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"Elements in the FBI and Pentagon consider climate change a great threat to world peace"

Dec 18, 2010

Says Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, as he stresses on the need to highlight the all pervasive nature of climate change as a social justice issue. He also agrees that organisations like Greenpeace need to do more to make such linkages clearer.

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OneWorld South Asia: The critics of Greenpeace often label the organisation as ‘eco-extremist’, and it is often criticised for some of its activities. How do you respond to such criticism?

Kumi Naidoo: Mahatma Gandhi, when he was leading the freedom struggle here, was labeled an extremist. Nelson Mandela was called a terrorist. Martin Luther king was dumped in jail several times. But today we revere them as the most forward thinkers of their time, the most courageous leaders of history and so on. History is already judging Greenpeace as we reach our 40th year anniversary. The issues that the world is talking about today, Greenpeace was talking about 20 years ago. No one was speaking about climate change but Greenpeace put it on the table way back.

I don’t have a problem with Greenpeace being ahead of its time and as a result of that being called all sorts of labels. Secondly about the ‘stunts’ we allegedly pull, you have to look at them in context of the current environment. The fact that our activists engage in such courageous actions, put their lives on line, go to prison, get arrested demonstrates that none of us takes our work lightly or as a PR stunt. Our actions are warranted by the urgency of the situation the world finds itself in.

If history teaches us anything, all global challenges we have faced be it colonialism, apartheid, the civil rights movement, came to an end only when decent people stood up and said enough and no more. We won’t take it anymore and we have to put our lives on line. And all these struggles I spoke about were concentrated in a country or a region; climate change affects the entire world. And yet, our leaders don’t act urgently. Given that, if there ever was the need for massive civil disobedience, now is the time. Would we like to get results without having to go through the entire struggle? Of course. That is why we lobby at places like Copenhagen.

But lobbying alone doesn’t do the trick, so expect more of such acts from Greenpeace. Ethical activism is not a popularity contest. Being willing to take the risk of being unpopular is what activism is all about. Of course you won’t be popular when you tell people to re-examine the way they live.

Our challenge is how do we stay true to our values and therefore we don’t take money from the government or big corporations. We rely on contributions from ordinary citizens. The image that people sometimes have of Greenpeace is that we are violent, which is untrue. If we are charged with a case, we don’t escape. We appear in court. We make sure we stand trial. Bearing witness is one way to communicate whatever injustice is being meted out.

There is no doubt in my mind no matter how harsh people are in judging Greenpeace today, 20-30 years from now they will look back and say that we should have listened to Greenpeace when we had the time.

OWSA: Would you agree with the claim that a problem with the climate change movement has been that it has not been able to break down the cause in relate-able terms for the common people?

KN: While I agree with you, we also need to recognise that given the complexity of the issue, climate change is really hard to communicate. Much harder than say anti-poverty or human rights activism. For instance, if an activist has been arrested and wrongfully tortured, this can be easily conveyed through pictures and video. Climate change, given its cumulative effect, cannot be depicted this easily. I also agree with the critique that to a large extent, we have failed to de-jargonise the issue, talk about it in a way that makes sense to all the constituents.

Last year when I returned from the Copenhagen summit, my brother who has been an anti-apartheid activist asked me what was wrong with me, ‘have you forgotten everything you learned from grassroots organisers? Between your targets and numbers and percentages, I was completely lost’. So, yes your critique is a fair critique.  I am trying hard to get us to communicate in a way that makes the issue more comprehensible but with creativity and innovation.  We also have to learn to speak in ways that are more inclusive. Now, more and more I don’t talk in the terms of save the environment, stop climate change. Instead, I talk about protecting the future of our children and grand children. When you personalise the conversation, you immediately make it relevant to everyone. In the end, good activism is about humbling yourself not projecting your consciousness over people, so we do need to be more accessible.

OWSA: The other critique, if I may continue, is that the movement has been unable, as yet, to establish a broader base outside its own fraternity. In fact, the cause is often seen as a nice-to-do, not a need-to-do, and many a times at conflict with economic development. How does one challenge this perspective?

KN: Yes, increasingly, there is the recognition that environmental organisations cannot deliver justice by themselves. It is a broad based issue that affects everybody. Now, what is critical is to focus on the linkages between climate change and key burning challenges the world faces today. There are elements in the CIA and the Pentagaon who say that the biggest threat to peace and security in the long term is climate change. Similarly, job creation is a big challenge today. Therefore, we need to talk about the potential in alternative energy sources of becoming good sources of decent, green jobs.

With poverty which is a big issue in development, we have to say three things. One is that the progress that was made in many developing nations over the last few decades is being reversed because of the impacts of climate change. The Bangladesh’s coastal region, where rising sea level is a problem, is one example. Second, climate change is impacting even future possibilities when it comes to development. Things that were on the table 20 years ago are not so anymore. Unfortunately, the people who suffer the most, the ones who are paying the highest price are also the ones who are the least responsible for the state the world’s environment is in.

OWSA: Historically, the US has been a laggard about signing on to a binding agreement or committing to reducing emission levels. One issue of course is dirty power lobbies, the other is that even at the common people level, climate change and global warming is a prickly issue in the US. Irrespective of whether this owes itself to hyper-religiosity in the country or a growing extremist right, fact remains until US comes on board many countries won’t take climate change or climate change agreements seriously. How does one make US move?

KN: I would go to the extent of saying that if we don’t win over the religious community of the US we don’t stand a chance. Religion is critically important in the US but I think across the world, religious institutions are an important constituency for us to win over.

I think there is more fluidity in the US when it comes to religion than there is anywhere else in the world. Religion is not the only issue in the US; in fact I see positive movement there. The American people are not the problem, the leadership is. US congress can be described as the best legislature fossil fuel money can buy. George W Bush, who wasted 8 years and refused to move on climate change, was a crony of the fossil fuel industry in the White House. 

OWSA: You often speak about the need to change our consumption patterns, as the earth cannot sustain the West’s standard of living for the entire world. Unfortunately, owing to economic liberalisation, two of the most populated countries of the world, India and China, are moving towards US style of consumerism. Can this movement be reversed?

KN: On the question of can it be addressed, it can. But I think with considerable difficulty because sadly our political leaders and our business leaders in emerging countries have largely mimicked the problematic, skewed, unequal development path of the industrialised world. If we are to support the lifestyle of the West or even of the elites in the developing countries, we will literally need eight planets. The dominant social paradigm needs to be adjusted. We have over consumption, over production, mal-distribution and a slavish devotion to growth. But this growth is really jobless growth and with the exception of countries like India, Brazil, China has served to broaden the gap between rich and the poor, as well as between rich and poor countries.

At one very basic level we need to have a serious conversation about what constitutes happiness. Material consumption does not give a better quality of life after a point. Secondly, we have to look at how to grow in a sustainable manner without doing the damage we do. But our leaders have a short term approach and no outlook on the future. Look at over-fishing for example. Greenpeace does not say don’t fish; it says fish in a responsible manner. Even the forests in the Amazon that have been severely depleted because they have been overexploited by the soya and the cattle industry, will never go back to the way they were.

So, we have both a crisis and an opportunity in hand and we need to see what we can do. A country like India for example, has not even used up 5% of its potential for renewable energy. The potential in solar, wind, wave, biogas, geothermal sources is immense. There are jobs to be created, energy to be generated in a safe and sustainable way and climate to be protected. I think there is enough there in the wisdom of Indian history that India can break away from the conventional dominant socio-economic paradigm, which it is completely stuck in at the moment.

China now is the biggest investor in renewable energy in the whole world. You have to understand that the new successful countries ten years from now will be those who invest in green solutions today. We are in a green race, whether we recognise that or not.  

 Kumi Naidoo, is a South African human rights activist and the Executive Director of international environmentalist group, Greenpeace. He is the first African to head the organisation. He is renowned for his struggle for social justice and has been an activist since the age of 15, when he was imprisoned for taking part in the anti-apartheid movement. 

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