.

CLARA NATANINE: We don’t have any farms. You can’t grow anything outside. The best place to get healthy food for me is under the sea.

JERRY NATANINE: We’re going to the Supreme Court. As Inuit, we have the right to our territory.

INUIT MAN: [translated] Our population is small, and I believe it is useful for other people on Earth to hear about this.

JERRY NATANINE: We need all the help we can get to fight these companies. It builds up my spirit for us to be heard and supported. It’s phenomenal.

CLARA NATANINE: I grew up in the Arctic. There’s just something about it that makes you want to be there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Jerry Natanine and his daughter Clara. I wanted to ask you: Have you gotten any sense of whether the new government in Canada is more receptive to these issues than the prior government?

EMMA THOMPSON: Well, they ought to be. I mean, Prime Minister Trudeau has just signed recently, as you know, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. So, that’s a very good sign, having—this country, of course, having held back on that for some years. That’s excellent. He was also present at the Paris Agreement. He and Obama issued an excellent statement on the Arctic. So, it seems to me that this is a confluence of events. Now we’ve got a spotlight on the Arctic, and Trudeau now has a fantastic opportunity to put his words into action, because this case is—will set a precedent for the rights of indigenous peoples.

And it is not just about food security; it’s about food sovereignty. What’s happening in the Arctic with this seismic blasting case is—what is being threatened is their sovereignty, their nationhood, not just the food that they eat, not just the climate. It’s their actual sovereignty. They were not properly consulted. That’s the issue. And that’s the issue upon which this case rests. So, to me, looking at it as an outsider and as someone passionately interested, Trudeau is now in a position to do what successive governments for many, many decades have refused to do: act on the climate change agreement that he made, act on the Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples, and set a precedent that has been long, long, long overdue.

AMY GOODMAN: Emma Thompson, you went to the Arctic before, in 2014. Now you went with your teenage daughter. Have you seen changes just in these last few years?

EMMA THOMPSON: When Gaia came with me to the Arctic, when we went to Spitsbergen de Svalbard, where we were looking at the landscape itself, the graveyard of glaciers that sits up there, surrounded by dismayed climatologists and scientists who have been watching them disappear for the last 20 years, and it was a very different kind of journey. I’m coming to a different part of the Arctic. I’m seeing the same effects on the landscape. I mean, we were looking at these extraordinary peaks and troughs and castellations. The mountains, the fjords are extraordinary. But they’re bare. I mean, this is—this is granite that hasn’t seen the light of day for 15,000 years. And our companions, our Inuit companions, were saying, you know, “When we were little and used to come out on the ice here, the ice would be overhanging.”

So, I was seeing in the landscape the same signs of the destruction of the Arctic and dismayed again by the fact that, as we know, the poles—the ice on the poles is what helps to keep—it’s absolutely essential if we want to keep the temperature of our world from rising to dangerous levels. So, there is no question about the fact that governments around the world absolutely have to put a stop to any notion of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic. I mean, that’s absolutely out of the question. We need to make those treaties right now. We need to protect it right now.

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