The Politics of Climate Change

The Politics of Climate Change

An interview with Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, published by “The European” on February 17, 2012

"Mother Earth Is Screaming At Us". K. Naidoo reflects on political discontent, China's green technology and the global politics of power

The European: Your personal word of the year is “enough.” Why?

Naidoo: In my 2010 book Boiling Point, I warned of the growing frustration among citizens around the world who are excluded from public life. The levels of alienation and inequality is getting out of control, particularly for young people. This development is not only unjustifiable, but patently unsustainable. So when people from the Arab spring, the Indignados or the Occupy movement say “enough,” they mean enough corruption, enough exclusion and so on. “Enough” essentially boils down to one very powerful insight: The system is broken.

This conception is now shared not only by progressive NGOs but by many mainstream thinkers. Think of this year’s World Economic Forum title “The Great Transformation”: All keynote speakers have adapted to the new topic. How can we become more equal, more fair or more sustainable? They all sound like environmentalists and human rights watchers. But sadly, when you unpack what really happened at Davos, it was not a system redesign. It was system recovery.

The European: What went wrong?

Naidoo: At a BBC world debate a couple of years ago the topic was: Are we experiencing a global recession or a global slow down? I remember thinking; this is just a lot of intellectual hot air. Give it two years, and the problems will return. Unfortunately, that prediction turned out to be true. We are back in the same situation and haven’t learned anything. We failed to look at the fundamental problems of how the economy was run.

The European: So the leaders at Davos or at the Munich Security Conference ask the right questions but give the wrong answers.

Naidoo: Exactly. They ask quite fundamental questions. But in their answers they do what I call incremental tinkering. Nothing but small steps. It is largely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the boat is sinking. Some politicians seem to suffer from cognitive dissonance. The facts are there, but they still don’t take the appropriate measures.

The European: What is your answer?

Naidoo: You cannot talk about security without understanding the state of democracy, as the Middle East has shown us. It is very interesting to see how Western democracies are praising the Arab spring now. But let’s go back and look at the facts. Who were the major backers of Mubarak? The United States and their Western allies. Who is backing Saleh in Yemen? Who is backing Bahrain? Five years ago, the same could have been said about Gaddafi in Libya. Sadly, the West is still almost as stupid today as it was in past.

The European: Stupid in what sense?

Naidoo: During the Cold War the West did some really dumb things. It supported regimes that should absolutely not have been supported but were supported anyway, solely because they provided a bulwark against communism. Remember the famous comment about the Somozas in Nicaragua which says: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” How could the US support such a fascist dictator? Too many countries are still following this Cold War logic. When Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain, not only did the West stay quiet about it, Hillary Clinton said it was acceptable.

The European: Even today we sell fighter jets to countries like Saudi Arabia…

Naidoo: Yes, and the atrocities against doctors and medical workers at the hospitals were unbearable. They were given life sentences. The bottom line is that the folks who are talking here have such limited legitimacy with their own public as well as with the global public more generally. Our leaders are sleepwalking us into a crisis of epic proportions. They are in denial about how serious things are. Sadly, it is our children and grandchildren who will pay the price for the lack of leadership and vision.

The European: So you don’t believe in change from within the system?

Naidoo: Of course I believe in change from within. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come to the conference in Munich.

The European: But you seem frustrated, listening to panelists negotiating oil pipelines and terms of trade.

Naidoo: It is frustrating, but our job as activists is to deal with our frustration in a more intelligent way. If we completely stopped our engagement we would deprive politicians from hearing the voices on the streets around the world. When our children look us in the eyes fifty years from now and ask us: “The writing was on the wall, the signs were clear, what the hell did you do?”, I think we should be able to say that we tried hard and did our utmost.

The European: What have you learned from conversations here at the Munich Security Conference?

Naidoo: I was pleasantly surprised about how many people from the US delegation and basically any other country came up to me and said that I had really given them food for thought. Someone from the German delegation said that civil society was in fact more in touch with reality than politicians, even though that was not even the core intention of my speech.

The European: Are your words being heard?

Naidoo: Not all of the things I have addressed are being discussed at length. And this is where my disappointment lies. But Greenpeace is committed to keeping the pressure on those in power because time is running out. The consequences of climate change are happening right now. We are experiencing the lowest temperatures ever recorded in a range of countries. Unfortunately a lot of people in the US debate misinterpret climate change as global warming. In fact, it is more about extreme weather. In forty US states, we have had climate-related events last year. The economic competitiveness of Europe and North America in the medium to long term is severely undermined by the fact that investments in renewable technologies are not happening.

The European: China builds several new coal power plants per week, many of them with weak environmental regulations. And the country has by far the highest coal consumption worldwide.

Naidoo: We are very worried – but on the other hand China is using this moment to consolidate its technological competence. Every two hours a wind power station is connected to the grid. China has become the largest importer of solar panels. That is something California and the US could have achieved, but they failed to introduce the relevant laws. It’s easy to sum up the development: Europe introduced the idea and vision of why it is important that we go green. The United States marketed that idea. And now we will probably see its implementation in China.

The European: Is China’s growth really sustainable?

Naidoo: The Chinese are already facing major climate impacts, floods are a big concern. They aren’t stupid. If they don’t immediately introduce clean energy technology, the economic dynamic will ultimately crash. We are of course concerned about China’s involvement with coal and we are continuously tracking developments.

The European: Democracies often struggle to introduce progressive environmental bills, which often stall in parliamentary debates. In Germany, for instance, we had a long debate on nuclear power. Sadly, it took the Fukushima accident to end that debate.

Naidoo: You need to look more carefully at the specific quality of democracies that we are talking about. There is a big distinction between most European democracies and American democracy. Today, the American democracy is the best parliament that money can buy. If you investigate who actually owns political processes, the level of influence of the oil, coal and gas industry is enormous – in current numbers and also from a historical perspective. The oil, gas and coal industry raises enough money to employ three full-time lobbyists for every member of Congress.

The European: The Chinese and Russians don’t need lobbyists?

Naidoo: Sure, in that sense countries that do not have to go through popular persuasion can move faster. If they make the right decisions, they can achieve things faster – but they can also move faster in the wrong direction. But let’s not focus just on American corporatism: European political developments have also been subject to very sophisticated lobby influences. Consider the various subsidies that have gone to fossil fuels and nuclear power firms. If you look at the amount of money that has gone into the renewables and compare that sum to the amount spent on oil, gas and nuclear power, it is still a fraction.

The European: You have expressed your dissatisfaction with the idea of global governance. Are you happy with the results at the Durban climate conference?

Naidoo: We either accept the scientific research or we don’t accept it. The research is crystal clear, mother earth is screaming at us. The facts are there for anyone who can read, climate-related disasters are on the rise. Here’s the scary part: When we compare scientific predictions with observations on the ground, we can see that we are approaching a tipping point. Scientists are unsure when change might become irreversible and what the exact consequences will be. In that context, Durban achieved less than what we had hoped for in 2009. It did not achieve a fair, ambitious and binding treaty. All it did was to postpone treaty negotiations until 2015, and to push implementation back to 2020. We are buying time that doesn’t exist. The world’s largest economy is only prepared to make a tiny step in the right direction, there is cause for concern. There is reason to be pessimistic about our ability to tackle climate change.

The European: What is your answer to the challenges ahead?

Naidoo: Based on what history has taught us, at the end of the day it is up to the voices of thoughtful, concerned citizens to stand up and resist the lack of action. If there is one thing I have learned about big systemic change, it is the following: Without decent men and women who say that enough is enough, and who are willing to go to prison for it, systemic change won’t happen. Take the civil rights movement: Progressive protesters were always ridiculed for their opinion, but in the end the establishment realized the truth in their claims. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela all struggled hard before gaining recognition. And this is why I always say to activists: “You must realize that the struggle for justice, in our case environmental justice, is not a popularity contest.” Just because people might not agree with you now, it does not mean that we are wrong. I am totally convinced that history will reveal how Greenpeace and other movements were right. Mahatma Gandhi once said: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. And when I look on that continuum for our case I observe that we are not being ignored and we are not being laughed at.

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